Tsipouro is a genuine Greek product inextricably connected with the way of life, hospitality and entertainment of the Greeks.
- Tsipouro, an overview
- History of Tsipouro
- Cauldrons, the age-old preindustrial process
- The stills today and the battle between loose and bottled tsipouro
- Tsipouro as a PGI product
- The philosophy behind tsipouro – Mezedes to eat with – Tsipouradika
- Brand names to look for
- New trends in tsipouro
- Interview with Vivi Vasdavanos, oenologist with the Vasdavanos Distillery, producers of Dekaraki tsipouro
Tsipouro, an overview
This powerful liquor goes by several names, depending on where you find it. Tsipouro, arak, raki, grappa… are all distilled from the byproducts of wine making, and have their origins in the human desire to utilise the grape to the fullest.
In Greece tsipouro is one of the words used to describe the drink made from the grape stalks, skins and pits that remain after pressing. The regions of Macedonia, Thessaly, Epirus and Crete all have strong traditions in the production of tsipouro, which can also be called tsikoudia or raki (especially in Crete).
History of Tsipouro
If wine, the product of the magical fermentation of the grape, is a gift to mankind from the god Dionysos, raki and ouzo are the result of a civilization of poverty and the ingenuity of ordinary humans. Their desire to make use of surplus wine and the lees from wine production, combined with the perpetual preoccupation of the more enlightened of them with alchemy, led to the discovery of distilling, and the potent alcoholic beverages so beloved of Greeks.
The origins of raki (from the Arabic word araq-alcohol), the clear liquor produced all over the Mediterranean, are lost in the depths of time, but the first evidence of a distillery, dating to 500 BC, was discovered in Crete, leading to the hypothesis that the alembic or still, the main piece of equipment used in distillation, was a Greek invention. What we know for sure is that distilling was well established by the time of the Byzantine empire, while during the Ottoman era, distillation was widespread in all the territories under Ottoman domination, including the Middle East.
The modern history of distillation begins with the Ottomans and this was because the prophet Muhammed failed to foresee the development of distilled beverages when he prohibited the consumption of wine by his followers. Starting out from the Holy Mountain of Mt Athos, clear alcohol made from grains or the leavings of pressed grapes – raki – made its way through the whole Ottoman empire, the most important centres being Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Tyrnavo, Mytilini and Crete.
Cauldrons, the age-old preindustrial process
If you happen to wander in late autumn through any of the villages in rural Macedonia, Crete, Thessaly, Epirus and the islands of the Cyclades, you’ll see tall columns of smoke wafting towards the heavens. This is the sign that the place is ‘boiling’, for this is the time when the cauldrons (“kazanies”) are bubbling away distilling tsipouro.
From the technical point of view, the distillation process is conducted according to tradition. After the grape harvest in late August-September, the residues from pressing the grapes into wine are placed in barrels which, thanks to the microbes they contain, start fermentation, transforming the sugars into ethyl alcohol. When this is complete they are taken to the still.
This consists of an alembic or cauldron with a ‘snout’ placed on a heat source, which is connected to a metal pipe which passes through two tanks of cold water. When the fire is lit, the grape residues, water and some herbs are placed in the alembic. When the liquid starts to boil, the steam fills the alembic and then proceeds into the pipe. When this steam, rich in alcohol, comes in contact with the cold pipe, it becomes liquid again and drips slowly from the end of the pipe into a container as raki or tsipouro.
During the season (15 October- 15 December), the distillery is like a beehive. The activity continues for 24 hours non stop as men keep bringing in new loads of grape residues and wood for the fire, while at the same time customers arrive with empty demijohns eager to fill them with the firewater. The whole place, usually someone’s basement or storeroom, takes on a festive atmosphere, as people sample the new liquor and roast potatoes and chops on the coals. Copious amounts are drunk and the boiling cauldrons and glowing coals warm the soul as well as the body.
The stills today and the battle between loose and bottled tsipouro
In rural areas, the process has changed little for centuries and still takes place in the course of 24 to 48 hours. The stills are operated, one to a village, by lucky individuals who have managed to obtain an official permit, and who may or may not be vintners themselves. Since the state has declared a moratorium of these licences, you can imagine how highly regarded the owner is in his community.
Technically, the still operator agrees to distill his own grape leavings as well as those from other vintners who meet certain standards.
This is a good arrangement, which allows the owner to make use of his own residues, assuring him with a year’s supply of tsipouro, as well as a small income from the additional amounts that he is allowed to sell within his own community. Of course, the opening of the still is also an occasion for celebration, a true festival, one of the most genuine in the Greek countryside.
The sale of tsipouro locally and to adjacent counties with a special transportation permit has been regulated by law since 1997. Since then, legislation provides for sales throughout Greece only by persons possessing a distilling licence, but there are loopholes so that someone allowed to produce 300 kg of tsipouro can actually illegally transport that amount as many times as he wants to. Unfortunately the institution of the non-professional, basement still, even with permit, opens the door to much illegal activity.
This is because some of the same people also trade in imported tsipouros, of dubious quality and possible danger to those who consume them, taking tremendous advantage of the difference in taxation (Greek bottled spirits being subject to an excessive luxury tax). In the old days producers drank the same tsipouro that they sold, guaranteeing its quality its quality. And because production was a family and neighbourhood affair, certain standards were ensured. But from the moment when unscrupulous individuals saw a way to make money, the situation spiralled out of control and, today, the purity of the drink is being sacrificed at the altar of profit. (To get an idea of the problem, think of the moonshine produced in rural America or the bathtub gin of Prohibition days.)
The battle between loose and bottled tsipouro is essentially a battle that is being waged between the illegal and uncontrolled with the legal, controlled and, in the final analysis, it is a war about quality.
Meanwhile, in the last few years several well known wineries and distilleries have invested in new installations where multiple types of liquors can be produced. And they have achieved good results, managing to create a solid front of professional distillers against the illicit purveyors of loose booze.
The professional products, thanks to their quality, skilful promotion as well as variations in taste, are winning a greater share of the market every day, but the battle isn’t over yet.
Tsipouro as a PGI product
Tsipouro from Tyrnavos was awarded PGI designation in 1989 (KAN 1576/89) and Tyrnavos is still the only city that possesses that distinction, the only stipulation being that production and bottling must take place in the area of Tyrnavos. Three other areas – not cities – that the EU has recognized are Macedonia, Thessaly and Crete under the same terms.
The philosophy behind tsipouro – Mezedes to eat with it – Tsipouradika (places to drink it)
Tsipouro is served in small glasses and is usually drunk straight, undiluted by water or ice, but almost always accompanied by nibbles. Some mezedes considered ideal complements to tsipouro are pastourma (spiciy cured meat), salted fish and olives. Some monasteries on Mount Athos welcome visitors with a thimbleful of tsipouro and a piece of Turkish delight (loukoumi), a combination which is thought to relax the muscles and offer a boost of energy.
If tsipouro always was the most homely of drinks, in the past few decades, it has become more widely consumed in tavernas, while new establishments – known as tsipouradika – have opened, often near the sea, which offer a wide range of labels along with a tremendous variety of dishes to accompany them.
In most of these tsipouradika, whose counterpart for ouzo is the ouzeri, tsipouro is served in little 200 ml carafes or in even smaller bottles of 50 ml. Depending on the size of the order (the number of customers and number of rounds of drinks), the mezedes arrive in a certain progression, starting with something simple like cheese and olives, but gradually becoming more elaborate and complex, with dishes like mussels baked in tomato sauce or crab croquettes.
The most authentic tsipouradika are to be found in Volos. There you never order. You just announce the number of 25 ml vials you’d like with the words ‘with’ or ‘without’ (anise-flavour). The parade of mezedes depends on the number of glasses you’ll consume.
The dishes served (as is the case with ouzo too) must have a strong taste in order not to be ‘drowned’ by the pungent spirit. The first to arrive will be pickles and salted fish, the second will be fried seafood, with more complex – and more expensive – delicacies to follow.
In Volos some of the most popular mezedes are those that are:
Salty: olives, pickled peppers, cured fish like marinated anchovies, sardines, lakerda (herring);
Fried: saganaki (hard cheese), calamari, anchovies, white bait, cod, meat balls, aubergines;
Miscellaneous: stuffed vineleaves, aubergine dip, taramosalata, pastourma, spetzofai (peppers cooked with sausage and tomato sauce, a local speciality), fatty or sharp cheeses;
Seafood: octopus, shrimp, crab, mussels; and finally
Rare delicacies: avgotaraho (bottargo), sea urchins, shellfish including raw oysters and clams, octopus eggs, fish livers, and the like.
Brand names to look for
Apart from the traditional tsipouro producers of Tyrnavos in Thessaly – Katsaros, Kardasis, Vasdavanos, Vryssas, Agrafiotis, Papras, Kavaratzis, Milias and the Argricultural Wine-makers Cooperative of Tyrnavos (which was the first to bottle the liquor in the area) – the best known labels are Tsantalis, Babatzim, Lazaridis and Soniadis from Macedonia; Apostolakis and Tsililis from Thessaly; and Glinavos from Epirus.
New trends in tsipouro
Whether flavoured with aniseed or not, today’s bottled tsipouros have won the hearts of the younger generation who drink them in the traditional way accompanied by traditional mezedes but also mixed in cocktails invented by imaginative bartenders in fashionable bars and nightclubs.
There are two modern innovations in Greek tsipouros. There are those that focus on local varieties of grapes, with the most exotic being certified tsipouro made from a single variety and those that have undergone ageing.
In the first category the classic example is the tsipouro of Tyrnavos, which is a Geographic Indication recognised and protected by the European Union. Here the principal grape used is moschato of Tyrnavos – because of its rich aromatic character – which is the secret behind its fame and quality. In the category of certified monoculture tsipouro Dekaraki is the leading brand; it is produced by the Vasdavanos distillery, which inaugurated this category.
With common characteristics their amber hues, rich aromatic palette, with its dry but smooth notes, hints of nuts and chocolate, aged tsipouro is a new trend that is just beginning to come into its own. It represents years of experimentation, the selection of the right local grape varieties, combinations of barrel types, playing with ageing times – from 12 months to five years – before the producers considered their product ready for the market.
The most interesting aged tsipouros to be found today are:
Zoinos of the Zitsa Winery, Kosteas from Kalamata, Manifesto Greco from the Apostolakis Winery, Verino from the Verino distillery, Dark Cave from Tsililis, Puro from Karathanos Distillery, Kardasi from the Kardasis distillery, Apostagma Oinou Palaiothen (Spirit of Aged Wine) from the Paparousis Winery, Cigar Methexis from the Costas Lazaridis Winery, and Tyrnavos from the Tyrnavos Cooperative.
Interview with Vivi Vasdavanos, oenologist with the Vasdavanos Winery – Distillery, producers of Dekaraki tsipouro”
“Tsipouro is a drink inextricably linked with the traditional values of Greek live and the hospitable nature of its people. It is the drink that relaxes us, spurring conversation around a table”.
Mrs Vivi Vasdavanos, oenologist with the Vasdavanos Winery-Distillery, producers of Dekaraki tsipouro, explains the experience of making tsipouro as well as matters of concern to the sector.
‘Tsipouro is a genuine Greek product inextricably connected with the way of life, hospitality and entertainment of the Greeks. Its production begins with the choice of type of grape, continues with careful fermentation of the grape skins that remain after the pressing and extraction of the must for wine, and concludes with its slow distillation. It’s certain that despite the economic crisis, the market for tsipouro in Greece is constantly growing. One reason is that Greek consumers prefer authentic tradtional spirits and the second is that more and more of them are buying their tsipouro in sealed bottles where the signature of known producers acts as a quality guarantee and the drink is far better than the ‘homemade’ variety of the past.
‘Despite its success, however, tsipouro still has to combat the problems of overtaxation, the black market and a new EU ruling that provides for the bottling of the PGI alcohols outside of their region of origin.
‘One of the consequences of the overtaxation of wines and spirits is that some customers have reverted to buying unbottled tsipouro, which they can obtain from some liquor stores or sometimes illegally from unauthorised sources.
‘But this is not without its risks. Loose tsipouro may contain substances that can be dangerous to the health and because it has not been subject to any controls, its quality is uneven. On the other hand, by buying the unbottled spirit, consumers are unwittingly depriving their fellow countrymen of employment while supporting the few blackmarketeers who have no connection with spirits actually produced in Greece. This is why it’s important that people buy bottled spirits with recognised brand names.
Dekaraki has won over tsipouro fans
Dekaraki, a tsipouro made from only one grape variety, the superb Moschato of Tyrnavos, was launched on the market in 2012 and quickly climbed to the top of the spirits in its category. What sets it apart is that it is a traditional distillate from the ‘heart’ of the spirit – the most pure and refined essence from the still – and shows off all the authenticity and tradition behind the excellent Tsipouro of Tyrnavos, a Geographic Indication recognised by the European Union.
As Mrs. Vasdavanou says, ‘Dekaraki, a balanced tsipouro with a long after taste, contains traces of fig, raisin, walnut, pear, bergamot, rose and clove when you sniff it and savour it on your tongue. It is qualitatively superior to the average spirit and was the first tsipouro to be made from one grape variety exclusively. We produce it with a special still employing six levels which gives us the best and purest ‘heart’ of the tsipouro. It stands out for the distinctive and aromatic characteristics of the Moschato of Tyrnavos grape, for its intense, ‘clean; perfume, its rich, warm taste and its crystal clear appearance.
‘One more detail that makes Dekaraki so special is the traditional method used in distilling it, backed by the wealth of experience and skill of the Vasdavanos family. We distill the liquid several times using handmade traditional copper alembics, very slowly in order to perfect the final product and ensure its excellence. The result is a spirit that is pure and genuine, without anise, an alcohol content of 40% by volume, whose unique identity is apparent with every sip. Which is why we called it Dekaraki’.