The ouzo of Mytilene
If wine, the product of the magical fermentation of the grape, is a gift to mankind from the god Dionysos, anise-flavoured ouzo is 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 eventually to ouzo, Greece’s favourite liquor.
Ouzo is similar to raki, a liquor distilled from the skins and lees of the grapes left over from pressing wine. Its story begins in the days of the Ottoman conquest. Although the prophet Muhammad had prohibited the faithful from drinking wine, he had not foreseen the invention of distilled alcohol.
Starting out from Mount Athos, raki conquered the entire Ottoman Empire, with distilleries springing up in Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Tyrnavo, Mytilene, Crete and elsewhere.
Ouzo’s story is not as old and seems to have originated in the mid 19th century, along with Greece’s independence. It differs from raki in that it is made from ethyl alcohol [derived from grain?] and flavoured with aromatic essences, primarily anise, and diverse herbs which make the liquor more delicate, scented and refined.
The word ouzo has an interesting story, as told by Stratis Panagos in his excellent book Northeast of Taste:
“In about the year 1870 a shipment of several barrels of anise-scented raki were sent to Marseilles as part of a cargo of soap, olive oil and other goods, transiting through Genoa. The customs official there wrote ‘Uso Marsiglia’ on the barrels. The Marseillais merchant who received the load thought he was in receipt of a liquor called Uso destined for Marseilles! The next order was for five hundred kilos of Uso for Marseilles.”
Greece was successful in establishing ouzo in the EU as a product made exclusively in Greece and Cyprus; Mytilene and the Plomari label separately secured the appellation PGI (protected geographical indication).
Nowadays bottled ouzo is made all over Greece. But the ouzos of Lesvos are the champions in quantity, quality and renown. The island boasts 17 distilleries, producing first class ouzo covering 50% of Greece’s production. They are:
- Isidoros Arvanitis Plomari
- Ioannis Barbayannis
- Yiorgos Spentzas
- Matarelli & Co
- E. Linos
- Ourania Kouroumikhali – Papadelli
- E. Tsikellis