There are many products that contribute to the economy and identity of a place, but none have been so closely associated with the culture of the Greek people as ouzo.
- Ouzo, the national drink of Greece
- What is ouzo?
- The history of ouzo
- Places and regions where ouzo is produced
- How ouzo is made
- Tasting – How to drink ouzo
- Interview with Nikos Kalogiannis, president of the Isidoros Arvanitis Distillery of Plomari
Ouzo, the national drink of Greece
The national drink of Greece emerged, took hold and became embedded in our culture; it keeps us company in our lonely moments, adds pleasure to our friendships and makes our get togethers ‘take off’, balancing playfully between the national and the international, the common and the sophisticated, the local and the universal. A glass of ouzo, or the affectionate diminutive ‘ouzaki’, has become synonymous with summer, the sea, the sun, plates of meze, relaxation, companionship, a good mood and good will. And as it travels the world with its milky white colour superimposed on the blue of the Aegean, it acts as an ambassador for Greece.
What is ouzo?
Ouzo is a product of the Greek soil that consists of pure ethyl alcohol that may be made from either grape or grain and then distilled with aniseed. Licorice-flavoured beverages are found throughout the eastern and central Mediterranean because of its particular climatological and geological conditions. Thus in France, we have pastis, in Italy sambuca, in Bulgaria mastiha, in Turkey raki, and in the Arab world arak.
Ouzo, however, stands out from its counterparts for two reasons:
- Its production method, distillation, which is the art of elevating a plain alcohol lacking personality to a sublime spirit;
- And, the herbs and seeds of the Greek soil, mainly aniseed (pimpinella anisum), which lend a finesse to the taste of ouzo, rendering it unique.
And if the multifaceted, much travelled and resourceful Greek spirit has created an extrovert character, the love of home and pride in a job well done have made ouzo internationally known well beyond the country’s geographical borders. Germany, Australia and Turkey are just some of the countries that enjoy a taste of Greece in their glass.
Protected by the European Union with the designation PGI (Protected Geographic Indication), ouzo is produced exclusively in Greece and is the only beverage of its kind that has been categorized as distilled anise. In addition, some individual regions have been awarded their own PGI because of their long history as ouzo-producers, as for example Ouzo of Plomari, the town on Lesvos which is considered the birthplace of ouzo. Indeed, for those regions bearing the PGI label both distillation and bottling must take place in that location.
The history of ouzo
If wine, the product of the magical fermentation of the grape, is the gift to mankind from the god Dionysos, then ouzo is the distillation of intellectual curiosity and inventive folk wisdom, primed by the ingenuity of simple people.
Thanks to the concern traditional societies gave to all aspects of production and diet – using, for example, every bit of the pig except the squeal – but also to the preoccupation of the more enlightened of them with alchemy, the process of ‘dissolving and reconstituting’, they happened upon the science of distillation. And with the distillation of the leavings from pressing the grapes for wine, they were gradually led to the discovery of the basis of Greece’s beloved drink.
The roots of the prehistory of ouzo are closely linked with the history of primitive distillation. It is presumed that some spirits with similar characteristics were produced early in antiquity and 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.
Although few details exist of their evolution, it is clear that anise-flavoured drinks abound throughout the Mediterranean, anise being a plant that grows everywhere in the region and lends a special, distinctive aroma. At some point it happened that all the Mediterranean lands, including Greece, which was then under the Ottomans, not to mention Turkey, began to experiment with anise-flavoured drinks.
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 – conquered the whole Ottoman empire, the most important centres being Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Tyrnavo, Plomari and Crete.
Which brings us to the 19th century when for the first time we see the discovery and distribution of grain-based alcohols that could be made without having to go through the distillation process. In this phase, ouzo, which was initially raki, became independent of primary distillation and the consequent alcohol was enriched with aromatic seeds and herbs, such as anise, mastiha and the like which gave the spirit a more delicate, aromatic and refined dimension. In essence we are talking about a qualitative upgrading and a ‘tamer’, more refined version of raki, which continues to be widely drunk in the countryside.
On Lesvos, in the town of Plomari to be precise, there’s a long tradition in the production of ouzo, which dates to the mid 19th century when Greek families known for the manufacturing of bronze stills left the shores of Asia Minor for the island, bringing with them their expertise and flair for distilling. Today, the distilling of ouzo continues in Greece exclusively to be based on aniseed. First a distillate of agricultural raw materials is used as a base, most often grain, which is placed in bronze cauldrons and takes its aromatic character according to the recipe of each distiller from the herbs and seeds added, primarily aniseed, which gives its characteristic taste.
As concerns the story of how ouzo got its name, we can’t say for sure. Versions abound about the origin of the word ouzo. Most of them belong to the realm of folklore.
But the story heard most often is that the word ouzo derives from the Italian expression ‘Uso Massalia’ or for the use of Marseille. Marseille was one of the first places Greek silk was exported to. On the crates that were sent abroad, some bore the stamp ‘Uso Massalia’ (Greek for Marseille) so the shippers would know where to direct them. Silk destined for Marseille came to be synonymous with top quality and it is said that one of the pashas who was drinking a liquor flavoured with anise exclaimed that it was so good it was ‘uso Massalia’.
Other possibilities are that it derives from the Turkish word üzüm (grape) or the ancient Greek word οζω or ozo (smell).
Places and regions where ouzo is produced
If the Aeolian Earth of Aniseed is the homeland of ouzo, then Plomari is unquestionably the capital. The tradition and historical memory of the place has been distilled in its bronze alembics in the same way since the 19th century.
The persistent, well-travelled, restless and cosmopolitan nature of the denizens of Plomari, prosperous seafarers and merchants who knew how to enjoy life, combined with the unique position of Plomari and its port strategically situated between Europe and Asia, enabled local producers to make ouzo of exceptional quality. Particular attention should be given to the fact that the epithet, Ouzo of Plomari, is also a Protected Geographical Indication, certifying the exceptional quality of the ouzo produced in the district according to particular technical specifications.
Today, ouzo is made all over Greece by more than 300 producers. As a consequence, one can distinguish an important spectrum of tastes and quality, since the raw materials play such a major role. The championship in terms of quantity, quality and reputation is held by the ouzos of Lesvos, where 17 companies produce fine ouzos, accounting for 50% of Greece production, while in the rest of Greece the ouzo-producing areas are Tyrnavos (Thessaly), Chios, Macedonia, Achaia and Epirus.
How ouzo is made
There are certain rules for the successful production of a good ouzo, such as:
The recipe: Every ouzo has its own unique formula which stipulates which herbs and seeds and in what quantity will be used in the distillation as well as the number of times the distillate will pass through the cauldron. A good recipe ensures balanced aromatic character and a delicious taste.
The ingredients: Top quality ingredients are of the utmost importance, particularly that of the water used, but also the aniseed, ouzo’s primary aromatic substance.
The technique and mastery of the distiller: Flair and passion, knowledge, long experience and ability are traits in the distiller that play a major role in the quality of the final product.
Distillation, by the traditional method: Based on legislation governing the production of ouzo, at least 20% of the alcohol has to have passed through the distillation process [unclear] before it is infused with the various herbs and seeds. Some producers choose to make ouzo from 100% distilled alcohol. In this way they achieve a more refined result; when all the grain-based alcohol is distilled, it creates an ouzo that is more harmonious and smoother. In addition, the traditional method of distilling in hand-made copper stills is the only method that guarantees a product of exceptional character.
Controls: Necessary at every stage of the production process to ensure quality.
Tasting – How to drink ouzo
Rarely drunk on its own, ouzo is usually accompanied by small plates of nibbles, that may be salty, spicy or sour.
It is served straight in small glasses or tall, thin glasses to which cold water and ice are added. Modern barmen on the other hand have invented cocktails that combine imaginative innovation with tradition that appeal to younger customers.
There are specific stages to observe when tasting ouzo.
First, bring the glass up to your nose and take a deep whiff.
The aroma should be clear, marked by the intense scent of anise, but you may distinguish the presence of other ingredients like fennel, mint, mastiha and eucalyptus.
The taste, notable with the first sip, should be semisweet, balanced with a full body and with a long aftertaste.
Ouzo: the national drink with an international career – Interview with Nikos Kalogiannis, president of the Isidoros Arvanitis Distillery of Plomari
Easy and fun to drink, aromatic and fine, ouzo, a beverage inextricably linked with Greek tradition and island culture, is justifiably considered the most distinctive Greek drink. You could say it was born in the Greek soul, and for many years now ouzo is one national product that has evolved successfully both in Greece and abroad.
Nikos Kalogiannis, CEO of Isidoros Arvanitis SA of Plomari and president of SEAOP (Association of Greek Producers of Alcoholic Spirits and Beverages), explains the history and the success of this beloved Greek distillate:
‘Ouzo production is a particularly dynamic and extroverted branch of the Greek economy, which includes about 300 producers throughout the country. According to figures for 2016, total beverage exports came to 45 million bottles (700 ml/40% vol) and of these some 30.07 million bottles (700 ml/40% vol) were ouzo. Seventy percent of Greek alcholic beverage production has been awarded a Protected Geographic Indication by the EU. Also the share of ouzo in exports accounts for 69.32% of the total of Greek drinks exported, with Germany taking first place in the consumption of ouzo, almost double in fact that of the domestic market.
‘One problem with the industry, despite the exceptional returns on exports, is connected with increased taxation. Owing to overtaxation, 60 to 65% of the retail price is estimated to be taxes. Thus, despite the domestic success shown by ouzo sales, foreign markets are considered a virtual one way street for many enterprises in the sector, given that ouzo constitutes some 70% of distilled exports.’
The success story of Isidoros Arvanitis Ouzo of Plomari
‘We wanted to make an ouzo that would show off the Greek way of life and would travel the world over. We guarded the secret of the recipe of the historic Plomari beverage company like the apple of our eye. We bought Isidoros Arvanitis Ouzo of Plomari in 1993 [a company founded 99 years earlier] and managed in about 25 years to become the leader in the ouzo market. Today we have sales in 38 countries and exports account for 50% of our production.
The aim of our distillery was to change the perception of ouzo as a folkloric drink for the few into a drink that would appeal to everyone, that would combine seemingly contradictory traits, such as introvertedness with openness, Greekness with internationalism, the popular culture with a cosmopolitan outlook. It’s not by chance that we married the old traditional recipe with the elegant relief bottle and its cork top – so subtly reminiscent of a champagne cork – in order to create the sense of a ‘package’ that contains a precious liquid that is 100% doubly distilled produced in the traditional way with care and flair.’
With a competitive advantage of exceptional quality, accompanied by its glowing reputation, Isidoros Arvanitis Ouzo of Plomari is conquering foreign markets and can boast numerous international and domestic awards.