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There’s an art to sampling Greece’s delicious national drink, ouzo. Here’s what to do, and what not to do, to enjoy it to the fullest.
No visit to Greece is complete without at least a taste of the delicious, ice-cold alcoholic drink called ouzo. Almost everybody’s heard of it, but very few people know what ouzo actually is – or how to drink it properly.
What Is Ouzo?
Ouzo is a sweet, strong alcoholic beverage similar to a liqueur, which is made from the by-products of grapes after they’ve been used for wine-making (mainly the skins and stems). It’s then distilled into a high-proof alcoholic beverage that’s flavoured primarily with anise, which gives it a distinctive liquorice taste. Other herbs and spices are added to enhance the flavour, and each manufacturer keeps its recipe a closely guarded secret. Both the quality of the distillation process and the flavourings make each brand of ouzo very different in taste. As with wine, tasting various brands will teach you to distinguish the fine ones from those that qualify as “rotgut.”
The name “ouzo” has three possible origins – either the ancient Greek word ózó (smell), due to the distinctive aroma of the drink; the Turkish word “ūzūm” (grape); or the Italian phrase “uso Massalia” (for use in Marseille), a stamp once placed on goods that denoted high quality.
Though it’s commonly called an aperitif (the French term for a before-dinner cocktail) this is a misnomer; the Greeks simply don’t drink it either as a before- or after-dinner beverage. Ouzo drinking is a cultural ritual that has its own special time and place, usually in late afternoon or early evening, and always accompanied by small plates of food.
Ouzo Dos and Don’ts
1. Do enjoy it on a hot, sunny, late afternoon or at an early evening happy hour.
2. Do drink it cold, but don’t refrigerate it. Place one or two ice cubes in a small glass. Pour a small amount of ouzo over the ice. The ouzo will turn from clear to cloudy as the anise reacts with the ice. Or, pour a small amount of ouzo into a glass, neat, then add a splash of very cold water in lieu of ice.
3. Don’t do ouzo shots! This is defeating the whole purpose, and the resulting drunk will be the worst you’ve ever experienced – not to mention producing the most vicious hangover ever.
4. Do drink it accompanied by a small plate or two of mezedes – the Greek version of tapas. Always drink it with food. Ouzo is very strong; drinking it on an empty stomach is a very bad idea. The Greeks take pride in pairing and serving specific types of mezedes with ouzo, such as grilled octopus, shrimp, or squid; cheese-veggie-meat platters, or other “little bites.” There are even special establishments called “ouzeries” dedicated solely to this practice.
5. Do sip it slowly. Don’t gulp it down. Ouzo is meant to be savored; the ritual of ouzo and mezedes is meant to be relaxing, and the process should be enjoyed for two hours or more.
6. Don’t drink ouzo as an aperitif (before dinner), a digestif (after dinner), or during dinner. The taste doesn’t complement traditional Greek entrees. With meals, the Greeks drink either wine, beer, or soft drinks, and always, bottled table water.
7. When in Greece, do sample top-notch island brews (rely on local knowledge to steer you right) or widely available Plomari and Ouzo Mini, which are on store shelves everywhere. Do not be tempted by the inexpensive brands – both your head and your stomach may regret it!
8. Finally, to fully enjoy and savor not only the beverage itself, but the cultural ritual of drinking it, absolutely do drink ouzo — the Greek way!