Ouzo is an anise-flavored spirit that is widely
consumed in Greece. Its taste is quite similar to arak,
zivania, or raki (in the
Levant, Cyprus, and Turkey),
Sambuca (Italy), or mastika (Chios). It can be consumed neat or mixed with water.
Left: A bottle of
Modern ouzo distillation largely took off in the 19th century
following Greek independence, with much production centered on the island of
Lesbos, which claims to be the originator of the drink and remains a major
producer. When absinthe fell into disfavour in the early 20th century ouzo is
one of the products whose popularity may have gained (it was once called "a
substitute for absinthe without the wormwood".)
Ouzo starts by distilling 96 percent alcohol by volume (ABV)
pure ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin (or 96 percent pure ethyl alcohol in
which 0.05 percent natural anethole has been added) in copper stills together
with anise and optionally other flavorings, such as star anise, coriander,
cloves, and cinnamon. The composition of flavoring ingredients are often
closely-guarded company secrets and serve to distinguish one Ouzo from
another. The product is a flavored alcoholic solution known as flavored ethyl
alcohol or, more commonly as ouzo yeast—μαγιά ούζου in Greek—a misnomer, as no
fermentation has taken or will take place. Ouzo yeast is then usually mixed with
96 percent pure ethyl alcohol (the Greek law dictates that at least 20 percent
of total final alcohol must originate from ouzo yeast), and finally sugar may be
added and the mix is diluted with water (final ABV must be at least 37.5
percent), usually around 40 percent ABV. Some producers such as Varvayiannis,
Babatzim (ouzo classic) and Pitsiladis do not add any further ethyl alcohol—they
simply dilute ouzo yeast with water (and add sugar if needed). This type of ouzo
is the highest quality and often of the highest price as well.
Ouzo production does not include any fermentation or multiple distillations,
which is the case for tsipouro, another well known Greek alcoholic drink which
is more related to Italian
grappa than ouzo.
In modern Greece, ouzeries (the suffix -erie is imported from
French) can be found in nearly all cities, towns, and villages. These cafe-like
establishments serve ouzo with mezedes — appetizers such as octopus, salad,
sardines, calamari, fried zucchini, and clams, among others. It is traditionally
slowly sipped (usually mixed with water or ice) together with mezedes shared
with others over a period of several hours in the early evening.
When water or ice is added to ouzo, which is clear in color,
it turns milky white; this is because anethole, the essential oil of anise, is
soluble in alcohol but not in water. Diluting the spirit causes it to separate
creating an emulsion, whose fine droplets scatter the light. This process is
called louching, and is also found while preparing absinthe.
In other countries it is tradition to have ouzo in authentic Greek restaurants
as an aperitif, served in a shot glass and deeply chilled before the meal is
started. No water or ice is added but the drink is served very cold, enough to
make some crystals form in the drink as it is served.