Without doubt ouzo is Greek
But it epitomizes Mytilene!
“The ritual of ouzo has as much to do with sating hunger as lovemaking does with reproduction.”
Deipnosophistai ("The Learned Banquet")
Perhaps it’s the aniseed, whose plant has origins going back more than 3000 years, that is responsible for creating that intoxicating aura. But the alcohol also plays a part as it passes through the ancient still, the amvyka, transforming as the distillations blend with the aromatic seeds into this ethereal fragrant liquor that answers to the name of ouzo.
Diluted with water or straight up, ouzo is the drink for company and relaxation. It fills the Mediterranean with its fragrance, as pastis and anisette in France, as arac on the African coast, but as ouzo only in Greece.
The air in Mytilene smells of ouzo and the atmosphere intoxicates locals and visitors alike. For Lesvos natives, the first contact with ouzo comes when grandma dips her finger in the spirited liquor and rubs it on the gums of her teething infant grandchild. You could say that its scent and sweet intoxication are recorded on every inhabitant’s DNA.
From then on, ouzo becomes like the sea with the quaint tavernas that spread their little tables by the water’s edge, together with the endless mezes whose play of tastes seduces mind and soul.
The entire ouzo procedure dictates relaxation. This combined with the sensual pleasure produced by the aroma of the aniseed, the intangible sweetness and the infinite refreshment all contribute to the creation of the myth.
And this mythology has formed the basis for an entire philosophy of life – in concert with with the delicious mezes that accompany and animate the complex ritual. Ouzo occupies a distinctive place of Greek gastronomy. Cooks in Mytilene knead ouzo and cumin into their meatballs. Fava (split pea purée), lakerda (salt-cured tuna), salted sardines, octopus, and more demand ouzo as their perfect mate. Generations upon generations on this island have walked in the footsteps of ouzo and have identified with its ritual. Besides the philosophy and mythology, ouzo also imposes a lifestyle that is 100% Greek.
A Brief History
From as far back as antiquity, humans have experimented with and created various alcoholic beverages using herbs, fruits, roots, flowers and seeds, initially by extraction and fermentation, and later by distillation. The objective, though, has always been to create a sensation of pleasure, well-being, relaxation and/or intoxication.
Many products of distillation also appeared in the Arab world, but until 1453, Byzantine Constantinople and Greek Alexandria and Smyrna were the largest centers of distillation arts.
The testimonies of the famous coppersmiths of Armenia and Hellespont who fashioned the ornately decorated amvykes (stills), attest to the extensive knowledge of distillation throughout the Byzantine Empire.
After all, the blessed land of Asia Minor and Thrace (northeastern Greece), with its extensive grape and fig output, provided excellent raw material. The cultivation of anise in Lesvos and its neighboring island of Limnos, and the production of mastic in nearby Chios comprised the necessary ingredients for making raki.
18th – 19th Centuries
The production of ouzo and the general economy it created appears to have flourished in the 19th century, since the port of Mytilene was at that time a large transport center, flourishing with foreign commerce, from which large quantities of ouzo were exported to Constantinople (Istanbul). By 1880, the number of distilleries on the island had reached 18, although official state records for the period 1917-1918 show only 17.
Thus in the mid 18th century the art of distillation arrived in Greece and in Mytilene from the shores of Asia Minor.
The Asia Minor refugees who came in the 1920s brought this knowledge to old Greece and provided the impetus for ouzo production in many regions where they settled. The distilled dregs were used to make the clear potent liquor, tsipouro, which was then flavored with various herbs or seeds to enhance its flavor.
Ouzo: Exclusive to Greece
According to a recent European Union ruling, for an anise-flavored alcoholic drink to be called ouzo it must:
- Be prepared exclusively in Greece.
- Contain a mixture of alcohol that has been flavored through distillation or filtration with aniseed and possibly fennel, mastic from the native mastic tree of Chios (pistacia lentiscus Chia or Latifolia) and other aromatic seeds, plants and fruits.
- The alcohol that has been flavored by distillation must represent at least 20% of the alcohol content of ouzo.
Note: Traditionally in ouzo, the aromatic agents are extracted by distillation from the essential oils of the aniseed in a solution of water and alcohol. In other anise-flavored spirits, the essential oils are extracted first and then added to the solution. For example, the anise-flavored French pastis is a simple mixture of pure alcohol and naturally distilled fennel extract.
(Fennel is the main ingredient of common aniseed and star aniseed.)
The Art of Distillation
The distillation on its own is a ritual, whose product is known as eau de vie (water of life).
The aromatic aniseeds are soaked in water for three days and then this mixture is combined with the alcohol. A series of distillations follows to refine the results. The distillation in small amvykes (stills) is the secret to ouzo’s “homemade” texture and flavor. For this reason, the EU ruling provides for amvykes that hold up to 1000 liters.
Every producer has his own secrets and these are what make the difference among ouzos. Each uses his own type and variety of aniseed, as well as his own proportions. The best-kept secret is the blend each distiller uses, which is passed on from generation to generation. Everything plays a part in the process: the different extraction methods, the speed of distillation, even the size of the still.
The pure distillation is stored in stainless steel containers so that it can settle and calmly marry with the other ingredients of the recipe. The mixture is homogenized and acquires a pleasing taste.
Any way it is made, the strength of the ouzo comes from its place of origin, from the mineral content in the water used, and from the added flavoring of star aniseed or aniseed, fennel, mastic or coriander.