Looking for another spirit to add to your aperitif repertoire? No? Maybe? We think ouzo, a Greek, anise-flavored liquor, would make an excellent addition to your home bar.
The first ouzo distillery was founded in Tyrnavos in 1856, following Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Hey – we’d need a drink, too. Before ouzo, there was tsipouro, which is essentially Greek grappa and dates back to the 14th century. Ouzo stems from tsipouro, though it’s quite different in flavor and production – the base spirit used to make ouzo is higher than that of tsipouro, and ouzo has to be anise flavored. Ouzo is made from a base spirit of grapes before it gets hit with that licorice flavor (the same notes you’ll find in absinthe or sambuca).
The origin of the name “ouzo” is widely disputed. Greek dictionaries logically derive it from the Turkish word for grape, uzum. Others believe “ouzo” derived from the Italian uso Massalia (“for use in Marseille”), which was stamped on exports from Tyrnavos in the 19th century. This designation represented that an item was of superior quality, such as ouzo.
This liquor is as Greek as it gets – the country has the right to label ouzo as an exclusively Greek product, as it has a Protected Designation of Origin and can only be made in Greece and Cyprus. There’s even an ouzo museum in Lesvos. (Rumor has it they offer tasting tours.)
Ouzo is distilled in copper stills of 96% ABV, and flavored with anise and occasionally spices like coriander, fennel, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. This creates a solution called ouzo yeast, which is then distilled for several hours, coming out at around 40% ABV. By law, the finished product must contain at least 20% of the starting ouzo yeast and be at least 37.5% ABV.
Ouzo is traditionally mixed with water and served over ice, giving it a cloudy white color thanks to the oils from the anise. You can also drink it straight from a shot glass. You can find ouzeries throughout Greece, small restaurants that serve ouzo with traditional Mediterranean cuisine. This aperitif is best drank with Greek dishes like calamari, octopus, feta cheese, fried zucchini, and olives. Because the alcohol content is so high, it’s considered poor taste to drink it when you’re not also eating something (this is a rule I can get on board with). In other countries, ouzo is often served chilled before the meal even begins. Talk about getting the party started!