On Wednesday, February 7, 2018 I will be leading a class for Metro Continuing Education called Greek Mezze. Ouzo is not really part of that class, but I’ve got Greek food and drink on the brain, and will be posting some new content over the next few weeks. You can learn more about the class here.
Ouzo is strong, clear, anise-flavoured spirit made in Greece. The taste may remind you of liquorice candy, or other anise spirits like sambuca, pastis, and Pernod. The term is a protected regional designation within the EU, meaning that if it’s not made in Greece, it can’t be called ouzo. It is usually about 40% ABV.
Ouzo is made by infusing a relatively neutral spirit with anise and other botanicals. The neutral spirit is a grape pommace distillate, just like Italian grappa or French marc. In most of Greece this grape pommace distillate is called tsipouro, though the Turkish word raki is also common, especially on the islands of Crete and Cyprus. Tsipouro has been made for centuries, and over time many distillers, notably monks, started flavouring tsipouro with herbs and spices. Ouzo is simply an anise-flavoured tsipouro. Unflavoured tsipouro and raki are still very common in Greece. In fact most meals that I ate on Crete ended with a complimentary glass of raki. There is at least one brand of tsipouro available here in Alberta: Avaton, made by the Greek winery and distillery Tsantali.
I think of ouzo the same way I think about gin: a neutral spirit infused with botanicals. For gin the featured botanical is juniper, but there are usually several other ingredients, maybe lemon peel or grains of paradise or seaberry. In ouzo the featured botanical is anise, but there are often other ingredients like coriander or cardamom. For both spirits it is the unique blend of botanicals that sets the different brands apart.
Unlike gin, ouzo has not gone through a renaissance at the hands of small craft distillers around the world. While the shelves of boutique liquor stores abound with the likes of Aviator, The Botanist, and Monkey 47, there are not many ouzo options for us here in Alberta. I think the reasons are pretty obvious. The extremely strong anise flavour is quite polarizing to North Americans, and very much an acquired taste. Plus ouzo is not used in classic cocktails. Plus you can’t call it ouzo unless it’s made in Greece.
Anyways, according to Liquor Connect, there are in fact only three brands of ouzo currently available in Alberta: Ouzo 12, Cambas, and Olympic Ouzo by Tsantali.
The most common brand here as in the rest of the world is Ouzo 12, which was first developed in the 1880s and has been owned by the Campari Group since 1999. It has a strong and pure anise flavour. Cambas is a great counterpoint to Ouzo 12, showing how different houses flavour their spirits. While still smelling and tasting of anise, Cambas has a very distinctive toasted coriander aroma. I find the Tsantali Olympic to be the most neutral and least interesting of the group. I also find the Greek column packaging super tacky, but that’s par for the course in Greek exports.
How to Serve. The most traditional way to drink ouzo is mixed with water and served on ice. You will notice that the liquid changes from clear to milky and opaque. This is because the main flavour compound in anise is readily soluble in alcohol, but not in water. When you add water these compounds start to come out of solution and diffract light, making the drink cloudy.
Ouzo with water (<<ouzo me nero>>) is a common aperitif in Greece. It can be found at a taverna, or an ouzo bar called an ouzeria. Both of these establishments usually offer small plates of mezethes, Greek appetizers.
Ouzo Cocktails. Ouzo is emphatically not a part of the classic cocktail bar, but if you appreciate the fresh taste of anise, it can make some brilliant mixed drinks. I’ve developed two of which I am quite fond.
A while ago I wrote a short post about a perfect moment I had drinking ouzo and water in a lime orchard in a town called Dryos. Much later I decided to make a simple sour combining the flavours of ouzo and lime. I love the icy white colour of this drink.
- 2 oz Ouzo 12
- 1/2 oz simple syrup
- 3/4 oz fresh lime
- 1/2 large egg white
- Dry build: Combine the ouzo, syrup, lime, and egg white in the glass of a Boston shaker. Secure the tin and shake a few times to start the egg white emulsion.
- Open up the shaker and fill 3/4 full with ice. Secure the tin and shake vigorously for about 15 seconds.
- Double strain into a chilled glass.
This is basically a classic Sidecar, only using Greek brandy, and substituting a small part of the brandy with ouzo. So where the Dryos Sour smacks you in the mouth with anise, the Greek Sidecar merely suggests it. Metaxa brandy is sweetened with a small amount of muscat wine after distillation and aging. For this reason I have dialed back the Grand Marnier from the classic 1 oz.
- 1.5 oz Metaxa ‘7 Star’ Brandy
- 0.5 oz Cambas Ouzo
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 oz Grand Marnier
- Combine all ingredients in the glass of a Boston shaker.
- Fill the glass 3/4 full of ice. Secure the tin and shake vigorously for about 15 seconds.
- Double strain into a chilled glass.
1. All these facts – most popular brand worldwide, developed in 1880s, and bought by Campari in 1999 – are from this page on the Campari website.