Ouzo – the Distinctively Greek Aperitif


Credit: Dominic Lockyer /

Like moussaka, Greek salad, stuffed grape leaves, and Feta cheese, ouzo automatically brings on thoughts of Greece. Made from pressed grapes, berries, various herbs and spices, ouzo is Greece’s national drink.

How Ouzo Came to Be

The companies that produce ouzo each have their own closely guarded recipe for this drink, but in varying amounts, the ingredients include mint, wintergreen, fennel, hazelnut, and of course, anise. On October 25, 2006, ouzo became a product with a Protected Designation of Origin, and only Greece and Cyprus have had the exclusive right to use the name ouzo.

This drink was fist brewed in the 14th century by monks who were making tsiporo, which is distilled from the freshly pressed juice of grapes. This juice, also called must, contains the fruit’s seeds, skin, and even the stems. It is said that some of the wine brewed in the Mt. Athos monastery was flavored with anise, and eventually this version was named ouzo.

The anise in this drink made it similar in flavor to absinthe, a drink that was highly popular, particularly among the French in the 1800s. Like absinthe, ouzo has a licorice-like taste. When absinthe was banned in the early 1900s, ouzo became a natural substitute. The rest, as they say, is history.

Enjoying Ouzo

Ouzeries are found throughout Greece today. The ouzeries are Greek cafés that serve ouzo with a selection of the traditional local appetizers called mezedes or mezethes.  A plate of these appetizers customarily contains some Feta cheese, olives, fried zucchini, fresh fish, octopus, or clams.

Ouzo has an alcohol content of 37.5 to 50 percent, making it quite potent indeed. In About Food’s  Greek Ouzo Anyone?, Greek food expert Lynn Livanos Athan says, Ouzo is customarily served neat – no ice. The Greeks will add iced water to dilute the strength causing the liquid to turn an opaque, milky white. If you add the ice directly to the ouzo, you will create unsightly crystals on the surface of your drink. There is a technical explanation for this emulsion that according is known as “the ouzo effect.”

Because the high sugar content of this brew delays the body’s absorption of alcohol, the ouzo neophyte may drink more than originally intended. When the alcohol accumulates, however, its effects can kick in quite quickly. This is why the locals prefer not to take ouzo without food, a practice colloquially referred to in Greece as “dry hammer”.

As Lynn Livanos Athan says, Potent and fiery, it is not a drink for the faint of heart. It has an alcohol content of about 40% (depending on the brand) but also a high sugar content that delays the release of the alcohol in to your system. Drinkers are advised to use caution because the effects of ouzo will sneak up on you…”

Pairing Ouzo with Food

In About Food’s What to Serve with Ouzo: Mezethes, Nancy Gaifyllia writes about what foods would be simply perfect with this anise-flavored drink. She recommends nuts, dried fruit, olives, pita wedges, and Greek cheeses such as Feta or graviera as excellent no-cook options. For a more elaborate spread, baked or fried potatoes, grilled seafood, cheese pies, souvlaki (grilled and skewered vegetables or meats), or fried fish.

There is a certain art and ambiance to this drink. As Lynn Livanos Athan puts it, “There is an old Greek saying that ‘ouzo makes the spirit’, and this is especially true in Greece. The Greek spirit or kefi (KEH-fee) is found in hearty food, soulful music, and the love of lively conversation. A glass of chilled-ouzo is the perfect companion to all of these things…”  Indeed, Ouzo is a drink to be enjoyed as an aperitif just as many Greek restaurants serve it, but it is best sipped slowly and savored for hours in the company of friends.

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