The lush green island of Lesbos is like no other Greek island. Though third largest of all the islands of Greece, Lesbos remains largely unaffected by mass tourism. Lesbos is the perfect getaway for those who want to experience the real Greece.
From the patio of the Cafe Vesna, I am joined by my friend and fellow sommelier, Alessia Karolides. Gazing complacently about our tranquil surroundings. The seemingly endless blue sea was quiet and calm. After a long day of exploring traditional villages and local wines, there is only one drink fitting to begin the evening’s festivities …
“Ouzo,” we erupted euphorically as we toasted each other.
Ouzo is quite simply the national drink of Greece. It is a symbol of Greek culture. For most Greeks drinking Ouzo is not only an art, it is their way of life. And if you ask any Greek where can the best Ouzo be found, there is but one answer … the island of Lesbos.
“Gregory, “ Alessia called for my attention as she poured us another round of Ouzo. “Perhaps you should explain to our readers what exactly is Ouzo.”
“Yamas,” I toasted Alessia.
The roots of Ouzo lie in tsipouro, a Greek pomace brandy. In the 14th century, monks from the Mount Athos Monastery were the leading distillers. One version of tsipouro was flavored with anise and eventually became what is known today as Ouzo. The classic Greek drink is made from a precise combination of pressed grapes, herbs, berries, anise, licorice, mint, wintergreen, fennel, and hazelnut. Ouzo is primarily served as an aperitif and when mixing Ouzo with water, it will turn whitish and opaque.
“This is because when the anise oil dissolves, it becomes invisible when mixed with alcohol. However, once the alcohol content is reduced, the essential oils transform into white crystals which you cannot see through,” Alessia flashed me an assured smile.
“Ah yes, the Ouzo Effect.”
The key to drinking Ouzo is the eating of snacks known as mezedes. These are small plates of food that are typically served while drinking. In Greece, it would not be seemly to drink Ouzo without serving several dishes of mezedes.
“The type of mezedes served with Ouzo depends primarily where you are,” Alessia paused to collect her thoughts. “Since Lesbos is famous for its seafood, I have selected, oysters on a half shell, scallops, sardines, smelt, and squid. Of course our seafood is accompanied by cucumbers, olives, feta cheese, and the usual breads.”
“It is important for our readers to understand that Ouzo has a reputation for high alcohol content. Typically, 40-46%,” Alessia flashed me a mischievous grin.
“We are drinking Ouzo Giannatsi from Plomari. I believe the alcohol content is 45%.”
This style of Ouzo is distilled in an old-fashioned wood burning still called a “kasani.” It is also very difficult to find outside of the Plomari area. Each time I leave Greece, I take home at least one bottle of Giannatsi.
Keep in mind that Ouzo has a very distinct licorice flavor. It is potent and fiery. It is not a drink for the faint of heart. Another important fact about drinking Ouzo is that it has a high sugar content. This then delays the release of alcohol in one’s system.
“Too true,” Alessia giggled lightly. “When drinking Ouzo, beware that this spirit is renown for sneaking up on it’s victims.”
Most Greeks, as does Alessia, prefer their Ouzo with water. Myself, I usually enjoy my Ouzo neat. However, since Ouzo is steadily gaining in popularity in the States, it has become quite fashionable to enjoy Ouzo cocktails.
“My only reservation about an Ouzo cocktail is that we Greeks never add ice cubes to our Ouzo, Alessia paused to swill her drink. “Perhaps we should share some recipes with Eve.”
“She would like that very much,” I flashed Alessia a wide beaming smile. “Let’s talk a little about your favorite Ouzo.”
“Ah, my favorite is Ouzo Mini. It is mild and smooth and the alcohol content is only 40%. Barbayannis, on the other hand is what my father loves to drink.
This is a very famous Ouzo and the alcohol content is 46%,” Alessia chuckled softly. “I do not know if I agree with my father that it is the best, but it is most definitely the strongest,” she paused to collect her thoughts. “Plomari Arvanitas is probably the most popular Ouzo in Greece.”
“This is the Ouzo with the cork, correct?” I paused to reflect. “I also like this Ouzo. It is definitely one of my favorites.”
Now that we have peeked your curiosity, quality Ouzo can be found quite easily anywhere in the States. Some of the more popular brands include Ouzo 12, Sans Rival, Ouzo Mini, Barbayannis, All are quite enjoyable and “wallet friendly.”
Alessia giggled almost uncontrollably. “Gregory, you are such a wordsmith. ‘wallet friendly,’ I must remember to quote you.”
“There is still one facet of Ouzo that we have not discussed. Since you are Greek, this is more your area of expertise than mine.”
“Yes, you are referring to ‘Kefi.’ This is the feeling that overcomes a person and gives them the ardent desire to sing, dance, and radiate,” Alessia playfully winked.
“No doubt this euphoria is brought on by the Ouzo. In fact, I must admit that I am feeling a bit musical.”
“Ready for Sirtaki?” Alessia queried.
“I’ve got on my dancing shoes.”
“Opa!” Alessia flashed me a wide beaming smile. “I think there is a bit Greek in everyone,”
“But that my friends, is another story …