Sunday, May 11, 2014

Ouzo, Greece's famous drink!

Ouzo drinking is an art. But it's not the ouzo, it's who you drink it with that really makes the experience. 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.

The key to drinking ouzo is to eat snacks known as mezedes. These keep the effects of the alcohol from overwhelming you and enable you to sit and drink slowly for hours in a profoundly calm state of mind where all is beautiful and life is fine. In the villages where life is slow ouzo is partaken day or night. On Sundays after church the cafeneons are full of lively voices and singing, including sometimes the village priest. In many cafeneons the cooking is done by men, but in some it is a woman who does the cooking and serving and acts as den mother to the old men who come around each day. She knows their likes and dislikes, favorite seats and personal history.

  • Barbayannis: The most famous of the Plomari Ouzo. Some say it's the best. I say it's the strongest at 46% but there is a green bottle that is only 42%.
  • Plomari by Arvanitis. It is the only ouzo with a cork and is now the most popular in Greece.
  • Then there are many other smaller companies like Kronos, Mattis, Samara, Pitsiladi all of which are excellent.
  • Ouzo Babatzim from Serres near Thessaloniki is pure and distilled and I drink this almost nightly in Athens at Cafe Evi in Psiri.
  • Then there are the commerical ouzos made for tourists and Greek-Americans who don't know good ouzo from sambucca and are generally too sweet or in some cases just plain undrinkable. I don't want to name them because they are big corporations with an image to preserve and employ a multitude of lawyers to help them preserve it but if you stick with the ouzos I mention above you should be OK.
In the cafeneons ouzo is served with a meze included, for about a dollar a glass. The mezedes can be anything from a salad, stewed meat and vegetables, sardeles pastes, koukia (fava beans), sweetbreads, meatballs, cheese, sausage, fried fish or whatever the specialty of that cafeneon is that day. Eat and drink slowly and enjoy the journey. The cafe owners are always good cooks and in many places it is almost like a competition who has the best mezedes. Don't be macho. Drink ouzo with water. When you pour it in the ouzo will turn a milky white. How much to pour in is a matter of taste. A good trick is to water it down as you drink it. In other words you keep adding water. You won't get as drunk this way and because you will be drinking as much water as ouzo (or more) you won't be dehydrated or hungover (maybe).

If you should be lucky enough to meet someone who makes his own ouzo watch out. Though they call it ouzo it is really
raki or tsipuro and does not have that licorice flavor one associates with ouzo. It is made in homemade stills and goes down smooth but it's effects are rapid and powerful. But one glass won't hurt and two is even better.
Ouzo Plomari of Isidorou Arvanitou is the ouzo with the cork in it. Strangely enough I could not find it in the cafeneons the first time I went to Plomari. The story I was told is that the owner of Ouzo 12 was bought out by the giant Seagrams company. he took his money and bought the small Arvanitis distillary in Plomari and changed the recipe and made it a kinder-gentler ouzo so people like me would like it and they could hopefully market it all over Greece and maybe in America too. But in Plomari they still like they original recipe so there are actually two versions. The bottle in Plomari is completely different and it does not have a cork and it is stronger. I went to the factory to check out the authenticity of this story and unfortunately it was closed. Since then they have used their marketing expertise to make the ouzo with the cork one of the most popular in Greece. You can even get it at duty-free in the airport. The attractiveness of the bottles has made them very popular in restaurants which use them for oil and vinagear on the tables. To make the story even more interesting Ouzo 12 sales plummeted after the purchase and he was able to buy back the company with all the money he made from Ouzo Plomari. Then he changed the bottle and did a similar marketing campaign and now he has two of the three most popular ouzos in Greece. (The third is Mini). 
Most of the ouzos on Lesvos are not distilled. In other words they just buy the ingredients and assemble them in the shops and then bottle it and sell. Some of the more popular brands are assembled rather then distilled. In Plomari the Ouzo Giannatsi which is owned by Greek-Australian George Kabarnos and his son, is distilled in the old fashioned way and is one of the best tasting ouzos I have tried. Because they are a small company and not able to pay the large sums of money required to get your product placed in supermarkets, their ouzo can be found only in his shop in Plomari and in some small cafeneons and restaurants in the area. According to Mr. Kabarnos real traditional distilled ouzo has no side effects (besides drunkeness) and will not cause a hangover because there is no sugar added and the other ingredients which give each ouzo its distinct flavor, is cooked rather then just added to the mixture. To test this claim I brought a bottle of Giannatsi to my friend Michalis, the owner of the cafeneon in the upper village of Vatousa and asked him to try it. He was quite impressed and then pointed to the bottle where the word Apostegmena was written. "You see this Mathios? This is why this ouzo is so good. It is distilled."
I can almost remember my first ouzo 'experience'. I was a sophomore in high school attending the American school in Athens. My friends and I were at a neighborhood cafeneon, loosening up for the big dance by drinking Ouzo 12, a popular Athenian brand. Though we had all sampled ouzo before this was the first time we had come to a cafeneon with the intent of using it as our primary source of entertainment, (not counting the dance itself.) At 7:30 I knew I had enough and began walking the quarter of a mile to the school gym. I arrived there just as the buses were taking the kids home at 11:30. What happened to those four hours I will probably never know though I have always suspected that I was picked up by aliens and experimented upon before having some kind of chip implanted in me that made me unable to take school very seriously and rendered me useless for any kind of job besides being a musician and giving unsolicited advice about Greece. The purpose of this and what the aliens have in store for me I can only guess at.

 Trying to describe the taste of ouzo or to say why I prefer one to another is hard. Not that each ouzo does not have it's own taste and subtle differences. There just are not enough ouzo connoisseurs communicating with each other to put together a lexicon of descriptive words for ouzo. I could borrow from the wine experts terms like fruity, and tasty  but they don't work for ouzo. I could move up to the words used to describe the finest whiskeys and scotch, but ouzo does not have the same mystique or pedigree. It hasn't been aged for 12 years in oaken casks or had people waiting in anticipation of this years batch.  It's pretty much cooked or mixed together, bottled and shipped out.

Matt Barret

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