Don’t leave Athens without trying this anise-flavoured drink—whether you pair it with traditional Greek meze or in an ouzo cocktail. Our guide will have you downing it like a native in no time.

By Diana Farr Louis

Care for an ouzaki? Like so many words in Greek, ouzo is often referred to affectionately in the diminutive, which makes it even more seductive and appealing. Just a ‘little’ drink, nothing pretentious or serious about it, an ouzaki can be an excuse to pause in the middle or end of a busy day for a chat with friends or a cardinal feature of a summer holiday on an Greek island. Whatever you call it, sharing a carafe or miniature bottle of ouzo is an essential Greek experience. While there are absolutely no rules about doing it properly, there are certainly ways of getting the most out of it.

Ouzo can be made from grape or grain-based alcohol, which is then distilled with anise, fennel, and other herbs, according to closely guarded formulas particular to every producer. It may range in alcoholic content from the relatively ‘mild’ 38% volume to the finest double distillates of 48% volume. It is the presence of anethole in the anise that turns the clear alcohol white when water is added. Don’t confuse it with the grappa/schnapps-like raki, tsikoudia and tsipouro, which are all different words for the same thing—the first two being native to Crete, the last found on the mountainous mainland, especially in and around Volos.

Tyrnavos in Thessaly was the first place in mainland Greece to make ouzo in 1856. But the place most associated with the production of ouzo is Plomari, a coastal village on Lesvos (Mytilene). There are some 300 ouzo brands throughout the country, of which the best known are Isidoros Arvanitis Ouzo Plomari, Barbagiannis, Mini Mytilinis, 12 and Tsantali.

But back to the ouzo-drinking protocol.

A couple enjoys some ouzo at Plaka.

Photo: Thomas Gravanis

Ouzo should always come with at least a few small plates.

Photo: Eleni Veziri

Colourful meze covers the table at Athinaikon.

Photo: Eleni Veziri

Athinaikon

  1. 2 Themistokleous, Omonia, Historic Centre, 106 78
  2. +30 210 383 8485
  3. Website

Oxo Nou

Roughly translated, oxo nou means carefree and that’s what you’ll feel the moment you enter this casual, comfortable Cretan eatery. There are cushions softening the usual taverna chairs, banquettes lining the back wall, lamps with shades askew, and a welcoming shot glass of raki almost as soon as you’ve sat down. The waitresses are cheerful and if you happen to bring a child along, they’ll bring paper and crayons to keep her busy while you’re consulting the menu. Cretan cuisine is known for its fresh ingredients, succulent little pies with greens or cheese, snails, smoked meats, and staka, a cousin of clotted cream. Staka may not be the healthiest condiment in the Cretan diet, but try it with eggs, dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves) or even fried potatoes and you won’t regret it. All the island’s classic meze can be found here, and on nice days you can sit outside.

  1. 63 Emmanouil Benaki, Exarchia, 106 81
  2. +30 210 380 1778
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To Ouzeri tou Laki

  1. 16 Elpidos, Victoria Square, 104 34
  2. +30 210 8213776
  3. Website

We'd say "yamas" over this meze table.

Photo: Eleni Veziri

Hohlidaki might have the most ouzo of anywhere in Athens.

Photo: Eleni Veziri

Hohlidaki

  1. 31 Adrianiou, Neo Psychiko, 115 25
  2. +30 210 674 6661
  3. Instagram

Fanaki

If Melissia seems too far off the beaten track, remember the Michelin tip, “worth the journey”? You won’t regret it. Though Fanaki calls itself a traditional kafenio, it’s anything but. Bright and simply decorated, with a patron’s art work on the wall, this is where local couples and friends meet, not old men hunched over backgammon boards. Katerina Athanasiou, the owner, is a former theatre director who changed professions because “I like Greek cooking and Greek products especially.” And she seeks out the best of small producers—cheeses, charcuterie, and cured seafood that match so well with ouzo and raki (not to mention an excellent organic wine from Sparta). She then combines these ingredients in intriguing ways: lentils with orange and smoked pork, arugula with pickled giant beans, eggs fried five different ways, octopus with balsamic vinegar. The music is 1960s international, the atmosphere so unpretentious and convivial that people just keep coming back.

  1. 26 P. Tsaldari & Ippokratous, Melissia, 151 27
  2. +30 211 720 0988
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