My epiphany came in March 2016 as I sipped on a single-variety tsipouro—Greece’s answer to grappa. While I wrote endlessly about spirits from all over the world, I realised that I knew little about my own country’s two most famous drinks: ouzo and tsipouro.
It struck me as both strange and sad that so few of us in the beverage business had ever wondered why Greek spirits did not feature in the thrilling Greek bar scene. Even the top tier bars made little or no reference to Greek ingredients on their menus. And yet. Our Greek spirits come with a designation of origin. They have historic roots (tsipouro, it’s said, was invented by 14th century monks on Mount Athos). They’re made by small producers, often family businesses. Perhaps we all believed that Greek spirits were only for beach barbeques and tavernas. Something our grandparents drank in village squares as an accompaniment to meze.
This realisation led to the creation of Aegean Cocktails & Spirits, an annual festival that champions diversification, terroir and small production in the Greek drinks market. Today, Greek spirits still speak of cherished traditions. But with creative Greek bartenders now embracing our local elixirs, they’re also a must-have ingredient for the city’s tastemakers.
Here are some of my favourite places to taste Greece in a glass in Athens.
The Bar: A for Athens
The Drink: Sirens, Circe’s Potion, The Old Square
If I were a visitor to Athens, sitting at a rooftop bar, sipping on a drink inspired by the Odyssey while gazing at the Acropolis, I’m sure I would consider it the experience of a lifetime. At A for Athens, bar manager Thodoris Pyrillos has based his lyrical drinks menu on Homer’s epic. Try Sirens, made with local Otto's vermouth, mezcal, tsipouro and maraschino syrup. Or Circe’s Potion containing spiced rum, 12-year-old Scotch whisky, Metaxa, pineapple and lemon juice, and Vinsanto. Or order The Old Square—an off-menu insider secret. With cognac, bourbon, Vinsanto from Santorini, Amaro Averna and mastiha—a spirit made from the resin of gum trees that grow on Chios island—it’s the perfect after-dinner drink.
The Bar: Clumsies
The Drink: Mediterranean Gimlet, Aegean Negroni
The Clumsies is consistently ranked as one of the world’s top ten bars (Number 7 in The World's 50 Best Bars 2018). Order a Mediterranean Gimlet at this sociable all-day bar and it’s like drinking a Greek salad in a glass. It’s remarkable how you can actually taste the oregano and olives, the tomato and cucumber layered in among the gin. I also love their Aegean Negroni. It’s the colour of the sea and has Old Tom Gin, blended white vermouth, fennel, caper leaves and diktamo, a medicinal herb that grows wild on Crete.
The Bar: Frater & Soror
The Drink: Ratatouille Date Party
Fancy bar snacks (think pork ribs with pink miso and hazelnuts) and high-end G&Ts with a Greek spin are the name of the game at this hip new Pangrati bar-restaurant from the team who delivered Odori Vermuteria Di Atene (see below). Look no further than the Ratatouille Date Party, resplendent with Old Tom gin, a cordial of Greek cherry tomatoes and bell peppers from Florina, Aegean Tonic and a caper berry flourish. It’s a good companion for their brunch menu, too.
The Bar: Upupa Epops
The Drink: Sour Delight, Graceful Greek, Gluhwein (Greek style)
At upbeat Upupa Epops—named for those bright birds with the distinctive crowns—Marfi Bali and her team blitz and blend a joyful medley of traditional spirits and aromatic syrups, mastiha, house-made liqueurs, citrus fruits and vegetables into an intoxicating Mediterranean menu. Solid bets are the Sour Delight with aged tsipouro, passion fruit, coconut flakes and limoncello; or the Graceful Greek—a heady brew of gin, olives, mint, mastiha, cucumber and Greek tonic. A perfect winter warmer is their Greek-styled Gluhwein, a high-octane concoction of red wine, carob, cherry liqueur, nutmeg, Metaxa brandy, mastiha, vermouth flavored with seaweed, citrus, gin, and basil.
The Bar: Odori Vermuteria Di Atene
The Drink: Smellscapes Negroni
A 'garden in a bottle' is how this tribute to the old-world European vermouth bars has been billed. With their latest drinks menu, ‘We will always have Athens’, Manolis Lykiardopoulos and his crew aspire to lead you on a walk through the city via their cocktails. Try the revolutionary Smellscapes Negroni with tsipouro, Odori House vermouth, and a blend of bitters (slow-cooked with green peppers and sesame oil), served with pickled peppers and bacon powder.
The Bar: Ipitou
The Drink: Story, Grandmama’s Trick
Dionysius Polatos was one of the first—if not the first—to champion Greek spirits and plant them on his menu at this modest but lively downtown bar on pedestrianised Ipitou Street. Choose between the Story, ouzo served up as a classic Fizz highball, or Grandmama’s Trick with mastiha, lemon and pistachio. On balmy days, the Kenta with Metaxa 12, married with Greek Agiorgitiko wine, figs, cinnamon and raisins, nails it.
The Bar: Mai Tai
The Drink: Otto’s Collins, Lord Greek Martini
Mai Tai was a Kolonaki classic that’s recently reopened at a snug new address. Star Athenian bartenders Xavier Missailidis (from Holy Spirit) and Giannis Samaras (ex-The Trap) have come along for the ride. Go Greek with an Otto’s Collins, made with local vermouth, mastiha and cherry bitters or a Lord Greek Martini, a blend of aged tsipouro, oloroso sherry, lemon peel, cucumber, onion pickle and pineapple chutney.
The Bar: Theory Bar & More
The Drink: Morgana
Pop into this oh-so-sociable playground in uptown Halandri any time of day or evening to mingle with regulars from all over Athens. Head for the cute little garden and get your hands around a Morgana, a summery mix of mastiha, Otto's Athens vermouth, rum, Santorini tomatoes, cider vinegar from Paros, wild strawberry, basil and ginger beer.