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.