Ouzo is the de facto Greek national liqueur and no other drink is more closely associated with Greece than this clear, anise-flavored spirit. In Greece, Ouzo is consumed as an aperitif, an after-dinner drink, at celebrations, and as an after-work pick-me-up. It’s frequently used in cooking as well as to toast a new bridal couple, a new baby, or a special anniversary.
What is Ouzo?
Ouzo is made from distilling pressed fruit, usually grapes, raisins, or figs, and flavoring the resulting liquid with anise seeds, and sometimes, a touch of fennel or aromatic herbs. Ouzo has a distinct licorice-like flavor and is deceptively strong, usually about 35 – 45 percent alcohol. It is a relatively recent concoction. Ouzo was first produced in the late 19th century. Ouzo’s roots, however, are deep-seated in Greek history. The Greek physician, Hippocrates (of Hippocratic oath fame) writes about a similar drink, anisum, and its medicinal properties.
Ouzo is traditionally served neat (without ice) accompanied by a glass of water or ice on the side. The drink is clear until it is mixed with the water or ice, as is traditional, when it turns a milky opaque color. Ouzo is traditionally consumed as a mixture of one part ouzo and two parts water. Ouzo is served is most every Greek restaurant and also in ouzeria, Greek ouzo bars, which are similar to France’s wine bars. These are convivial gathering places for men and women alike, and even the smallest villages have them.
Cooking with Ouzo
Ouzo is an ideal accompaniment to mezes, the traditional small plates of Greek appetizers – olives, feta cheese, squid, and such. Ouzo makes an excellent aperitif since it does not overwhelm the palate, as do many types of liquor. Ouzo also stands up nicely to pungent Greek cheeses and cured fish. In cooking, Greeks use ouzo to make a complex fish sauce and even as a syrup for Greek sweets and cakes.
Ouzo is widely available in liquor stores in the United States and Canada. The best ouzo is produced by the many small distilleries on the Greek island of Lesbos. Expect to pay from around $20 per bottle.