What Makes Ouzo Unique?

Ouzo (ούζο) and Greece are now irrevocably synonymous, much like bourbon and United States. According to Drinks Geek, the best ouzo brands are made in Greece, and it is particularly popular in Cyprus, with the primary flavor palate derived from the dried star anise fruit, which is often combined with other spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, and coriander. Ouzo producers consistently use star anise to give the beverage its traditional licorice taste. Otherwise, they have fun blending up their own spice mix to imbue ouzo with heavy botanical flavors, but what exactly is the base of ouzo made from?

Before heavy spices are added to the drink, Greece & Grapes says that ouzo is distilled from tsipouro. Tsipouro (aka raki or tsikoudia) is a traditional spirit distilled from grapes. The beverage dates back to the 14th century from Agio Oros, Greece, to the rest of the mainland and surrounding islands. Tsipouro is solely made from grapes, and ouzo is most commonly made from tsipouro; however, some brands have strayed from traditional manufacturing and now use a base of various distilled plant products. At its core, ouzo is a clear, potent, grape-based liquor notable for its intense herbal and spice flavors (via Vinepair).

The history of ouzo

While distilling fruit is an ancient practice spanning thousands of years, ouzo, as we recognize it today, isn't really that old! Takeaway says that the very first commercial ouzo factory was built by Nicholas Katsaros in Greece in 1856. His family still runs the facility to this day, and as recently as 2006, ouzo has become a protected designation of origin (PDO). PDO means that real, true ouzo can legally only be made in Greece. But before the first ouzo factory, families had been making the drink for years, at least, a version of it. Bespoke Unit believes that the roots of ouzo stretch back for centuries in the form of tsipouro, the distilled waste of wine grapes traditionally flavored with star anise — though it was mainly consumed by Greek locals and only hit the international market in the early 20th century.

As for the origin of the name "ouzo," there is no definitive answer, but Greek Reporter reports on the differing tales. One opinion is that "ouzo" originates from the Italian use of "uso Massalia" which was a stamp designating high-quality goods (which ouzo was considered). Others believe that perhaps "ouzo" is rooted in the Turkish word for grape, "üzüm." But whatever the origin of the name, ouzo is an essential aspect of Greece's drinking culture and will continue to be for many years to come.

Different kinds of ouzo

Because ouzo can be made using almost any combination of spices and herbs (many recipes are closely guarded family or brand secrets), there's plenty of variety in the products made today. According to Liquorista, you should study the label on your ouzo bottle. Brands will have descriptors like "ouzo," "ouzo style," or "ouzo-like," which will indicate whether you are buying an authentic bottle or a knock-off. Additionally, labels can tell you how your liquor is processed. "Distilled" ouzo is considered incredibly smooth, and most large producers distill their product; however, smaller producers might use different methods. "Cooked and combined" is an ancient way of ouzo making, "cooked and distilled" is uber flavorful and boozy, and "combined" indicates that it is a highly pure form of ouzo without refinement. Brands using different production methods will have distinct and not-so-distinct differences in taste and mouth feel.

Drinks Geek lists some top ouzo brands, including 12 Ouzo, Ouzo 7, Metaxa, Ouzo of Plomari, Think Green, Babatzim, and Thallasa. All are distilled in Greece and vary between 37.5% ABV and 40% ABV. Each distiller offers a unique blend of herbs. Still, all stay true to the traditional licorice flavor (of anise and fennel) that has been iconic to ouzo manufacturing since its origin.

How to drink ouzo

If you've ever had the opportunity to drink ouzo and made the mistake of knocking it back like a shot of vodka, you have our deepest sympathies. Unlike spirits such as tequila, gin, or even rum, ouzo is meant to be a slow-sipping experience, much like wine. It is traditionally consumed as an aperitif before a big meal.

My Kerkyra claims there is a right way and a wrong way to drink ouzo. First, the liquor must be poured into the glass (ouzo glasses are traditionally small, narrow, and tall), then add water (this will turn the drink an opaque or milky color due to the star anise oils). Finally, a slightly controversial way to top off ouzo is by adding ice so that the spirit slowly cools and releases all its complex flavors. After the ritual is complete, Insights Greece says to feel free and slowly sip on your glass as you snack on classic Greek mezes (small dishes or snacks) such as feta, olives, tzatziki, loukaniko, anchovies, calamari, and grilled octopus with pita.They also recommend keeping the ratio of two parts water for each one part ouzo and skipping the ice (they claim it affects the flavor); however, it is a matter of preference.