Friday, July 11, 2008

How about a Greek apertif that kicks like a Trojan Horse?

Ouzo. The name strikes terror in my heart. The licorice flavor. The smell. The hangover. But the national booze of Greece can’t be all bad, right?

The best Ouzos are those that only use the alcohol from the original Ouzo “yeast” rather than add more alcohol later. An example is Barbayannis, which is a 100% extract, when only 20% is required by law. Epikouria explains why,

The essence of this distillation process, known as Ouzo Yeast, is then stored in tanks to allow the various flavors to meld. Before bottling, spring water is added to dilute this "yeast", usually to about 40% alcohol by volume. This is the right way to do it. Sadly, there are Ouzos on the market of far lesser quality. While Greek law dictates that 20% of the alcohol of the final product must come from Ouzo Yeast, taste dictates that a far higher percentage must come from this source. The ‘bad’ Ouzos use the least amount of Ouzo Yeast as possible, adding plain ethyl alcohol and sometimes sugar to make up the difference. Hangovers are nearly guaranteed. Recently the Greek Government proclaimed that Ouzo based 100% on pomace-derived ethyl alcohol may declare this fact on its label. Goodbye headaches. Yet there are several Ouzos that do not adhere to this 100% ideal that are still excellent.

The best Ouzo comes from the Greek island of Lesvos. According to Ouzo Barbayanni,

Lesvos Island has always been a fertile island, with an excellent climate, providing a superior variety of anise, the seed that is the basic flavoring ingredient of ouzo. Tens of other kinds of sweet-smelling herbs also grow on this land, contributing to the particular scent of ouzo, a fragrance that is characteristic of Greece.

Ouzo can be drunk straight, often chilled, but more often water is added to Ouzo causing the “Ouzo effect” of turning the clear beverage to a milky color. From my research, the best way to drink Ouzo is to add chilled water to the Ouzo but not to add ice to Ouzo directly, nor should you refrigerate Ouzo.

Not surprisingly for a Greek drink, Ouzo is meant to accompany food, appetizers called Mezede.
According to Matt Barrett, a travel writer from Lesvos,

You will rarely see the Greeks rip-roaring drunk. This is because they drink slowly, eat meze and in between every bite are talking, listening, watching or reflecting.

What kind of meze depends on where you are. If you are by the sea you can count on it being seafood. If you are in the mountains you may find yourself eating cheese or even the sweetbreads of a lamb. In different areas of Greece the mezedes are different too. What you are served in Lesvos won't be the same as you get in Volos though both areas are famous for their mezedes. Recently there has been an awakening of traditional drinking behavior and many ouzeries or need have opened in Athens and on the islands and all over the mainland. These are restaurants that specialize in ouzo and meze and can have a variety of local snacks or even snacks from all over Greece and Asia Minor. Of course even if you go to the simplest old-man cafeneon with bare walls and a few guys sitting around and laying cards and order an ouzo you will probably get a meze, usually something simple: a slice of tomato and cucumber, an olive or two, a piece of cheese, maybe a canned sardine or an anchovy. In Lesvos in the traditional villages where few tourists venture you get a plate of food with your ouzo and this can be anything that the cafe owner or his wife has made for that day, a small salad, some goat cheese and olive oil or in the case of my wife's aunt Aglaia, a hot plate of tsikotakia which means liver but is actually the liver and everything else that was left over from the sheep that her son the butcher slaughtered that day.

The Ouzo Café in Milwaukee has 130 different versions of Ouzo for the happy consumer. My advice is to definitely not try them all at once.

Ouzo can be found in these mixed drinks:
8 iron, Bouzo, Buried Under An Avalanche, Cryonic Shock, D.R.F.O., Feel The Burn, Greasy Swede, Greek Lightning, Hairy Armpit, Harakiri shot, Lasseman's Partysaver, Liquid Nitrogen,
Lumberjack, Mussaka Sharpshooter #1, Surf City Lifesaver, T.K.O., Vulcan Mind Meld, Vulcan Mind-Probe, Zorbatini