Everything I knew about ouzo was wrong, especially my assumption that it was the only Greek liquor. The sun was starting to dip behind the Acropolis just to the south of my perch at the oldest café in Athens. My guide poured a glass of the country's famed anise-flavored drink, notorious for its tongue-ravaging flavor and for inflicting devastating hangovers on Greek island partiers.
To my astonishment, the alcohol burned faintly with a mere hint of anise and lime; it more closely resembled a meadow in bloom than the Phlegethon I braced for. Comparison to arak, its cousin in the Levant, or raki, the Turkish equivalent, was inexact. Like so many things in the eastern Mediterranean, they're close cousins, but distinct.
Ouzo emerged as enterprising Greeks started flavoring tsipouro, the grappa produced in Greece since at least the 15th century, with a variety of herbs and spices. While anise is the most prominent flavor, ouzo recipes also include fennel, mastic, cinnamon, coriander, peppermint, ginger, cardamom, angelica root, cloves, linden, and a bouquet of other aromatics.
For the past century, however, most producers took the easy route. "Instead of starting with the real raw material—pressed grapes, skins, and the tendrils of the plant—they started buying ready-made alcohol… and flavored it with anise seed oil and just boiled it down to the degrees they needed, between 48 percent and 52 percent," explained Yannis Zafeiropoulos in exceptional English tinged with a Mediterranean twang. The slight Athenian sports a trim beard and an easy laugh. After years of working in the food industry in Greece and the UK, he's now a liquor connoisseur who offers tsipouro tours of the Greek capital with Athens Insider.
Today there are hundreds of ouzo producers across the country, and stiff regulations about what can be called ouzo, but a rare few are starting to go back to the traditional ways as attitudes change. Classically made grappa flavored with anise, the ur-ouzo, is "a more noble drink," Zafeiropoulos said. "And you realize the next day."
He pours two glasses, by Idoniko, from northern Greece, whose methods embrace the old-school spirit, one of ouzo the other of tsipouro.
"The quality is obvious with the first sip," he said. "It's a much smoother drink, the aromas are much better integrated. It's not so aggressive on the palate."
Idoniko's ouzo has a hint of citrus—lime leaves, Zafeiropoulos's colleague Alex Frydas, founder of the tour site, suggests. It's slightly sweet and its anise flavor subtle. "This is a connoisseur's ouzo," Zafeiropoulos declared.
A day earlier on the isle of Skyros, in the heart of the Aegean, a local offered a crash course in understanding the proper method of enjoying ouzo. Greeks, she explained, sip and savor their liquor, they don't guzzle or shoot it. Ouzo, she said as we sat down to a lunch of locally caught red mullet, eggplant, grilled octopus, cured anchovies, and crab salad with dill, is best enjoyed with fish or the small dishes of mezze popular in Greece. The Tsililis ouzo we had was light and peppery, pairing perfectly with the salty and oily anchovy.
Contrary to everything I'd been taught, however, Zafeiropoulos said one shouldn't add ice to ouzo. The drop in temperature brings the anise oil out of solution, crystalizing it and turning it a familiar milky color, but raising the chance of a hangover. Like whisky, a few drops of cold water suffice to bring out ouzo's aromas.
Along with the Greek economic crisis, Zafeiropoulos said, there's also been a resurgence in popularity of domestic alcohols in recent years, a reversion from the "McDonaldsization and Americanization of Greek culture in the 80s and 90s." Small Greek labels offering more traditional liquors are becoming trendier than the big companies.
Tsipouro was once considered the provenance of grandfathers—the sort of thing old men have with their midday coffee in the village square and which younger men learn to appreciate too late in life. While it's traditionally been the alcohol of choice to go with Greece's splendid meats (it was a perfect accompaniment to roast Skyrian kid, but cured meats such as are ideal as well) it's now making a comeback among the younger generation.
Likewise, Metaxa, a Greek variety of cognac with an orangey zing, is gaining wider appreciation. Compared to humble ouzo, Metaxa is the king of Greek liquor. After a long day of running around Skyros, I was introduced to it on the veranda of a bar in the twisting main street of the town. A honeysuckle blooming in the alley next door complemented its golden sweetness.
Grapes are left to shrivel, concentrating their sugars, then distilled, aged in barrels, and blended with muscat wine and a "secret ingredient." The bottom-shelf variety, three stars, is traditionally drunk at Greek funerals to aid the local proverb that "there's no wedding without tears, no funeral without laughter."
The five- and seven-star Metaxas, however, are silky on the tongue, taste vaguely of the raisins from which they're made as well as orange, and close with honey sweetness. The 12-year is more syrupy and has lost its citrus glow; instead, it resonates with caramel tones.
With my stomach radiating warmth, Zafeiropoulos turns to two novel drinks from the island of Chios. Mastiha is made from the resin of the mastic tree, from which English derives the verb masticate. The Stoupakis distillery transforms the renowned sap into a dessert liquor (the epically named Homeric Mastiha) that smells like fresh-sawn wood and slips effortlessly down the gullet. Of all the drinks that claim digestive properties, mastiha may be the only one with some scientific chops because of its antibacterial properties. At very least, it makes your breath smell nice.
Greek bartenders have harnessed mastiha's pleasant sweetness and unique taste by substituting it for rum in a mojito, creating a chimeric cocktail infused with flavors of Greece dubbed the "mastijito."
The same distillery also makes a liquor by pressing the island's mandarin oranges whole, lending the drink an ideal balance of bitter and sweet.
"When I drink this, I think of the colors of the mandarin: white of the pith, orange of the juice, and green of the leaves," Zafeiropoulos waxed, the effects of our experimentation manifesting in the traditional Greek fashion: prose.
Three hours into our taste-testing, after the Aegean sun set and a platter of seafood and several rounds of tsipouro and ouzo had vanished with a half dozen cries of yamas as rembetiko melodies played in the background, it was time to depart. The foul memories of ouzos past already had.