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Ouzo and Tsipouro are found on most tables in Greece especially in the summer time and accompanied by a plates of 'mezedes' (small plates of different foods and tastes). But what the heck is Ouzo and Tsipouro anyway? How are they made and what is that distinct taste? Without further ado we give you a beginner's guide to Ouzo, Tsipouro and Tsikoudia!
Ouzo was introduced to Greece largely by the refugee populations that came from the western coast of Asia Minor and Smyrni. The eastern islands of Lesvos and Chios are the homelands of ouzo, but Northern Greece also has a long tradition in ouzo production and consumption. Since 1989 ouzo has been recognized by the European Union as a national product. The name 'ouzo' is not allowed to be used for any other European product.
Although there are many 'recipes' - which is why there is ouzo with many different aromas and flavours - the basic ingredients for ouzo production are two: alcohol and aromatic seeds. The raw material is almost pure alcohol (96% vol.) from distillation of agricultural origin (eg from cereal, raisins and molasses in particular). The alcohol is distilled again with the aromatic seeds that are added to the distillation cauldron called the amvyx. Seeds include anise (necessarily) but star anise as well, fennel, mastiha, coriander and cardamom. Depending on the recipe more herbs may be added including cinnamon, mint, ginger, angelica root, clove, lime and even orange, mandarin and lemon peels. The final distillate is called '100%ouzo distillate' and can be consumed only if diluted with water until it reaches 38-42% alcoholic degrees.
'By 100% distillation' is a pure ouzo distillate which should be diluted with water according to the procedure described above. These kinds of ouzo are considered highly aromatic and qualitative. 'Simple' ouzo if 'by 100% distillation' is not written on the label means that the ouzo contains at least 20% pure ouzo distillate (the lowest limit allowed by law). The remaining 80% of the drink consists of alcohol, water and aromas with anethole (anise's essential oil) being the prevailing ingredient and sometimes sugar. This kind of ouzo is therefore, a pre blended product.
Ouzo is traditionally consumed with ice and a little cold water in a tallish lanky glass, although some prefer it plain (without water). The characteristic whitening of the ouzo after adding water is due to to the interaction with the anise oil.
Ouzo is an aperitif, therefore is consumed before eating so that it will 'open' the appetite. Anise which gives ouzo its distinctive taste is considered to help in iron absorption in foods. It also helps appeasing the intestine and has mild antiparasitic action. In addition, ouzo causes vasolidation and lowers blood pressure.
Ouzo is sweet but also quite strong! It goes well with salty, spicy and subacid tastes even though the choice of every appetizer depends on each drinker's personal taste. In seaside areas, fish and seafood such as fried anchovies, tsiros, sardines and other seafoods are dominant, while in mountain areas appetizers are usually heavier, such as pickles, sausages, spicy cheeses etc. No matter where you are though, the classic Greek appetizer served with ouzo is some olives, a slice of bread, a piece of cheese, a tomato cut in four and a slice of cucumber.
A glass of ouzo (and tsipouro) has 120-150 calories. The difference depends on the alcoholic content of the distillate. Higher alcohol grades result in more calories.
The first thing we must clarify is that raki, tsipouro and tsikoudia are the same spirit. A grape distillate, whose production is said to have started in Agio Oros in the 14th century and gradually spread to Macedonia, Epiros, Thrace, Thessaly and Crete. Distillation was always done at 'home' or at the 'kazanemata' that began right after the grape harvest in late October and had a festive kind of character.
Tsipouro is made exclusively with grape distillation in contrast to ouzo which may use the distillation of various agricultural products and not necessarily grapes. The base for tsipouro is the grape's mashed peels that are left to ferment for a month so that their sugar becomes alcohol. The grapes are then distilled in cauldrons (rakokazano). Most tsipouro is distilled once, however its flavour and taste may be higher when distilled twice. In order for tsipouro to be consumed it must first be diluted with water until its alcoholic grades reach 40-45%.
Tsipouro as it is commonly thought of does not have anise and does not have a particularly strong taste. Tsipouro with anise is more common in some areas of Northern Greece (e.g. Volos, Larisa, Karditsa). The addition of anise gives a more sweet and aromatic taste to the tsipouro and when ice or water is added the tsipouro becomes whiteish just like ouzo.
A bottle's label is allowed to include the 'Tsipouro' or 'Tsikoudia' designation but not 'raki'. Raki, which is common in many areas of Crete, and the greek islands, today is a patented Turkish name. The indications 'Cretan Tsikoudia', 'Macedonian Tsipouro', 'Tsipouro Tyrnavou' and 'Thessalic Tsipouro' are also allowed to indicate specific areas of origin since tsipouro is produced in these regions.
Tsipouro is usually served neat and cool - but not ice cold - in small glasses. In epirotic Greece it is served in a tall glass with ice. Tsipouro with anise is usually served with water and ice just like ouzo.
Tsipouro is drunk as an appetizer, before the meal accompanied by appetizers. Unlike ouzo, tsipouro (without anise) can be consumed after the meal as a digestive.
Tsipouro is mainly produced in mountainous areas, and that's why it is combined with 'earthy' and heavy dishes such as fried bread, salted pork, sausages, cheeses, spicy peppers etc. In the tsipouradika (restaurants that mainly serve tsipouro) in Volos, on the other hand seafood, is dominating. It is obvious that each area has its peculiarities, but every drinker has his tastes as well. Since tsipouro is not sweet, like ouzo, it is considered to be better combined with 'stronger' and more spicy dishes.
Tsipouro's alcoholic grades are usually higher than ouzo, so tsipouro can be considered 'stronger'. On the other hand, ouzo has a reputation of 'pounding the head'. The truth is that both spirits are highly alcoholic and can easily cause drunkenness. The fame that accompanies ouzo and its reputation for being a 'dangerous' drink has often been attributed to added sugars - the combination of sugar and alcohol causes faster intoxications. The potential ouzo headache can be due to the synapostakta (or fuels like methanol) that can be contained in the alcohol that the distillator supplies. Finally, the headache has also been attributed to the fact that simple ouzo is not an entirely pure distillate, but a result of a product mixture. As in all things in life, moderation is the key to proper enjoyment!