What Is Ouzo?
Closely related to Italian sambuca, Middle Eastern arak, Balkan and Turkish raki, and French pastis, ouzo is an anise-flavoured alcoholic spirit. As you’ll learn in this guide, it is made by steeping anise and other spices distilling it in a similar way to gin.
Although it has a strong heritage, ouzo was only recognised by the European Union as a protected designation of origin in 2006. This new appellation now ensures that only ouzo from Greece and Cyprus may use the name.
The ouzo effect where a drink becomes cloudy when diluted with water derives its name from this drink. A characteristic feature, it is one of the many reasons that ouzo is a celebrated national drink in Greece.
Ouzo was first commercially produced in 1856 by Nikolaos Katsaros in Tyrnavos. Nevertheless, it has roots that date back to the 14th century as it is a more modern variant of tsipouro, a Greek pomace brandy similar to grappa.
Like Turkish or Balkan raki, tsipouro is produced by distilling the leftover must of pressed wine grapes. It is often flavoured with anise but it can also be made without it. Although the way it’s made is completely different from modern ouzo, it’s often argued that the anise version has an almost identical taste.
Throughout its early history, ouzo was largely a local drink. However, its popularity exploded following international bans on absinthe in the early 20th century. Demand for substitute anise drinks skyrocketed and ouzo quickly became a favourite alongside sambuca since it was more accessible than raki or arak.
Because of its newfound popularity, traditional tsipouro started also being referred to as ouzo. There are a number of theories to the etymology of its name. A leading theory is that it’s derived from “uzum”, the Turkish word for “grapes”.
Yet, it’s generally accepted that the name comes from the Italian “uso Massalia”. Originally used for stamps for silk that was exported from Tyrnavos to Marseille, the term became associated with products of high quality.
With the introduction of locally made pastis, demand for ouzo waned in France. Nevertheless, it has retained a cult status both in both Greece and abroad.
How Is Ouzo Made?
Ouzo has followed the same production process with copper stills since it was properly established in 1932. 96% alcohol is first distilled from either fermented grapes or grain, which is then steeped with star anise as well as other spices like fennel, cardamon, coriander, cloves, and cinnamon.
The resulting mixture is referred to as an “ouzo yeast” and is traditionally distilled a second time, which results in an 80% ABV spirit.
However, cheaper ouzo might be made by mixing the ouzo yeast with another neutral alcohol with added anise flavourings. To protect the industry, Greece introduced a regulation that forbids ouzo consisting of less than 20% ouzo yeast.
In southern Greece, the ouzo may be mildly sweetened with sugar whereas northern Greek ouzo is typically dry. The alcohol spirit is then hydrated to a minimum of 37.5% ABV.
What Is The Ouzo Effect?
As mentioned above, ouzo characteristically turns milky when diluted with water due to its anise oil droplets called tarpenes. When suspended in a strong alcohol solution, they appear clear as the molecules disperse and dissolve.
Once the alcoholic strength falls under 30%, the oil droplets destabilise and become insoluble, which produces a cloudy precipitate. The phenomenon is referred to as the “louche” by enthusiasts and the process is often analysed to evaluate the spirit’s quality.
For instance, too much sugar or cheap flavourings may prevent ouzo or other anise drinks from louching properly.
How Does Ouzo Taste?
As you have probably guessed, ouzo has a distinctive aniseed flavour. However, high-quality ouzo may also feature some aromatic properties thanks to other herbs and spices used to make it.
Ouzo will often have a similar taste whether it has been distilled from grapes or grain. Similarly, it may occasionally be slightly sweet if sugar has been added. Nevertheless, it will always have a dry mouthfeel as the anise produces a high level of astringency.
When consumed neat, ouzo can be somewhat strong and overpowering. Yet, it is almost always diluted with a bit of water.
How To Drink Ouzo
Traditionally, ouzo is served in cafés called ouzeries alongside mezedes, which is similar to Spanish tapas that often consists of small seafood dishes. Most islands and coastal areas will serve ouzo alongside fish as its crisp flavour heightens the freshness.
It is often served neat and well-chilled abroad, but this is considered a faux pas in Greece. Instead, a sealed bottle of an appropriate size is placed on a table at room temperature. It’s not uncommon for ouzo bottles to be quite small if they will be shared by just a few people.
Guests are then expected to serve themselves a small amount in a long glass, add ice cubes, and then top it up with water from a nearby jug. The quantity of water added is a matter of personal preference. Some people will dilute it just until it louches whereas others may water it down even more.
Conversely, some experts claim that the water should be added before the ice cubes and that it shouldn’t be too cold. With this approach, the temperature is gradually reduced, which allows the aromas to release properly.
Occasionally, a small pre-diluted glass is served after being seated at a restaurant. In this case, the ouzo’s purpose is to cleanse the palate in preparation for the meal ahead. When served in a small glass, it’s expected to continue diluting it after each sip.
Similar Drinks & Ouzo Substitutes
Ouzo’s closest relatives are Turkish raki and Middle Eastern arak. These anise-flavoured drinks follow a similar process but often use pomace as the alcoholic base. Bear in mind that Balkan raki is often somewhat different and continues to use the historical name as outlined in our history section above.
However, they tend to be harder to find than Greek ouzo. If you’re looking for something similar to ouzo, consider Italian sambuca instead.
Although similar, sambuca is made by simply adding sugar and anise essential oils to grain alcohol. Furthermore, sambuca is traditionally served neat as a digestif rather than an appetiser or during a meal.
Both absinthe and pastis are two other well-known absinthe-flavoured spirits. While pastis is undeniably French, there is some debate as to whether absinthe is French or Swiss.
These two beverages are quite different from ouzo, but they’re both diluted with water when served. As they are steeped for longer with a greater quantity of botanicals, they’re not clear and have a distinctive green or brown colour. In comparison, ouzo has a clean and crisp flavour.
Ouzo Health Benefits
Like most alcoholic spirits, a moderate amount can aid the intestine in absorbing iron from food as well as reduce blood pressure by dilating the blood vessels.
Otherwise, the Ancient Greeks believed that anise helped with pain relief, difficult urination, and reduced thirst. However, anise is a well-known carminative and helps settle the digestive tract, which decreases bloating and reduces flatulence.
Similarly, the anise in ouzo may offer antispasmodic benefits by alleviating cramps, convulsions, and diarrhoea. Of course, like any strong alcohol, any benefits will only be gained in moderation. The side effects of drinking too much will easily outweigh them!
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Ouzo
Technically, grain alcohol doesn’t contain any gluten as the protein is removed during distillation. However, people with celiac disease have experienced issues even with triple-distilled vodka.
However, grape-based ouzo won’t contain any gluten at all. The only issue is that few producers will openly state whether the alcohol base is made from grapes of grain.
Meanwhile, a shot of ouzo can contain between 100 and 110 calories depending on the amount of sugar used. Similarly, it will feature between 10 and 15 grams of carbohydrates.
Now that you have read our full ouzo guide, let’s dig deeper and learn more!