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Lesvos - Island of Ouzo

The history of Greece’s most famous drink - “Ya-mas!” (“our health!”)

  • June 16, 2018 18:00
  • Author Monika Dimitrova
Medium sea side tavern new 1

"The best mezes to accompany ouzo is lightheartedness,” said Ioannis Barbayannis, one of the first distillers on the island of Lesvos, referring to the small, tapas-like dishes normally served with the island’s signature drink. His point was that the off-white aperitif, with its sweet liveliness and aniseed-laden aroma, is not a drink to be sipped at a bar accompanied by loud music and nuts. It is most at home on a small table by the sea, to be enjoyed with choice seafood appetizers and, more importantly, good company.

For Greeks, the act of drinking ouzo has elements of a ritual. This strong spirit is consumed as an aperitif – that is, it is thought to stimulate the salivary glands and digestive system, thus preparing one’s appetite for the main meal. That fact alone renders the consumption of ouzo a social activity. “To our first” is the common toast that groups will make each time their glasses are refilled so that they lose track of how many they’ve had. There is no keeping count; blissful self-imposed ignorance is preferred. “Relax, it’s only the first one.” The aim is not to stuff oneself, but to enjoy playful combinations of flavors through the small accompanying dishes: octopus, salted sardines, shrimp, shellfish, soft mizithracheese and mint pies, beans, dips, pickles, etc.

In 1989, the European Union gave Greece the right to label ouzo as an exclusively Greek product. Ouzo making was the profession of the bourgeoisie, people drank then, they had faced many difficulties. The distillers on Lesvos still stick to largely traditional methods of producing ouzo. Also unchanged are their recipes, each one a unique and closely guarded secret. In large copper stills rectified (grape) alcohol is mixed with aniseed, water from the island’s springs and other aromatic herbs from Lesvos, and then heated. The resulting steam is cooled in a special tube, and the ice-cold condensate is collected, the raw form of ouzo. This process can take 12–15 hours and happens under careful scrutiny, with a slow distillation process improving the quality of the final product.  

Source: Greece is


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