In each monthly installment of Bender, Caroline Ferguson will explore the social, cultural, and historical context of a single cocktail or boozy beverage. From settling which country lays claim to Pisco, to exploring the Carthusian Monks’ Chartreuse caves, Caroline will try to track down all the places your drink has been before it gets in your glass—always ending with a recipe of her own creation. Pull up a chair and a glass.
Most Americans’ familiarity with ouzo begins and ends with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In an infamous scene from the indie comedy, the romantic lead’s WASP-y parents accidentally get hammered on the aperitif during an uncomfortable family get-together, even though they can’t stand the taste.
It’s an excellent film (not in small part because consummate hot dad John Corbett finally gets the happy ending he deserved—sorry, Aidan). But My Big Fat Greek Wedding gets ouzo all wrong, and it unjustly turned many American drinkers away from the aperitif.
For starters, at about 40% alcohol by volume, ouzo is no stronger than most whiskeys. Granted, it does have a high sugar content that causes it to sneak up on you, much like champagne does—but all that sugar makes it delicious, contrary to its reputation as an unpalatable beverage. Provided you’re not licorice averse, you’ll find ouzo sweet, smooth, and abundantly drinkable.
Ouzo’s ancestor tsipouro dates back to the 1300s, when northern Greek monks took to using the leftover grapes from winemaking to create a strong, clear brandy. Viticulturists carried on the tradition, producing tsipouro largely for their own consumption.
Anise-flavored liqueurs are popular all around the Mediterranean: Turkish people pour raki, Levantines enjoy arak, and Marseille is famous for its pastis. This is especially true in Greece, where distillers have been flavoring tsipouro with anise and fennel for hundreds of years.
When tsipouro was first adapted into what is known as ouzo today isn’t known for sure. Its name is said to have its roots in the Italian phrase uso Massalia—“for use in Marseille”—which was stamped on premium silk exports to southern France. The term came to denote quality in general, hence the association. (Or, a more pedestrian explanation: it could have come from the Turkish üzüm, meaning “grape”).
However ouzo got its name, most agree that the first official ouzo distillery opened in 1856, in the Thessalian town of Tyrnavos. Ouzo Tirnavos, founded by Nikolaos Katsaros, is still around today.
Throughout ouzo’s surprisingly brief documented history, its development has centered around the island of Lesbos, particularly the coastal town of Plomari. By definition, ouzo has to come from either Greece or Cyprus—the right to exclusive ownership of the spirit was granted there in 2006.
Nowadays, ouzo is intrinsically tied to Greek culture. It’s considered the national drink of Greece, and enjoying a glass of ouzo with mezes (allegedly alcohol-absorbing snacks like olives, cheese, fried squid, and salad) is an essential part of daily life in Greece. The spirit is typically served over ice—which makes it go from clear to cloudy, thanks to insoluble oils in the anise—and savored slowly while the ice melts.
Ouzo-sipping weather is a long way off for most of us. But this cocktail, which pairs ouzo with fresh winter citrus, is sure to tide you over until your next trip to the beach. Coincidentally, it’s also the perfect palliative while you wait for the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is set to hit theaters in March.
Meyer Lemon Ouzini
This cocktail is cheating a bit, because in truth, a great bottle of ouzo can’t really be improved upon. The best way to enjoy ouzo is to just pour it over ice and drink. But there is at least one ouzo cocktail that’s solidly in the canon: a Cypriot drink called ouzini, which pairs cold ouzo with orange juice and bitters. This version swaps half of the orange for fresh Meyer lemon, which is one of the few exciting seasonal fruits that can be found this time of year.
2 oz ouzo
3 oz fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon juice
3 oz fresh-squeezed orange juice
4 drops bitters
Meyer lemon slice, for garnish
Shake ouzo and both juices together vigorously with ice. Pour into a glass over ice, then top with bitters. Garnish with the lemon slice and serve.