Greek beverages. Ouzo, tsipouro, tsikoudia
We all know ouzo. The famous Greek drink that turns white when mixed with a little water or poured over ice. Traditionally, ouzo is both a welcoming drink and after dinner digestive. But ouzo is not the only aperitif offered in Greece. Tsipouro! Or, tsikoudia - or raki – (on Crete!) is also associated with hospitality and good company.
All these alcoholic beverages look alike and complement a delicious array of appetizers. But they are not the same. They differ in raw materials and the way they are made. They are also different in taste and flavor.
Ouzo is a mixture of alcohol, water and various aromatic herbs, always including anise. In contrast to tsipouro, ouzo usually contains a small percentage of grape distillation. The final product is 40 to 50 ABV.
Tsipouro or tsikoudia are about the same, prepared – by distillation – and from the same raw material -- stemfyla (grape marc). In other words, pieces of grapes, stems and seeds that are left after pressing the grapes for the new wine. This is also called strafyla or tsipoura, and on Crete, tsikouda. Tsipouro, however, contains anise, while raki does not. Also, tsikoudia usually includes one distillation, which creates a difference in flavor and aroma. Similar drinks are the Italian grappa and the arrack of the Middle East. Tsipouro or tsikoudia, as well as ouzo, are recognized by the European Union as protected designations of beverages produced exclusively in Greece and are defined by the geographical indications for production areas (Tsipouro of Thessaly, Tsipouro of Macedonia, Tsipouro of Tyrnavos, Tsikoudia of Crete).
Every autumn in Greece, there is the feast for the new wine when pressing of the grapes begins. Then it’s time for tsipouro. From late October to mid-December, the beverage is prepared in traditional boilers. Feasts also take place around this process. According to tradition, the production of tsipouro began in the 14th century in the monasteries of Mount Athos and expanded, over the years, throughout Greece, especially in Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly, the Cyclades Islands and Crete.
Before 1990 there was no industrial production. The sale of distillates was prohibited. Only some winegrowers were licensed to make tsipouro for their own use at home, as well as small quantity, bulk sales locally.
At this time, the conditions for the production, bottling and sales were fixed. The result was the improved quality, increased consumption and introduction of the drink internationally. The bulk sale of tsipouro is not allowed.
Most commonly, undergoes a double distillation process to obtain the final product. Whole grapes or wine can also be distilled making the yield is higher. White and red grapes are used. The second distillation improves the quality and gives a cleaner product affecting the aroma and flavor. During the second distillation, flavorings are added, such as anise, fennel, cloves, nutmeg and mastic. Anise causes the white appearance of the drink when mixed with water or ice. On Crete, walnut leaves are used. The amount and proportion of added substances is the well –kept secret of every producer. Tsipouro is usually 36-45 ABV and is served in small glasses. It is most enjoyable when served chilled at 10o C or with some ice. A little water can also be added. It can be drunk neat but, more often, is accompanied by appetizers. Initially, simple appetizers, like cheese and olives, were served with tsipouro. Gradually, more complex and spicy dishes were added, alternating continuously, to fill the table with small plates. Appetizers include meat and seafood cooked in various ways, cheeses and cold meats, pickled vegetables, wild mushrooms on the grill, tomato with coarse salt, olives and nuts, roasted potatoes, and more.
We do not eat to satiety or drink to get drunk. The goal is to enhance social interaction and create a pleasant disposition. Most often, tsipouro is drunk noon to mid day. But due to its strong flavor and digestive properties, tsipouro can pleasantly close a hearty lunch or dinner.
Cretan tsikoudia or raki is distinguished from tsipouro because it is distilled only from tsikoudia (the pomace of grapes pressed for winemaking) without adding herbs. In Western Crete is called tsikoudia, and in Eastern Crete raki. On Crete, the first licenses for home production were issued in the 1920s. Since then, the boilers are turned on beginning of October and closed in late November when a feast always occurs, which is a unique experience for the visitor.
Tsikoudia is an integral part of Cretan tradition and hospitality. Every house has a bottle ready at any moment. Cretans welcome visitors with tsikoudia, festivities begin with the drink and it is at the centre of discussions at cafes.
Tsikoudia usually contains 37% alcohol and sometimes is served cold. If you want to add more flavor, you can use a peeled lemon or rosemary. It is accompanied by traditional Cretan dishes and complements roasted potatoes, olives, raw cabbage, cucumbers, snails and nuts.
Often it is offered as a digestive after a meal. In most taverns on Crete, the drink is offered free of charge as a digestif with fruit and sweets after lunch or dinner.
Another drink of the same family, known to those who travel mostly in Greek islands, is rakomelo.
As its name suggests, it is a fusion of tsipouro or raki with honey, with the addition of various flavors such as cinnamon, cardamom and others; usually, only cinnamon.
A similar drink is baked raki, which originates from the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades. It is made from tsipouro, sugar and spices but contains more spices than rakomelo and is served at room temperature.
Both rakomelo and baked raki are available as bottled drinks.