I love to think of Alexander the Great kicking off his sandals after a hard day of conquering, pouring himself a shot of one of the many Greek liquors, and sipping it while bleaching his already blonde locks under the Grecian sun. I am quite sure he was joined by his former teacher Aristotle who is apocryphally rumored to be the first to mention distillation in his writings.
Fast forward to recent times, Greek liquors, that were once only really enjoyed by locals, are being embraced by non-Greeks, as well as bartenders, who are busy creating recipes using these newly discovered (to them!) spirits.
After mentioning these spirits on my podcast quite frequently, I thought a quick guide to Greek liquors might be needed, so you know your Tsiouro from your Mastiha.
Lush Guide to Greek Liquors
Probably the most well-known of all the Greek liquors outside of Greece is Ouzo, the Greek cousin to France’s Pastis and Italy’s Sambuca, Ouzo is an anise-flavored spirit made from grape must – the leftovers from wine production.
You’ve probably been drinking it, made from one of the 17 ouzo distilleries on the island of Lesbos where it’s production is protected by the government. Remember that adding a touch of water will make it go cloudy.
If you’ve never tasted Mastiha, you have a treat in store for you. It’s really hard to describe the flavor. I like to call it pine, but some have said anything from bubble gum to carrots. Since its discovery on the island of Chios, mastiha, the sap of the Schinias tree, has been used as a cure-all from the ancients to the moderns.
The sap is distilled, diluted with water and sweetened, then bottled. I think there is no better way to end a Greek meal than with a small shot of Mastiha. It is definitely best when the bottle has been left in the freezer for a few days. The liquid becomes syrupy and it’s like eating another dessert.
Top Tip(ple): Hear more about Mastiha with George Economides, owner of Mastiha World!
Somehow in every country, monks were at the forefront of alcohol production. This is definitely true in the case of Tsipouro. According to urban myth, sometime in the 14th C monks were distilling what would become one of the most popular spirits in Greece.
Distilled from the remains of grapes after wine production, tsipouro is either enjoyed as it is or infused with other flavors, most frequently anise. Also served well chilled and in small glasses, tsipouro is always the one drink you will be offered first when being welcomed into a Greek home.
You’ve probably seen this iconic bottle and not known what it is! The most well known Greek brandy, Metaxa, is a combination of Muscat grapes, found on the island of Samos, and a secret blend of botanicals.
Aged for three years, the liquid develops a warm, yellow color and the taste of all those delicious dried fruits you find in that part of the world – like figs and dates.
Crete is where you would find this wonderfully spicy spirit. Sometimes served warm, Rakomelo is like a cold remedy in a glass. Flavored with honey, cinnamon, clove and cardamom, this soothing wintery liquor claims to have been invented in the 12th Century. We won’t argue because every Greek mama has been using it to cure sniffles since that time.
Unless you are from Nisyros, one of the Dodecanese islands, you’ve probably never heard of Koukouzina, a delicious mix of distilled grapes and figs. It similar to ouzo and served with savory dishes local to that tiny island
I am sure there are many more spirits that are being served across Greece that we outsiders have yet to discover, but at least, knowing these will give you a headstart on your next holiday to the islands.