Ouzo has its roots in tsipouro, which is said to have been the work of a group of 14th-century monks on Mount Athos. One version of it was flavored with anise. This version eventually came to be called ouzo.
Modern ouzo distillation largely took off in the beginning of the 19th century following Greek independence.
The first ouzo distillery was founded in Tyrnavos in 1856 by Nikolaos Katsaros, giving birth to the famous ouzo Tyrnavou. When absinthe fell into disfavor in the early 20th century, ouzo was one of the products whose popularity rose to fill the gap; In 1932, ouzo producers developed a method of distillation using copper stills that is now the standard method of production.
One of the largest producers of ouzo today is Varvayiannis (Βαρβαγιάννης), located in the town of Plomari in the southeast portion of the island of Lesbos, while in the same town Pitsiladi (Πιτσιλαδή), a variety of high-quality ouzo, is also distilled.
Ouzo is traditionally mixed with water, becoming cloudy white, sometimes with a faint blue tinge, and served with ice cubes in a small glass. Ouzo can also be drank straight from a shot glass.
Ouzo is served with a small plate of mezes.
Ouzo can be described to have a similar taste to absinthe which is liquorice-like, but smoother.
On October 25, 2006, Greece won the right to label ouzo as an exclusively Greek product. The European Union now recognizes ouzo, as well as the Greek drinks tsipouro and tsikoudia, as products with a Protected Designation of Origin, which prohibits European makers other than Greece and Cyprus from using the name.
Oldest Ouzo Distillery
During a visit to Thessaly in 1896, the late professor Alexander Philadelpheus delivered to us valuable information on the origins of the word "ouzo", which has come to replace the word "tsipouro". According to the professor, tsipouro gradually became ouzo after the following event:
Thessaly exported fine cocoons to Marseilles during the 19th century, and in order to distinguish the product, outgoing crates would be stamped with the words "uso Massalia"—Italian for "to be used in Marseille". One day, the Ottoman Greek consulate physician, named Anastas (Anastasios) Bey, happened to be visiting the town of Tyrnavos and was asked to sample the local tsipouro. Upon tasting the drink, the physician immediately exclaimed: "This is uso Massalia, my friends"—referring to its high quality. The term subsequently spread by word of mouth, until tsipouro gradually became known as ouzo.
—The Times of Thessaly, 1959
In modern Greece, ouzeries can be found in nearly all cities, towns, and villages. These cafe-type establishments serve ouzo with meze — appetizers such as octopus, salad, sardines, calamari, fried zucchini, and clams, among others. It is traditionally slowly sipped together with meze and shared with others over a period of several hours in the early evening.