Like Feta cheese, Greek salad and stuffed grape leaves, Ouzo is a Greek export that almost anyone associates exclusively and immediately with its home country.
So many good things in the culinary world were created by monks and Ouzo is classic example of this. Its ancestor was a spirit called tsipouro which is said to have been created in the 14th by a group of monks from Mount Athos. It was distilled from grape pomace and later was flavored with anise. It eventually became known as Ouzo.
The highest quality Ouzos are designated as being “100 percent from distillation,” meaning that the flavoring agents (anise seed and sometimes other spices) are present during the distillation, as opposed to being mixed with ready-made brandy. The flavored distillate, or ouzo yeast, as it is called, is then mixed with water to bring it to its final average alcohol content of 40-50 percent. The center of Ouzo production is Lesbos, which is where many of the best ones are made.
Almost anywhere in Greece one can find an ouzerie. Similar to a cafe, an ouzerie serves mezedes (appetizers) that are made to accompany Ouzo. The drink is served deeply chilled over ice and mixed with water, then sipped slowly with food. It is not traditional to drink Ouzo as a shot or on an empty stomach.
In the 19th century, silkworm cocoons from Tyrnavos heading to France were stamped with the Italian phrase uso marsiglia, meaning that they were destined for Marseille. Since Tyrnavos was known for its high-quality silk, the term uso marsiglia came to be used as a designation of higher quality in general. Anise-flavored tsipouro was thought be of higher quality and therefore was deemed uso marsiglia, or ouzo. Some believe, however, that ouzo comes from the Turkish word for grape, üzüm.
Ouzo in the bottle is clear, but when served properly, it turns milky white. This is because anethole, the essential oil of anise, is insoluble in water. The changing nature of ouzo must have seemed like magic to those who enjoyed it in centuries past. Today, with a sunset and a beautiful plate of fresh mezedes, a cold glass of ouzo is its own kind of magic.