Ouzo is an acquired taste. If you are not an immediate fan, don’t fret. Almost nobody is. But it grows on you as mezedes that accompany it (small plates of tidbits) come and go. Because it is always served with food. Even if it is just a few olives and a slice of tomato.
Also, you have to find your own, preferred proportion of ouzo to ice and water. Some people have it straight, but most like some ice in it. Do have some water or ice added to it, since it is quite strong. It will turn milky white (because of the anise) and will last longer. But above all, in order to enjoy it, you have to be in the right state of mind. To be calm, to be willing to kill time, lots of time, to be ready to laugh and philosophize, to remember and dream. Or, to be absolutely still and just look at the world go by. It is not something to do in a hurry or during a business lunch, God forbid. Ouzo drinking is always an informal experience.
If you find yourself in a Greek village on a Sunday, you may notice the men of the village enjoying themselves at the kafeneio (small café), drinking ouzo and eating olives or sardines or some other salty delicacy, just waiting for Sunday lunch (the reason you won’t see many women is because they are the ones preparing said lunch). If you are in a town or city, you may find “ouzerie”, establishments that serve ouzo (but not exclusively) along with meze. Food is a bigger deal there than in kafeneio.
Ouzo and meze are appetizers, not a meal, although the process can last hours and hours. That doesn’t mean you can emerge drunk from the experience. That’s a faux pas. It is a conversational drink and the reason why you have food as you go is to remain sober so as to enjoy the company. “Pame gia ouzaki” (let’s go for a little ouzo) is an invitation to friendship, fun and sharing, not an opportunity to get wasted. Greeks don’t drink to get drunk, they drink to socialize. Let’s put it this way: If you are drunk senseless, you are not man enough (women can be ‘men enough’ as well).
Occasionally you may find ouzo without anise. It will not have the same licorice taste and it may be stronger. Have a go and decide for yourself. Similarly, if you find yourself on Chios Island, you will have the opportunity to taste mastic-flavored ouzo. It is superb, try it.
These are some ouzo brands I have tasted and liked over the years. They are of great quality and you can’t go wrong with them. Other than that, it is a matter of taste and preference. My very rough rule of thumb is: Stay away from VERY fancy bottles.
My favourite ouzo brands
Ouzo Pitsiladi (ΟΥΖΟ ΠΙΤΣΙΛΑΔΗ), Ouzo Kefi (ΟΥΖΟ ΚΕΦΙ), Ouzo Psihis (Ούζο Ψυχής)
Other good brands Ι have tasted
Barbayanni (ΒΑΡΒΑΓΙΑΝΝΗ), Τsilili (TΣΙΛΙΛΗ), Ouzo Plomariou (ΟΥΖΟ ΠΛΩΜΑΡΙΟΥ), Ouzo Teteri (OYZO TETΤΕΡΗ), Apalarina (ΑΠΑΛΑΡΙΝΑ), Βabajim (ΜΠΑΜΠΑΤΖΙΜ)
How to serve it
-Have tall highball glasses ready (I believe they are also called zombie glasses).
-Present a separate bowl of ice or ice bucket and a little spoon or ice tongs.
-Have a bottle of water on the table too.
-Serve some food: Olives, a slice of cheese, sliced tomato, cucumber slices, sardines, taramosalata or saganaki (fried cheese). For something fancier, there are some links to recipes and ideas below.
-Each person pours their own drink and they dilute it according to their taste. Some want one or two ice-cubes, some add water, some both.
-Say “geia mas” (Cheers) and clink your glasses.
Ouzo production took off at the end of the 19th century in Plomari, on the island of Lesvos.
It is made from pressed grapes or raisins and added herbs and spices (anise, fennel, cloves etc)
Top quality is 100% distilled ouzo
By European Law, only Greece has the right to produce it
Do not ever, ever mix it with cola. It is a disgrace and destroys the taste completely.
It can go up to 45% alcoholic degrees when mainstream vodka is 40%. It may be sweet but it is not innocent.