In early anticipation and preparation for my trip to Greece and Turkey with Lino Rulli and The Catholic Guy Show on The Catholic Channel – Sirius 159 / XM 117, I have been doing a lot of research about what my amazing travel buddies and I can expect to drink while in Greece. As the Catholic Drinkie, I believe it is my duty to lay the groundwork for our outings. We don’t depart until April 29, 2011, but it’s never too early to start educating ourselves. Besides, I am so excited about it that I gotta do something to occupy my mind!

The trip is being led by The Catholic Traveler, a dear friend of mine. Mountain is working so hard to make this trip the best and I have full faith and trust that he will in fact do that! He’s a great guy and you should make sure to visit his website at http://thecatholictraveler.com and to follow him on Twitter @CatholicTravel. He is thorough in his planning efforts and makes each trip memorable for all those who travel with him. I am very much looking forward to it!

Well, I guess we should start with the drink that Greece is best known for – Ouzo.

WARNING! If you don’t like licorice you won’t like Ouzo. But all my fellow traveling companions will be drinking it at least once regardless. 🙂

How is Ouzo made?

Ouzo starts by distilling 96 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) pure ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin in copper stills together with anise and optionally other flavorings, such as star anise, coriander, cloves and cinnamon. The composition of flavoring ingredients are often closely-guarded company secrets and serve to distinguish one Ouzo from another. The product is a flavored alcoholic solution known as flavored ethyl alcohol or, more commonly as ouzo yeast μαγιά ούζου in Greek — a misnomer, as no fermentation has taken or will take place. Ouzo yeast is then usually mixed with 96 percent pure ethyl alcohol (the Greek law dictates that at least 20 percent of total final alcohol must originate from ouzo yeast), and finally sugar may be added and the mix is diluted with water (final ABV must be at least 37.5 percent), usually around 40 percent ABV. Some producers such as Varvayiannis, Babatzim (ouzo classic) and Pitsiladis do not add any further ethyl alcohol — they simply dilute ouzo yeast with water (and add sugar if needed). This type of ouzo is the highest quality and often of the highest price as well.

How is Ouzo served?

In modern Greece, ouzeries (the suffix -erie is imported from French) can be found in nearly all cities, towns, and villages. These cafe-like establishments serve ouzo with mezedes — appetizers such as octopus, salad, sardines, calamari, fried zucchini, and clams, among others. It is traditionally slowly sipped (usually mixed with water or ice) together with mezedes shared with others over a period of several hours in the early evening.

In other countries it is tradition to have ouzo in authentic Greek restaurants as an aperitif, served in a shot glass and deeply chilled before the meal is started. No water or ice is added but the drink is served very cold, enough to make some crystals form in the drink as it is served.

Why does Ouzo turn white?

When water or ice is added to ouzo, which is clear in color, it turns milky white; this is because anethole, the essential oil of anise, is soluble in alcohol but not in water. Diluting the spirit causes it to separate creating an emulsion, whose fine droplets scatter the light. This process is called louching, and is also found while preparing absinthe. 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 drunk, straight, from a shot glass. Mixing ouzo with cola destroys the liquorice-like taste of ouzo.

Is Ouzo a strong drink?

Ouzo is often referred to as a particularly strong drink, although its alcohol content is not especially high compared to other liquor. The reason mainly has to do with its sugar content. Sugar delays ethanol absorption in the stomach, and may thus mislead the drinker into thinking that they can drink more as they do not feel tipsy early on. Then the cumulative effect of ethanol appears and the drinker becomes inebriated rather quickly. This is why it is generally considered poor form to drink ouzo “dry hammer” (“ξεροσφύρι”, xerosfýri, an idiomatic expression that means “drinking alcohol without eating anything”) in Greece. The presence of food, especially fats or oils, in the upper digestive system prolongs the absorption of ethanol and ameliorates alcohol intoxication.

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 makers outside Greece and Cyprus from using the name.

Ouzo drinking is an art. Or maybe it’s a way of life. Whatever it is, the island of Lesvos is known for it’s ouzo. Most cafe owners in Greece will admit that the best ouzo comes from Lesvos, also known as Mytilini,  and they probably carry one of the more popular commercial brands like Mini or Plomari. But it’s not the ouzo, it’s who you drink it with that really makes the experience. I am sure we will enjoy ourselves immensely if it’s anything like the trip to Italy Lino and the crew went on during the summer of 2010.

So there is my intense wrap-up of Ouzo. Let me know what you’d like to read about next!