There are some who attribute the origins of tsipouro to the ancient Greek drink called Trimma. Officially, however, we can trace its origins to the monasteries of Mount Athos about seven centuries ago. Or perhaps to the days of the Byzantine Empire – to Constantinople, Smyrna and Alexandria, and the raw materials of grapes from the fertile land of Asia Minor, anise from Lemnos and mastiha from Chios, fermented in elaborate bronze stills made by craftsmen from Pontus and Armenia to producing a highly valued spirit.
At that time it was known as raki because it was the product of the distillation of rakas (the skins of grapes) and was flavoured with anise, fennel, aromatic herbs and mastiha. And over the years, production has spread to various parts of Greece, mainly in Macedonia, Epirus, Thessaly and Crete.
How did tsipouro spread around Greece?
Up to the last decades of the 20th century, tsipouro was produced exclusively at home and its sale for direct consumption was prohibited until 1988. Only winegrowers in certain areas had the right to distil and trade it locally, and then only for two days a year.
These "two-day distillers", as they were called, were in this way able to supplement their income by selling it locally and to companies producing alcohol.
In the years that followed, tsipouro became the drink of the elderly. A large amount of it circulated in bulk, but it wasn’t considered a quality spirit. This changed when the Greek state, under the constant request of distillers, decided in 1988 to pass a law establishing tsipouro as a traditional Greek product and allowed it to be produced and distributed in bottles throughout the country. Since then it can be considered a spirit that has represented Greece worldwide.
How is tsipouro drunk in Greece?
Traditionally, tsipouro was the drink of the winemaker – something like the grappa in Italy and orujo in Spain. In other words, a spirit made from the residue of the wine-making process for drinking with family and friends. Over the years it became, like ouzo, the drink of the company, particularly in the village kafeneion.
It still serves that purpose today but also proudly takes its place alongside other premium Greek spirits produced by family distilleries with a long history. It is an ideal accompaniment to meze appetisers and seafood and works impressively in cocktails. There is even barrel-aged tsipouro that is worth seeking out.
How is tsipouro produced?
The main ingredient of tsipouro is pomace (the solid remains of the grape pressing process in winemaking, including the skin, seeds and pulp) that is distilled to create a 40-45% alcohol by volume product. However, the big difference with other Mediterranean grape spirits is tsipouro’s aromatic profile, a result of both the raw material and in the slightly different production method.
Bottled tsipouro (as opposed to that available in bulk) is more fruity than other grape distillates, especially in comparison with the heavier aromas of most grappas. It is also softer, which is why it can be used in cocktails, which is not the case with grappa.
In the likes of Macedonian and Thessaly, they simply refer to tsipouro, while in Crete it’s known as tsikoudia. So tsipouro and tsikoudia are the same thing.
The production process doesn’t change. Winemakers take the "tsipoura" (the remains from the pressing of their grapes) and ferment them at low temperatures in order to preserve the aromas of each grape varietal. Then they proceed to distillation in stills.
A prerequisite for the production of top-level tsipouro is good quality grapes. So, the variety of grapes, and the composition of the soil, altitude and orientation of the vineyard, as well as the cultivation techniques, harvest time and year, all play a decisive role in the properties and taste of the final product. As well, of course, as the decision of whether to scent it with anise.
The art of the distiller is to capture the aromatics and flavours of the grapes, particularly in the fermentation process, where they are able to give their touch and character to the final product.