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COVER STORY

Sample the local spirits of Greece

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As long as it takes to eat a slice of watermelon

Ouzo, raki, tsipouro, masticha… welcome to the ultimate Mediterranean aperitif

They smell and taste like Greek summertime in a glass: Ouzo, raki, tsipouro and masticha. Among the wide selection of  Greek products, three famous spirits are ready to pour forth their secrets.

Ouzo

Ouzo is considered the national drink of Greece. In technical terms, it is either produced by partial distillation or the admixture of plain alcohol with aromatic herbs. The best ouzos are of course the distilled ones with the main flavour being imparted by aniseed, though other aromatics are often added, such as masticha from Chios, cinnamon, cloves or fennel, depending on the brand. Each location that produces it prides itself on its ouzo but the most famous is from the island of Lesvos and from Tyrnavos in Thessaly.

Ouzo is ideally served chilled, with or without ice, though many add water which releases the essential oils from the aniseed, turning the drink cloudy and heightening the aromas. You should always add ice or water to already poured ouzo and not the other way around.

Though ouzo is delightful with many kinds of traditional Greek meze, like a good ladotyri cheese from Zakynthos or Mytilini or a kopanisti cheese from Mykonos or Tinos, it is best known for its compatibility with strong-flavoured seafood such as octopus or marinated anchovies. Spicy pickled peppers also go well.

Raki and tsipouro

Beyond ouzo, Greece is known for another pair of considerably stronger distilled local drinks. Often confused with one another, raki and tsipouro are often homemade and production peaks in the autumn after the grape-harvest with celebrations centred around the great distillation cauldrons.

Tsipouro is a traditional product that comes from mainland Greece while raki is from Crete. Both are made from grapes not destined for wine-making yet still capable of producing quality distilled spirits. The main differences between them are the degree of alcoholic content and the addition or not of aniseed, which is often added to tsipouro but never to raki.

Tsipouro with aniseed takes pride of place in the bars of Volos (tsipouradika) where it accompanies traditional delicacies from the region and Thessaly in general. Drink it either chilled or with ice.

Potent raki is enjoyed by Cretans of all ages, usually in shot glasses either chilled or at room temperature. They tend to accompany it with traditional products of Crete like cheese, locally preserved meats, roasts or whatever else arrives at table including traditional sweets and pies. No excuse is needed to pour a glass at any hour of the day or night.

Masticha from Chios

If Greece had to choose just one product to be proud, masticha – or mastic – would be one of the contenders for first place. People have been trying to get the masticha tree to produce its magical resin somewhere other than southern Chios for centuries without success.

No one knows whether it is an ingredient in the soil or the special microclimate, but only on this Aegean island, and only in its southern half, does the plant release its unique resin in commercially viable quantities.

Visit the medieval masticha villages of Chios and learn all about painstaking care and considerable effort in harvesting the mastic tree. The bark is slit and the waiting begins. The sap begins to ooze, crystallise and falls to earth like faded amber, releasing a concerto of aromas. No one can foretell what the harvest will be like until the resin ceases to flow.

It is the original chewing gum and is reputed to have therapeutic properties. Nowadays a host of products are based on its intense aromatics, from soap and cosmetics to toothpaste and sweets. One of the best is the delicious liqueur made with masticha. Savour the aroma, inhale it deeply but watch out, you might just develop a taste for it.

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