As aperitif culture slowly starts to make its way into popular culture, people everywhere are hungry for knowledge! From the ins and outs of what an aperitif is to how you can use them in your own home, there seem to be a lot of questions but not many answers.
As aperitifs are what we’re passionate about, we want to help answer as much as possible — starting with ouzo!
What Is Ouzo?
Let’s start by answering the most basic question — what exactly is ouzo?
Ouzo (pronounced ooh-zoh) is a popular aperitif widely consumed in Greece. It rose to prominence in Greece after another popular liquor, absinthe, started to lose popularity. The beverage can trace its roots way back to the mid-1890s, and some historians believe it goes back even further to a group of monks in the 14th century.
Although there are many theories about where the name ouzo comes from, one of the most common beliefs is that it takes its name from the Turkish word for grape — üzüm.
Ouzo is clear in color but does turn slightly cloudy (often described as “milky-white”) when water is added. It also has a relatively high alcohol content of somewhere between 37.5 (the mandatory ABV to call it an “ouzo” in Greece) and 50%. For reference, vodka and gin usually sit at about 40% ABV, so ouzo can be a heavy hitter if you don’t know what to expect.
How Is Ouzo Made?
Most ouzo is made the traditional way, and it starts with a neutral spirit (also known as a “rectified” spirit, the base of many different liquors and aperitifs). This spirit is poured into copper stills, and flavoring is added.
This primarily involves anise but may also include other flavors like fennel, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves. Every company that makes their ouzo does it slightly differently, and much of the recipe is a closely guarded secret.
As the neutral spirit combines with the added flavorings, it forms a flavored alcoholic solution that makers of ouzo refer to as “ouzo yeast.” However, this base is not yeast in the traditional sense. It’s just the starting point for the actual distillation process.
Once the ouzo yeast is ready, it’s time for distillation. This takes several hours total, and the process is repeated twice to remove alcohol that varies too much from the overall ABV (alcohol by volume), as well as any unintended aromatics. The resulting product is then diluted with water to lower its ABV and make it drinkable, and some companies will add sugar to their ouzo at this point as well.
What Does Ouzo Taste Like?
Because ouzo is made primarily with anise, the drink tastes very similar to black licorice. Many people compare it to sambuca, an anise-flavored alcohol from Italy.
Ouzo has also been described as “fiery,” not because it is spicy but because it wakes up the back of your palate. This flavor and sensation can be too much for some people to handle, and it is an intense flavor, so it should always be sipped and never shot like other liquors are.
Ouzo also has a relatively high sugar content, meaning the alcohol tastes a little sweeter but may also take longer to “hit” you. That’s why people often refer to ouzo as “sneaky,” because you may be a few drinks in before you realize it has a reasonably high alcohol content (which is the recipe for a solid hangover the next day).
Ouzo and Aperitifs
Ouzo qualifies as an aperitif, as the drink is intended to be enjoyed during conversation before dinner. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of aperitifs, they are liquors that function very similarly to liquid appetizers. They open up an occasion and are traditionally lower in ABV than many other liquors (like whiskey and tequila, for instance).
Aperitifs serve a much greater cultural purpose than most alcohols do, which is why we think they are so exciting. These drinks are meant to help start the flow of conversation without getting people inebriated too quickly so that they can enjoy the night and the company for a more extended, far more relaxed amount of time. They are meant to be enjoyed in moderation and not to stick with you in the morning.
We don’t think it’s an understatement to say that the pandemic has definitely forced us to reexamine our priorities. We’ve had to take a close look at how we’re doing things and pare down to the bare minimum for a while now. If you’re anything like us, it’s also reminded you how much you care about the people in your social circle (whether that is family members, friends, or coworkers).
With all of that realization and forced mindfulness comes an understanding that time is precious. We want to spend our time wisely with the people who are important to us and slow down to take the time to appreciate all of that. That’s what aperitif culture is for and why it is such an essential part of European culture (which generally moves at a much slower pace than we do in the US).
How To Serve an Aperitif
What makes aperitifs so unique and exciting is that they come in a wide variety of flavors and options. These liquors aren’t as locked into a specific taste profile, like vodka or rum is, and can be enjoyed in many different ways!
Many people enjoy aperitifs as they were originally meant to be enjoyed, sipped on the rocks (or just chilled without the ice). Aperitifs aren’t meant to be shot quickly; their complex flavors and social design begs for them to be enjoyed slowly and in moderation. There are also no specific glasses that need to be used when serving an aperitif. In most cases, a classic lowball or coupe glass works just fine (but feel free to use whatever you have on hand — there are no rules!).
Aperitifs can also be mixed into cocktails. However, unlike the way many aperitifs are used in a bar setting, using the liquor in a cocktail should be designed in a way that lets it shine. Don’t cover up the flavor; make it the star!
An excellent example of this is the popular Aperol spritz (or Spritz Veneziano), which combines 1 part Aperol with 1 part Prosecco and a splash of soda water. When you taste an Aperol spritz, there’s no doubt Aperol is the star of the show.
Also, in many places, aperitifs are served as the appetizer before the appetizer. They are meant to be enjoyed without food while you’re sitting around with friends catching up. However, as is the case with ouzo, these drinks can also be served with small plates (in Greece, they call this meze). If you’re having people over for an intimate evening, you can put out a few shareable plates of meats, cheeses, olives, dried fruits, etc., that are easy to eat without making a huge mess (or requiring utensils!).
Alternatives for Ouzo
If you don’t love to eat the black jellybeans or you’re looking for an aperitif with a little less bite, there are plenty of alternatives to traditional ouzo.
At Haus, we’ve designed a line of aperitifs for every palate.
If you want some of the fire of ouzo without the anise flavor, we recommend our Grapefruit Jalapeno. We used whole locally sourced grapefruits combined with fresh jalapenos, Makrut lime leaf, dried Morita chili pepper, and pink peppercorns to create a refreshing, subtly spicy aperitif perfect on the rocks or with just a splash of sparkling water or fresh citrus. You’ll still get a little bit of a kick, but without the overwhelming anise flavor.
Another complex flavor similar to ouzo is our Ginger Yuzu aperitif. Yuzu is a citrus fruit that originates in East Asia. We combine the fruit with both fresh and dried ginger, lemongrass, Rooibos tea, orange peel, and dried cherries for a drink with bite. However, this bite won’t still be biting you in the morning if you enjoy it in moderation.
If you’re new to drinking this way and want to try out your options, we also have a Deluxe Starter Kit that comes with six of our most popular flavors — Citrus Flower, New Fashioned (our take on an Old Fashioned), Grapefruit Jalapeno, Rose Rosé, Lemon Lavender, and Pomegranate Raspberry. That way, you can sample the flavors at your own pace (or mix them into a cocktail using a recipe in the provided cocktail book) and see what you like the most!
Ouzo may be a popular aperitif in Greece, but not everyone loves the flavor of anise. If you’re looking for a way to incorporate aperitifs into your life or want to learn more about aperitif culture and how it can fit into your lifestyle, Haus is here for you!
The way we drink and what we value is changing — so let what you consume change with you, too!