Pastis and Ouzo: The drink of the Mediterranean

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | aug. 2018

When I was in the Navy, I was stationed in upstate New York at the S5W and D1G nuclear reactor prototypes near Ballston Spa, learning how to operate a naval shipboard nuclear reactor. It was a dream assignment. There were no barracks. No reveille. No chow halls. No KP. We lived in a rented farmhouse with 40 acres of land and were given a generous per diem allowance to pay for our room and board. The farmhouse was huge and easily accommodated nine of us guys, all in their late teens or early 20s. We lived right across the street from Kayaderosseras Creek, a great little trout stream. Just 100 yards west of us was a slaughterhouse where the nags from the Saratoga Racetrack were sent to be converted into horsemeat and sent north to Montreal to become prime cuts of viandede cheval. About two hundred yards east of our farmhouse was the Rock City Bar and Grill but we weren't regular customers. We consumed so much beer that we worked out a deal with the Budweiser distributor in Glens Fall New York to purchase three kegs and 20 cases of Budweiser bottles a week.

You might be asking, “How the hell did we keep all this shit cold?” Our good friend at the slaughterhouse, who was also a beer drinker, allowed us to keep our party supplies in the locker next to the hanging horse carcasses. Since we were working at a civilian owned company (General Electric and Westinghouse) we never worked weekends. Every weekend was party time at what we called “the farm.” Another distinct advantage to living in Rock City Falls was its proximity to Saratoga Springs and the exclusive girls' school Skidmore College. Having access to the young, naïve coeds at this exclusive school completed the naval version of Animal House. The addition of motorcycles, a German Shepard-St. Bernard-mix dog called “Moose” and a couple of '67 Camaros made us the envy of our nuclear family.

There was a lot of drinking going on but one incident managed to turn me off to a particular type of liquor. Our gang was playing pool one Friday night at Nick Moustakas bar in Ballston Spa. Nick was a recent émigré and was a good friend of ours. He was a fiery, excitable type always talking about his beloved Greece. He had been forced to leave Greece as a result of the right wing military takeover memorialized in the film “Z.” As the evening wore on, Nick invited us to try some Greek ouzo that he had brought from the old country. I had never tasted ouzo so I was intrigued with the peculiar dry anise flavor, but the odd milky appearance after a few drops of water made it look positively dangerous. Nick cautioned us, “Be careful, it's potent!” but as a testosterone filled teenager (it was legal for 18-year-olds to drink in New York State in the 1960s) I started doing shots. The next morning I woke up on Nick's pool table wondering, “What the hell happened to me?” I haven't had a shot of ouzo since.

I've always wondered what made ouzo so potent and this column may help explain. My next exposure to this type of liquor was in the south of France in 1995 when I was working at a metal fabricator near Montpellier in Provence. In those days two-hour lunches were very normal and the consumption of alcohol was consideredde rigueur. Some of the older guys consumed pastis at lunch but it was severely cut with water. The dilution (two parts water, one part pastis) turned this potent liquor into a refreshing aperitif and had no effect on productivity later in the afternoon. On the weekends my host invited me to his home where the languid sun-drenched afternoons were spent playingpétanqueor boules. The games were accompanied by dramatically feigned arguments, low level curses and grudging respect for a well-placed shot. The pastis was sipped and was accompanied with a large Ricard advertising pitcher of water. Generations had tempered attitudes to not be in a hurry. Pastis is meant to be diluted and slowly sipped in tune with the bucolic environment of Provence. But to understand how this drink evolved into a slowly sipped drink it is important to understand how it got there.

The first appearance of this anise-flavored beverage was in Greece. The 14th century monks on Mount Athos developed a drink called tsipouro. One variety was made with anise and that became ouzo. The modern distilling of ouzo began in the 19th century after Greek independence. The first ouzo distiller was founded in 1856 by Nikolaos Katsaros and became the famous ouzo: Tymavou. When absinthe came into disfavor in the early 20th century, ouzo rapidly filled the gap. It was once called “a substitute for absinthe without the wormwood.” In 1932, ouzo producers developed a method of distillation using copper stills that is now the standard method of production.

Simultaneously, in France, when absinthe was banned in 1915, pastis emerged 17 years later when Paul Ricard commercialized the Pernod brand. Pastis and ouzo are joined by other southern Mediterranean countries that enjoy this anise-flavored drink in the hot climates characteristic of the area. In Turkey it is known asraki, in Syriaarak,Armenia oghi, Italy sambuca, and mastikain Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Ouzo production begins with distillation in copper stills of 96 percent alcohol by volume ABV rectified spirit. Anise is added, sometimes with other flavorings such as star anise, cardamom, fennel, cloves, coriander and cinnamon. The result is a flavored alcoholic solution known as flavored ethyl alcohol or more commonly ouzo yeast.

The ouzo yeast is then distilled to 80 percent ABV and the heads and tails of the distillate are removed to avoid light and heavy alcohols and aromatics. The final distillation produces a drink that is usually between 37.5 and 50 percent ABV. Sugar is added at this point before water dilution to the final product.

Ouzo can colloquially be referred to as a particularly strong drink, the cause of this being 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.

In Greek tavernasa selection of mezedesappetizers of octopus, sardines, calamari, fried zucchini or eggplant and salad is usually offered to offset the alcoholic effects of ouzo.

Now I know how I ended up on that pool table: no appetizers!

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