First, a show of hands: How many of you loved licorice as a child?
Twizzlers don’t count. I mean black licorice.
If you grew up in Holland or Scandinavia or basically anywhere outside North America, please put your hands down.
Hmm, not many hands showing. I’m guessing most of you leave the black jelly beans in the jar. If so, I’m afraid that no matter what I say in the rest of this column, you will disregard my advice. That’s because today the subject is ouzo.
You know ouzo. Maybe you wince as you recall that shot you had in a Greek restaurant once, long ago. Ah . . . that bracing whiff and sip of anise . . . the same one that similarly defines sambuca, pastis and absinthe. Americans are not born loving those sorts of spirits. If I were a foreign agent trying to out an undercover American spy, I would serve him or her a big glass of ouzo — and watch for the telltale facial expression.
“It’s one of the hardest spirits to learn to like,” says Jill Zimorski, beverage director of the local ThinkFoodGroup. “You love it or you hate it. Or, like me, you are learning to appreciate it.”
Zimorski’s crash course in ouzo came in large part because she presides over the wine and spirits program at Zaytinya, Jose Andres’s fancy Greek/Turkish/
Lebanese spot in Penn Quarter. Alongside the assyrtiko and retsina wines on the menu, Zaytinya lists premium ouzo as well as Turkish raki and Lebanese arak, both of which are ouzo’s anise cousins.
“It’s the spirit of Greece, but it creates a challenge for a cocktail program,” Zimorski says with a flair for understatement. “Ouzo is traditional, but it just doesn’t have the romance of other spirits.”
That might be true. For many of us, similarly difficult-to-understand bitters from Italy evoke a sunny afternoon of la dolce vita, at a cafe with beautiful people wearing stylish sunglasses and expensive shoes. Ouzo? Perhaps we think of that scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in which John Corbett’s in-laws get his parents sick-drunk on the stuff.
Well, I would like to change that and put in a pleasant word for anise-flavored spirits. So, along with Zimorski, I recently tasted ouzo, raki and arak.
Ouzo, which is recognized by the European Union as an exclusively Greek product, has lax production standards. By law, only 20 percent of the product has to be produced from extracted distillate. That means you’re allowed to call the spirit ouzo whether it’s 100 percent distilled from grape pomace, along with anise and other herbs, or simply assembled later by macerating or blending anise flavors with neutral spirits. High-quality ouzo clearly is the former, with everything distilled together. That’s what we tasted at Zaytinya under the Barbayanni and Plomari brands. Both come from the island of Lesvos, renowned for its ouzos.
I recommend seeking out Barbayanni and Plomari, which outclassed several of the other brands that I tasted along with them later at home. One decided difference is their higher proof (86 and 84, respectively), which brought out more of the natural aromatics and flavor when water was added.
Yes, water. Good ouzo, after all, is not for shots. At Zaytinya, a pour of ouzo (or raki or arak) is served in a tall, narrow glass, along with a carafe of water and a glass of ice. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it,” Zimorski says.
The right way is to slowly add water to the ouzo until it turns milky white, similar to the famed “louche” in absinthe. Only when the ouzo is sufficiently opaque do you add the ice. “If you put the ice in first, it forms a skin,” Zimorski says. Unless “skin” equates to “enjoyable drinking experience” for you, you should follow her advice.
My favorite of the tasting was El Massaya Arak, from Lebanon. It was slightly higher-octane, clocking in at an absinthe-like 106 proof. But once the water was added, the arak came alive with a beautiful fresh, almost green, herbal nose that balanced the anise.
Perhaps the greatest surprise was how much I wanted to pair ouzo, raki and arak with food. Traditionally, the ouzo-water-ice combination is served as an aperitif with squid, clams, sardines, olives, eggplant and other mezze, or small dishes. At Zaytinya, I munched on avgotaraho, a traditional pressed caviar of cured gray mullet roe, along with my drink. Amazing. It’s hard to believe a pairing like that wouldn’t inspire ouzo appreciation.
“I firmly believe that if you have enough of a story, and good quality, folks can learn to like anything,” Zimorksi says.
And if they don’t?
“Maybe you can blame those black jelly beans.”