By Kat Armstrong
To most North Americans, ouzo is the ubiquitous drink of Greece. It has a strong anise flavour and is served in small shot glasses or on flaming kefalotiri in every establishment this side of Zakinthos. But ouzo is not the entirety of what Greece has to offer in the way of booze—it’s not even the most popular drink of native Greeks.
My mother’s people have a laid back view of alcohol consumption: the first time I ever saw someone abandon a half full beer in Greece, I gasped, having just spent my first two years of university pre-drinking hard in residence before heading to the Brunny. I find the Greek people far more interested in the low-key enjoyment of booze over a sheer desire to get bombed. They have a slightly different than palate that of the average North American. If you’re up for a little something especially Grecian, here are some of my favourite non-ouzo drinks.
I came across this little gem over Christmas, when a family friend (whose son works at the LCBO, obviously) gifted me a lovely bottle. Greeks generally love red wine—my yiayia (grandmother) sometimes makes homemade wine, and it’s a hot commodity at the yerokomio (Greek old folks home) even though it tastes like swill. Okto, on the other hand, is quite tasty. It reminds me strongly of Argentinian malbecs, but slightly softer. The label is cute too—an octopus, the number 8. Greece hadn’t been known for its red wine in the past, but this is one to look out for.
Speaking of things Greece isn’t known for, how about German wineries? The town of Patras lies in the northwest portion of the Peloponnese. As legend goes, a German by the name of Gustav Claus fell in love with both the surroundngs and a woman, Dafni of Patras, a beautiful babe with black eyes. Old Gus was smitten, but then Dafni died. To drown his sorrows, Gus came up with his own version of a fortified sweet wine: Mavrodafni. He even built a distillery,
, which I visited with my yiayia back in the summer of 2001. She got so wasted on Mavrodafni samples that she hung, from the waist up, out of the car window all the way back into Patras, shouting at the villagers and clapping and singing. At 11am. On a Tuesday.
Now, this is the drink of Greeks! A spiced brandy (sometimes blended with wine), metaxa was invented in the 1800s. It was the first distilled beverage to be shipped internationally (earning the nickname “The Flying Brandy”) and is the only Greek industry to have survived both world wars. The Metaxa company (now owned by Remy Cointreau) also produces a very tasty ouzo. Any time you are at a Greek’s house for dinner—which is basically any time you are at a Greek’s house—they will offer you brandy. They mean metaxa. Accept it.
Raki/Tsipouro Raki (not to be mistaken for rakia or Turkish raki) is a bit harder to come by. You’ll probably find it under the name tsipouro, and you want to make sure it’s made without anise (the Turkish version is made with anise and is much closer in flavour to ouzo). Raki is sort of like ouzo’s moonshine strength cousin. The only time I’ve ever had it was thanks to Mr. Paterakis, my high school best friend’s dad. (True story: his license plate is KPTHT. That spells Crete. I wonder if people still stop him and ask him what “kipthhhhhh” is?) He returned from his semi-annual pilgrimage to the motherland with home-distilled raki from his native Crete. It was packaged in the traditional Greek way: in a two-litre pop bottle, sealed with duct tape.
Next time you are trying to impress at a Greek restaurant, order a metaxa after dinner. If you are only having mezes (appetizers and snacks) you order raki or ouzo but never drink them as shots.
That would be very tacky, Taki.
Kat Armstrong is a pop-culture writer, mom, web and social media lover. You can find her take on celebrities, Celebritease over at