Born to Arab parents
The very first aniseed-flavored drink was born to Arab parents and was given the name “arak”. Arak is still the national liquor of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
A Byzantine upbringing
During the Byzantine era, aniseed-flavored distillates were consumed as aperitifs in all of the Byzantine Empire’s Mediterranean regions. Up to 1453, the thriving Greek communities of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Smyrna (Izmir) were the hubs of the distilling industry.
Migration and a new family
The conquest of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) by the Ottomans forced many distillers to flee to nearby regions such as Asia Minor, Thrace, and the Danubian Principalities where the lands were fertile, yielding high-quality raw materials (grapes and figs). The anise plants intensively cultivated on the islands of Lesvos and Limnos, together with the mastic produced on the island of Chios, became the key ingredients found in the “raki” drink whose name probably derives from the Arab “arak” and is still called “raki” in Turkey today.
Taking over the Ottoman Empire
During the Ottoman period, the drink produced by “rakitzides” (raki distillers) by distilling grapes and adding aniseed, aromatic herbs and, in some cases, mastic, succeeded in conquering the hearts of the wealthy and mighty and slipping into the Empire’s salons and harems, earning special privileges for the cream-of-the-crop distillers. We now witness the birth of ouzo which, for decades on end, retained its old name, “raki”, in various regions throughout Greece.
A permanent resident of Greece
Following its liberation from the Ottomans, Greece attracted large numbers of immigrants from the Turkish coast and from Odessa —then part of Russia— who brought along their vast experience and know-how in distilling. Having settled in areas with an abundance of high-quality raw materials, the immigrants seized the opportunity to exploit the areas’ vineyards and locally grown aromatic herbs, a move that guaranteed excellent distillates in locations such as Lesvos, Chios, Tyrnavos, Serres, and Kalamata.
Coming of age
Starting in the mid-19th century, ouzo production was taken over by the first organized distilleries which were part of the growing Greek industry’s first steps. It did not take long for their exquisite distillates to find their way into international markets and build a reputation for ouzo across the world.
Passport and globe trotting
EEC Regulation 1576/89 officially gave ouzo its passport, designating it as an alcoholic beverage exclusively produced in Greece and in Cyprus. Today, most of the ouzo produced in Greek distilleries is exported across the globe. In 2004, five Greek regions with a long tradition and history in ouzo distilling receive a Protected Geographical Indication designation for their ouzo production: “Ouzo of Mytilene”, “Ouzo of Plomari”, “Ouzo of Kalamata”, “Ouzo of Thrace”, and “Ouzo of Macedonia”.