What Does The Greek Alcohol Ouzo Taste Like?

If you've ever traveled to Greece or Cyprus, you've likely encountered one particularly intoxicating elixir — ouzo. Crafted from the remnants of wine production and imbued with a distinct anise flavor that conjures up the taste of licorice, the signature Greek and Cypriot liquor packs an 80% proof punch. 

The origins of the potent drink begin with grape must, the byproduct of winemaking. But don't let its grapey origins fool you. Through a careful process of distillation, ouzo transforms into a high-proof spirit that gets imbued with other herbs and spices, all leading to a powerful anise-driven flavor profile. Imagine the taste of licorice but with an added exotic twist — that's ouzo.

Although often compared to other anise-based liqueurs, such as Italy's sambuca or Turkey's raki, ouzo has a unique flavor all on its own. And the secret to ouzo's complex flavor profile may lie in the fact that each producer adds their own secret combination of spices to the mix. Often considered relatively sweet and somewhat syrupy at first, a final addition of water will transform the liquid into an opaque, milky color characteristic of the Greek taverna experience.

Greek culture cherishes ouzo, often pairing it with small plates of meze dishes and even dedicating entire festivals to honor it. So to experience the true essence of Greece through its most beloved libation, you'll need to dive deeper into the licorice-tinged world of ouzo.

How is Greek ouzo made?

Behind every sip of Greek ouzo lies a vibrant tapestry of history, identity, and tradition. Ouzo, which is Greece's national spirit, is a potent anise-flavored drink made using an age-old recipe. The backbone of ouzo is anise, an herb once used by Ancient Greeks in medicine and food. It's harvested, dried, and then macerated in alcohol to extract its signature flavor. Some ouzo distillers add coriander, fennel, or other herbs and spices to create a unique taste that sets their ouzo apart from others.

Ouzo's production process follows strict regulations to ensure its quality and authenticity. For instance, it must be distilled at least once and have a minimum alcohol content of 37.5% by volume, and must be made in Greece to actually be considered ouzo. According to TSOU Greece, it must also "contain alcohol flavored by distillation and amounting to at least 20% of the ouzo's alcoholic strength."

The licorice-like flavor comes from the anethole compound found in the anise seed, which is released during the distillation process. The amount of anise used varies depending on the brand and recipe, but it's what gives ouzo its characteristic sweet, slightly spicy taste. This licorice-like flavor can be overwhelming to some but adored by others. That's why ouzo traditionally is served with water, which dilutes the alcohol and causes the oils to cloud, resulting in a milky-white appearance known as louche (similar to what happens when you add water to absinthe).

What to pair with ouzo's flavor

When it comes to ouzo, the distinct and complex flavor profile is one that demands pairing with just the right foods. The anise-forward flavor can be a bit overwhelming on its own, so it's best to balance it out with the proper accompaniments. The key to drinking ouzo is to dilute it with water to bring out its distinct aroma and taste. The ratio of water to ouzo is a matter of personal preference. Some like a little water, while others prefer a more diluted version.

To accompany ouzo, you'll want dishes that can stand up to its boldness. Salty, charred octopus — a traditional Greek meze — pairs well with this liquor. The smoky flavor of the octopus is balanced with the refreshing anise taste of the ouzo. Feta cheese and olives are also excellent choices, as the saltiness of the cheese and the briny, earthy flavor of the olives complement the sharp, licorice taste of the ouzo. 

If you're looking for a more substantial accompaniment, grilled lamb chops with tzatziki sauce make a perfect match. The juicy meat and cooling yogurt-based sauce provide a balanced foundation for the strong flavor of the ouzo. Regardless of what you pair it with, ouzo is a drink that's traditionally sipped, not shot. Instead, enjoy it like you would Greek life — slowly and intentionally.