Guide to Lesvos, Greece logo

Greece Travel Guide

Athensguide

 Greek Island Guide

Greek History

Hotels of Greece

Turkey

Paris

Lesvos: More Than Just Another Greek Island
Lesvos Ouzo

Drinking Ouzo in Lesvos

Lesvos, ouzo, greece
(Painting from the Ermis Cafeneon in Mytilini probably the best place for ouzo and mezedes in Lesvos, if not all of Greece. See
Mytilini restaurants)

Lesvos makes the best ouzo in Greece and if you have never had ouzo from Lesvos there is a possibility you have never had good ouzo.

Babis the mailman bouzouki player and Panayotis the singer in Vatousa, LesvosOuzo drinking is an art. Or maybe it's a way of life. Whatever it is, Lesvos is known for it's ouzo. Most cafe owners in Greece will admit that the best ouzo comes from here and they probably carry one of the more popular Mytilini brands. But it's not the ouzo but who you drink it with that really makes the experience. When I am in Lesvos I spend a lot of time drinking ouzo and eating with my friends. So much so, that when it is time to return to America I have to seriously consider becoming a member of AA. But usually my desire for ouzo ends when I get on the plane back to America.


Ouzo in LesvosThe key to drinking ouzo is to eat snacks known as mezedes. These keep the effects of the alcohol from overwhelming you and enable you to sit and drink slowly for hours in a profoundly calm state of mind where all is beautiful and life is fine. In the villages where life is slow ouzo is partaken day or night. On Sundays after church the cafeneons are full of lively voices and singing, including sometimes the village priest. In many cafeneons the cooking is done by men, but in some it is a woman who does the cooking and serving and acts as den mother to the old men who come around each day. She knows their likes and dislikes, favorite seats and personal history.

WARNING! If you don't like licorice you won't like Ouzo. Well, you might.

My favorite Lesvos ouzos are:

  • Ouzo Giannatsi from Plomari: Distilled in an old-fashioned wood burning kasani (still). Two varieties, one of 42% and the other 45% alcohol. Hard to find outside of Plomari.
  • Ouzo Pitsiladi is another excellent distilled ouzo and one of the favorites of my friend Vagios at his ouzerie in Keratsini, Pireaus. I bought a bottle of this for the bar at the Attalos Hotel in Athens because all they had was Ouzo 12
  • Ouzo Dimini is distilled and the only ouzo I can get in my local grocery store in Kea. The bottle is in the shape of a still.
  • Plomari by Arvanitis. It is the first ouzo with a cork and becoming the most popular in Greece and shares a near monopoly in Athens with Mini.
  • Ouzo Mini: Mild and smooth with an alcohol content of 40%.
  • Ouzo Veto: 42%. Stronger. Andrea likes this kind.
  • Ouzo Kefi: The ouzo of choice in my local cafeneon though who knows if it is really Kefi or some other ouzo bought in bulk and poured into Kefi bottles.
  • Barbayannis: The most famous of the Plomari Ouzo. Some say it's the best. The blue label is the strongest at 46% but I really love their green label which is 42%.
  • Then there are many other smaller companies like Kronos and other labels from the large ouzo companies like EPOM, including Lesvos, Eva and Thimi.
  • Then there are the commerical ouzos made for tourists and Greek-Americans who don't know good ouzo from sambucca which are generally too sweet or in some cases just plain undrinkable. I don't want to name them because they are big corporations with an image to preserve and employ a multitude of lawyers to help them preserve it but if you stick with the ouzos I mention above you should be OK.

In the cafeneons ouzo is served with a meze included, for about a dollar a glass. The mezedes can be anything from a salad, stewed meat and vegetables, sardeles pastes , koukia (beans), sweetbreads, meatballs, cheese, sausage, fried fish or whatever the specialty of that cafeneon is that day. Eat and drink slowly and enjoy the journey. The cafe owners are always good cooks and in many places it is almost like a competition who has the best mezedes. Don't be macho. Drink ouzo with water. When you pour it in the ouzo will turn a milky white. How much to pour in is a matter of taste. A good trick is to water it down as you drink it. In other words you keep adding water. You won't get as drunk this way and because you will be drinking as much water as ouzo (or more) you won't be dehydrated or hungover (maybe).
If you should be lucky enough to meet someone who makes his own ouzo watch out. Though they call it ouzo it is really raki or tsipuro and does not have that licorice flavor one associates with ouzo. It is made in homemade stills and goes down smooth but it's effects are rapid and powerful. But one glass won't hurt and two is even better.
Ouzo Plomari of Isidorou Arvanitou is the ouzo with the cork in it. Strangely enough I could not find it in the cafeneons the first time I went to Plomari. The story I was told is that the original company was sold to the man who owned the famous OUZO 12. When he sold OUZO 12 to a big European liquor company, he took his money and bought the small Arvanitis distillary in Plomari and changed the recipe and made it a kinder-gentler ouzo so people like me would like it and they could hopefully market it all over Greece and maybe in America too. But in Plomari they still like they original recipe so there are actually two versions. The bottle in Plomari is completely different and it does not have a cork and it is stronger. I went to the factory to check out the authenticity of this story and unfortunately it was closed. Since then they have used their marketing expertise to make the ouzo with the cork one of the most popular in Greece. You can even get it at duty-free in the airport. The attractiveness of the bottles has made them very popular in restaurants which use them for oil and vinegar on the tables.

 

By the way to make the story even more interesting after he sold OUZO 12 to the big European company, people stopped drinking it and it was losing so much money that they sold it back to him. He put a cork in OUZO 12 and within a year or so it was almost as popular in Athens as Plomari and Mini.

  Most of the ouzos on Lesvos are not distilled. In other words they just buy the ingredients and assemble them in the shops and then bottle it and sell. Some of the more popular brands are assembled rather then distilled. In Plomari the Ouzo Giannatsi which was owned by Greek-Australian George Kavarnos and his son, is distilled in the old fashioned way and is one of the best tasting ouzos I have tried. Because they were a small company and not able to pay the large sums of money required to get your product placed in supermarkets, their ouzo could be found only in his shop in Plomari and in some small cafeneons and restaurants in the area. But since the company was sold a few years ago it has been making its way into cafes, restaurants and shops all over Greece.

 According to Mr. Kavarnos real traditional distilled ouzo has no side effects (besides drunkeness) and will not cause a hangover because there is no sugar added and the other ingredients which give each ouzo its distinct flavor, is cooked rather then just added to the mixture. To test this claim I brought a bottle of Giannatsi to my friend Michalis, the owner of the cafeneon in the upper village of Vatousa and asked him to try it. He was quite impressed and then pointed to the bottle. "You see this Mathios? This is why this ouzo is so good. It  says 'apostegmena'. That means it is distilled."

  I can almost remember my first ouzo 'experience'. I was a sophomore in high school attending the American school in Athens. My friends and I were at a neighborhood cafeneon, loosening up for the big dance by drinking Ouzo 12, a popular Athenian brand. Though we had all sampled ouzo before this was the first time we had come to a cafeneon with the intent of using it as our primary source of entertainment, (not counting the dance itself.) At 7:30 I knew I had enough and began walking the quarter of a mile to the school gym. I arrived there just as the buses were taking the kids home at 11:30. What happened to those four hours I will probably never know though I have always suspected that I was picked up by aliens and experimented upon before having some kind of chip implanted in me that made me unable to take school very seriously and rendered me useless for any kind of job besides being a musician and giving unsolicited advice about Greece. The purpose of this and what the aliens have in store for me I can only guess at.

 

 

  My big plan this summer was to fill a carton with as many different 200 ml bottles I could find on the island. What I discovered is that there are a lot of brands of ouzo that I had never seen or heard of before. Even the small town of Skalahori, with a population of about 500 people has its own ouzo. One of the best of these small brands I discovered on a visit to the village of Agia Paraskevis. The ouzo there is called Kronos and though the owner of the company (a shop really), seemed a little suspicious of my interest in ouzo, he warmed up enough to give me a bottle which I took home to my village. It turned out to be Andrea's favorite ouzo and I liked it too. I asked Nick, an Australian who owns the mini-mart why Kronos ouzo is not available all over the island and he said that Mr. Kronos needs to work on the public relations division of his company. As far as I could tell the only people who work for the company at all are Mr. Kronos and a very nice young guy who though a little slow was happy to make the most of the opportunity to promote the company by posing for some pictures with the ouzo.
  Trying to describe the taste of ouzo or to say why I prefer one to another is hard. Not that each ouzo does not have it's own taste and subtle differences. There just are not enough ouzo connoisseurs communicating with each other to put together a lexicon of descriptive words for ouzo. I could borrow from the wine experts terms like fruity, and tasty  but they don't work for ouzo. I could move up to the words used to describe the finest whiskeys and scotch, but ouzo does not have the same mystique or pedigree. It hasn't been aged for 12 years in oaken casks or had people waiting in anticipation of this years batch.   It's pretty much cooked or mixed together, bottled and shipped out.

 

Ouzo Mini. I love the woman on the bottle and I really love the woman in this ad. Can anyone introduce her to me?  

If one has a favorite ouzo it is probably not because they prefer one grape to another (who says they all use grapes anyway?). It is usually because they like the flavor that the ingredients added to the alcohol give it, they like the higher or lower percent of alcohol, or they like the color of the bottle or the advertisements for it. As Thanasis the Australian of Xidera, says of the old men who visit his cafe, each one an expert on ouzo with his own personal preference "I buy whatever is cheapest and put it in whatever bottle I have. If I buy Veto and all I have is an Empty bottle of Kefi I put it in a bottle of Kefi and nobody has ever said to me "Hey. This is not Kefi!" in all the years I have been working."
  I have to face the fact that while in Lesvos, ouzo is my life. I am not ashamed, nor do I consider myself an alcoholic (who does?). I spend the day doing various activities like writing, reading, swimming, visiting places, until the sun goes down when I walk down to the cafeneons and order my first ouzo and meze. I know that I may drink two glasses or I may drink ten, but in the course of those ten glasses I am going to have interesting conversations, meet a stranger or two, be bought an ouzo, practice my Greek, watch my wife and child head home to bed, and end up talking to the cafe owner about something I know from living in America that he is curious about. I may have the opportunity to explain what the internet is in terms he can understand (that's a fun one), or why it's not necessary to throw a strike on an 0 and two count.

Here I am in Vatousa about 10 minutes after arriving in the village where my sister-in-law lives. Village life can get kind of slow but ouzo helps liven it up.  

Good old Uncle Mitzo  

  Andrea's uncle Mitzo was famous for his xima . He called it ouzo but it tasted nothing like ouzo and a lot like moonshine, raki and tsipuro. It shared an element with all three. It could knock you on your ass in no time flat. There was an old still in his garden that he used to make his ouzo. He would sing to us:

    Otan kapnizi oh loulas
    esi then prepi na milas
    kitaxe trigiro i mages
    kanoun oloi toumpeki 

    or
    When you light the loulas
    you must not speak
    look around at the "manges"
    they are all making "toumpki" (cutting the tobacco to pieces )

  It's the lines from an old Rembetika song by Mitsakis that I interpreted as being about hashish, but Uncle Mitso had his own meaning, the key obviously resting on the translation of the word loulas. Unlike the commercial ouzo, his came from his own grapes. Even after he could no longer drink he continued to make his own ouzo to share with friends and family and unsuspecting visitors.

Not many people outside of Lesvos realize that their grapes were wiped out by a blight several hundred years ago and have not been grown except in private gardens, until the last few years. It is only in the last two years that wine from Lesvos has been introduced thanks to a grafting technique that has made a variety of blight resistant grapes. In the past the island was famous for its wine because the soil and climate are perfect for it and perhaps now we are witnessing the dawn of the new age Lesvos wines. Most of the wine served in Lesvos is the commercial variety from the mainland and Santorini, or excellent local
xima wine from Lemnos. But several years ago Methymnaos Winery began producing the first commercial wine from Lesvos in the last 500 years or so.

 

 

  Occasionally on a Sunday I will drive over to Xidera, the most remote village in Lesvos, where my wife is from, and visit with my friends who live there. Most of them are old men though there are a few my age like Thanasis the Australian. He owns the cafeneon directly across the small street from Andrea's aunt Aglaia  who is the finest one burner cook in all of Lesvos and makes grand feasts for us to be washed down with ouzo. Her husband Panayotis (riding the donkey on the front page of this guide) is the village butcher so one of the staple mezes are the fried organs of whatever he has killed recently, usually a sheep or goat. I think it's the staple. Maybe she only serves them to me to get rid of them or because I told her I liked them when she served them to me once many years ago. Regardless, whenever I sit down with Uncle Panayotis and he offers me an ouzo, I know there is a spleen not far behind.
  Thanasis is my primary source of village information. His wife also makes great mezedes and I can't set foot in the place without somebody buying me an ouzo and offering me a small meal with it. Normally I try to control myself and save my ouzo drinking for evening, but more often then not, a visit to Xidera is an excuse for an afternoon of letting go of the rules I have made up for myself and is always rewarding in some way. I either have some major breakthrough in communication with one of the old villagers or I am filled with such peace of mind that I realize a few more weeks on the island and I will be beyond treatment but who cares?

If he were not a farmer and shepard I think Thanasis the Australian could have been a movie star  

Kefi

Panayotis is a great singer. Catch him at Michalis in Vatousa My first day in Lesvos a couple years ago. It was a Sunday which is a popular day in the cafeneons and spontaneous explosions of kefi are not uncommon. What I mean by kefi is a feeling that comes over one that can only be expressed by dancing, singing or radiating(sitting there and glowing with happiness which is what I do). I was with my daughter recovering from the drive and the carrying of luggage to our house at the top of the village where no car dares to go for fear that it may never return. We were sitting in a corner of Tryphons while in the other corner sat a group of young and old men who would burst into song when one of the tunes being played struck a chord within them. The finest singer of them all was a young carpenter and stone mason named Panayotis who every so often when he was really filled with kefi would leap to his feet to dance. Not for us, not for his friends or anyone else in the cafeneon (which was empty except for us), but for himself. He was lost in the music, the moment and the movement. He was expressing himself to himself and we were blessed to be witnesses. It was really very spiritual, like watching lovers, or a holy man talking to God and realizing that God is indeed listening.

Ouzo is a kefi-catalyst. For more on the subject rent the movie Zorba the Greek or read the book by Nikos Kazantzakis  

Ouzo Stories from IN SEARCH OF SARDELES PASTES

Heliotopos Hotel, Lesvos

Booking.com Greece Travel Banner

Return to Lesvos Index

Join Matt Barrett's Greece Travel Guides Group on Facebook for comments, photos and other fun stuff. If you enjoy this website please share it with your friends on Facebook and Google+