Ouzo. I’ve been a fan of this beverage since 1995, when, in the city of Heraklion on the island of Crete, I sat down in a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant, pulled out a copy of Lonely Planet and a notepad, and was somehow mistaken for a Lonely Planet writer. Immediately glasses of ouzo appeared at my table, “from the chef.” I knew it would be heartless to destroy the fellow’s dream of being featured in Lonely Planet and so did nothing to disabuse him of his notion (although in a twinge of conscience I did insist on paying my bill).
Ouzo is a clear, sweet, firey liqueur that tastes very strongly of anise, like a colourless absinthe, and like absinthe, when you add water or lemonade to it you get a characteristic louche, which is to say it turns from clear to opaque. Pretty neat, huh? The reason for this is that anethole, the essential oil of anise, is soluble in alcohol but not in water (which is weird to me since alcohol is soluble in water, but recall I flunked o-chem).
Legend states that ouzo descends from a drink distilled in the 14th century by monks on Mt. Athos. Given the other tipples monks have provided us with (like Chartreuse from the Carthusians, Benedictine from the Benedictines, the cappuccino from the Capuchins…) I see no reason to doubt this claim. Monks obviously like a good drop. Ouzos vary region to region, but they always contain anise, and sometimes other spices such as star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and coriander.
My recipe is simplicity itself. All you have to do is mascerate spices in vodka, leave it for a while, sweeten it with sugar, leave it for a while again, and enjoy. Now this is not technically true ouzo, because to make true ouzo the spices would be distilled with the alcohol, not steeped in it. Home distillation, however, is illegal where I am. Frankly, I don’t think that would stop me in itself, but the possibility of methanol poisoning has always been a drag to my potential career as a moonshiner. If you’re interested, the kind of alcohol we all know and love is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, and it gets you drunk. Methyl alcohol, which is sometimes produced by accident in moonshining, is almost as fun, but first it turns you blind and then it kills you. Choose your poison.
For a safe, fraidy-cat, non-moonshined, version of ouzo, follow the steps below:
YOU WILL NEED:
A jar with a lid (I use a widemouth ball jar)
A measuring cup
2 cups vodka (the best you can afford… I use bottom shelf because that’s what I can afford)
1 ½ tb anise
One cinnamon stick
Two whole star anise
Three weeks later you will need:
Sterilize the jar and measuring cup. To do this, I boil a kettle and rinse out the jar and cup with boiling water. I realise this is not sterilization to the most stringent of standards, but I’m not pickling or canning vegetables here, I’m extracting oils in alcohol. In all my liqueurs, the worst mistake I ever made was using a jar that had held pickles. Clearly I did not clean the jar thoroughly enough, because the result was cherry-dill spear flavoured liqueur. Not a winning combination.
Put the anise, cinnamon stick, and star anise in the jar.
Add two cups of vodka. I does not matter a whit if there is air at the top of the jar.
Screw the lid on the jar.
Label the jar with the date, and whatever the date will be in three weeks (this saves you doing mental arithmetic every time you see the jar). Put the jar somewhere dark for three weeks. Shake it a little every couple of days, or whenever you happen to open that cupboard.
Now: filter out your liqueur. To do this I use a paper coffee filter in a funnel. It can take a while for it all to seep through, so this is best done on a day when you’re going to be hanging around the house. Actually, with this liqueur, it shouldn’t take to long because the spices are large chunks, not fine powder, which can really gum things up.
Make some sugar syrup. This is easy. Mix one cup of white sugar with ½ cup of water, bring it to the boil until it is clear, and then let it cool. Always let it cool. Adding hot liquid to alcohol will evaporate the alcohol, which is terribly sad. If your water is heavily chlorinated, let it boil for a few minutes first to evaporate the chlorine.
To your filtrate (fancy chemical term! I mean the ouzo) add ½ cup of your cooled sugar syrup and stir well (you can store the leftover syrup in a jar in the fridge for making mint juleps). You can adjust this to taste; I prefer a less sweet liqueur.
Sterilize a green wine bottle (it is important that the bottle be dark glass, as aromatics break down in light). Pour the ouzo into the bottle. A funnel is handy for this. Cork the bottle, label it, and leave it for a month or two. I realise this is the hardest part; after all, it tastes pretty good already, right? But believe me, in a month or two the harsh vodka tang will have mellowed out and the ouzo will be divine. If you like, divide it into two smaller bottles, one for tasting right now and one for later comparison.
Now note: because you made this at home and not in a professional distillery, your ouzo will not have the perfectly clear spring water appearance of store-bought ouzo. It will probably be a light brown. No matter. You can always add some green food colouring, tell your friends it’s absinthe, and dance around like Kylie Minogue in Moulin Rouge.