Bottle #20: Boutari Ouzo

Jun 28, 2023

Before now, what I knew about ouzo could be contained in a small glass of milk-colored licorice-flavored liquid from Greece. Which is exactly what I knew about ouzo!

Tiny bottle #20 is Boutari Ouzo from Greece. That is not at all how you would imagine that the brand name printed on the label would be written in English. But thanks to an amazing friend (thanks, Marguerite!) and Google translate, once I’d figured that out it got a lot easier to find the bottle’s story.

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The Boutaris family is one of Greece’s oldest and most well-respected wine making families, bottling their first wine in Macedonia in 1879. I don’t know when they started making ouzo, but the country’s commercial production began in 1856, so it could have been part of their portfolio from the very beginning.

As is often the case with these tiny bottles, the story I found is much more interesting than I ever expected. Boutari Winery was founded by Ionnas Boutaris, then passed on to his son Stellios, and eventually taken over by his sons Konstantinos and Yiannis. Konstantinos still runs the Boutari company today, which now has six wineries across the Greek isles.

Yiannis is the more famous of the two brothers. His is a most extraordinary life, which is documented in his biography, 60 Years of Harvest. In 2019 he finished a 9-year term as Mayor of Thessaloniki, where — as an unconventional, tattoo-clad, recovering alcoholic — he was named Best Mayor in the World in 2012. Along with his brother, he helped pioneer wine tourism. He drove a transformation in production, from bulk and cheap wines to estate-made quality wines that made the Naoussa region one of the best-known wine regions in Greece. And in 1997 he split with his brother and established his own wine company, Kir-Yiannis. Today, at age 80, he is the head of the Holocaust Museum of Greece, a project that he initiated while Mayor. Researching this bottle I spent a delighted few hours reading Greek articles about him in translation and watching his really amazing TEDx talk. (If you, like me, don’t understand Greek, subtitles and 1.5x speed made for a nice pace!)

I did also learn a bit more about ouzo itself doing this research. Ouzo is a Greek distilled spirit. Its starts with a neutral spirit base of 96% ethyl alcohol, which can be made from any agricultural source, but originally was probably made from grapes. Or maybe the leftovers from making wine, as ouzo is thought to be a descendent of tsipouro, which is basically the Greek equivalent of grappa. Anise is added to that neutral spirit, sometimes along with other botanical ingredients like star anise, fennel, cardamom or cinnamon. The mix is distilled again, and the result is an 80% ABV liquid that tastes strongly of black licorice. No actual licorice root is involved – the flavor we think of as black licorice comes from anise there too. The Greeks call this “ouzo yeast” – not because any yeast is involved, but because it is the starter for ouzo production, like yeast is for bread.

For the best ouzo, the ouzo yeast is diluted with water to its final ABV, which must be between 37.5% and 50%. You can’t make it any lower ABV than that, because the compound responsible for that licorice flavor, anethole, is soluble in alcohol at or above that level, but not below. This is why it turns a milky white when served with water. This effect, called “louching,” is also what gives absinthe its color-changing quality. (See it in action and learn about the science in this great YouTube video.)

Producers making cheaper ouzo will make their ouzos by using just a little bit of ouzo yeast and combining it with neutral spirits that have just had anethole added directly. Some makers will add sugar before dilution, but even ouzo without added sweeteners will taste sweet, since the anethole itself is 13 times sweeter than sugar!

I have no idea what the quality level of my tiny bottle is. With the exception of “dry Greek apertif” written at the very top, every other word on this label is written in Greek, which leads me to think that someone actually brought this one back from Greece for Grandma. The “dry” implies that it probably doesn’t have much in the way of added sweeteners. I also found a mention of it in an article about an old-school Greek bartender, who described the “very dry” Boutari ouzo as a favorite of a Greek shipping billionaire.

I also have no idea how to date this bottle. In the 1960s, Boutari was the best-selling ouzo in the Greece, and made up 80% of the company’s sales. But as the two brothers took over, and the company began being better known for the quality of their wines, ouzo became a distraction and Yiannis (who hated the stuff anyway) insisted they stop production to focus on the wine.

Konstantinos must have started making ouzo again at some point, because there is a Boutari ouzo sold today, but the current bottle looks entirely different from mine. I was able to find one vintage bottle from the 1970s with a similar vibe, so that’s my guess for this bottle, especially since it is one of the most dust-covered of the bottles I’ve unboxed so far. But it also looks a lot like the bottle in this 1983 ad, so who knows?

Greece is one of my bucket list destinations, so I hope I’ll be able to bring this bottle back to its homeland for a tasting some day!

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Bottle #20: Boutari Ouzo

Jun 28, 2023 |

Before now, what I knew about ouzo could be contained in a small glass of milk-colored licorice-flavored liquid from Greece. Which is exactly what I knew about ouzo!

Tiny bottle #20 is Boutari Ouzo from Greece. That is not at all how you would imagine that the brand name printed on the label would be written in English. But thanks to an amazing friend (thanks, Marguerite!) and Google translate, once I’d figured that out it got a lot easier to find the bottle’s story.

The Boutaris family is one of Greece’s oldest and most well-respected wine making families, bottling their first wine in Macedonia in 1879. I don’t know when they started making ouzo, but the country’s commercial production began in 1856, so it could have been part of their portfolio from the very beginning.

As is often the case with these tiny bottles, the story I found is much more interesting than I ever expected. Boutari Winery was founded by Ionnas Boutaris, then passed on to his son Stellios, and eventually taken over by his sons Konstantinos and Yiannis. Konstantinos still runs the Boutari company today, which now has six wineries across the Greek isles.

Yiannis is the more famous of the two brothers. His is a most extraordinary life, which is documented in his biography, 60 Years of Harvest. In 2019 he finished a 9-year term as Mayor of Thessaloniki, where — as an unconventional, tattoo-clad, recovering alcoholic — he was named Best Mayor in the World in 2012. Along with his brother, he helped pioneer wine tourism. He drove a transformation in production, from bulk and cheap wines to estate-made quality wines that made the Naoussa region one of the best-known wine regions in Greece. And in 1997 he split with his brother and established his own wine company, Kir-Yiannis. Today, at age 80, he is the head of the Holocaust Museum of Greece, a project that he initiated while Mayor. Researching this bottle I spent a delighted few hours reading Greek articles about him in translation and watching his really amazing TEDx talk. (If you, like me, don’t understand Greek, subtitles and 1.5x speed made for a nice pace!)

I did also learn a bit more about ouzo itself doing this research. Ouzo is a Greek distilled spirit. Its starts with a neutral spirit base of 96% ethyl alcohol, which can be made from any agricultural source, but originally was probably made from grapes. Or maybe the leftovers from making wine, as ouzo is thought to be a descendent of tsipouro, which is basically the Greek equivalent of grappa. Anise is added to that neutral spirit, sometimes along with other botanical ingredients like star anise, fennel, cardamom or cinnamon. The mix is distilled again, and the result is an 80% ABV liquid that tastes strongly of black licorice. No actual licorice root is involved – the flavor we think of as black licorice comes from anise there too. The Greeks call this “ouzo yeast” – not because any yeast is involved, but because it is the starter for ouzo production, like yeast is for bread.

For the best ouzo, the ouzo yeast is diluted with water to its final ABV, which must be between 37.5% and 50%. You can’t make it any lower ABV than that, because the compound responsible for that licorice flavor, anethole, is soluble in alcohol at or above that level, but not below. This is why it turns a milky white when served with water. This effect, called “louching,” is also what gives absinthe its color-changing quality. (See it in action and learn about the science in this great YouTube video.)

Producers making cheaper ouzo will make their ouzos by using just a little bit of ouzo yeast and combining it with neutral spirits that have just had anethole added directly. Some makers will add sugar before dilution, but even ouzo without added sweeteners will taste sweet, since the anethole itself is 13 times sweeter than sugar!

I have no idea what the quality level of my tiny bottle is. With the exception of “dry Greek apertif” written at the very top, every other word on this label is written in Greek, which leads me to think that someone actually brought this one back from Greece for Grandma. The “dry” implies that it probably doesn’t have much in the way of added sweeteners. I also found a mention of it in an article about an old-school Greek bartender, who described the “very dry” Boutari ouzo as a favorite of a Greek shipping billionaire.

I also have no idea how to date this bottle. In the 1960s, Boutari was the best-selling ouzo in the Greece, and made up 80% of the company’s sales. But as the two brothers took over, and the company began being better known for the quality of their wines, ouzo became a distraction and Yiannis (who hated the stuff anyway) insisted they stop production to focus on the wine.

Konstantinos must have started making ouzo again at some point, because there is a Boutari ouzo sold today, but the current bottle looks entirely different from mine. I was able to find one vintage bottle from the 1970s with a similar vibe, so that’s my guess for this bottle, especially since it is one of the most dust-covered of the bottles I’ve unboxed so far. But it also looks a lot like the bottle in this 1983 ad, so who knows?

Greece is one of my bucket list destinations, so I hope I’ll be able to bring this bottle back to its homeland for a tasting some day!

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