Always associated with Greece, this potent brew probably has its origins in what is now Turkey – albeit the parts previously inhabited by Greeks prior to the ethic cleansing of the 1920’s. As far back as Byzantine times, the residue of grapes that had been pressed for wine making was distilled to make raki and, during fermentation, a variety of aromatic herbs, berries, roots and flowers were added, according to the imagination and tastes of the distiller. Such was the popularity of raki that, during the dark days of the Ottoman Empire, demand exceeded supply and raw alcohol was imported, usually packed in crates that had previously been used to export silk cocoons from Turkey to Marseilles.
such exports/imports passed through Italy and were marked, in Italian,
‘USO MARSEILLES’, meaning ‘for use in Marseilles’.
alcohol made in and imported from the west was invariably a by-product
of molasses, distilled from sugar rather than grapes and hence a very
different base. As some unscrupulous importers simply added a variety
of flavours to this molasses base and passed it off as raki, the Greek
ports of Constantinople and Smyrna added a colouring to the neat
imported alcohol, known as ‘uso’, so that it had to be distilled again
to remove the colour.
When the Greeks were forcibly expelled from Turkey a number of distilleries were set up on nearby Lesvos and in Makedonia and today there are around 7,000 licensed stills in operation in Greece. Connoisseurs of ouzo reckon the best is produced in Plomari, Mytilene (Lesbos).
As Kefalonia, along with the other Ionian islands, largely escaped occupation by the Ottoman Turks, ouzo isn’t as traditionally popular here as on islands to the east of Greece and tsipouro (raki) was the traditional tipple.
For an interesting and entertaining opinion on various ouzos, check out Matt Barrett’s greecefoods.com