Raki vs Ouzo! Can you tell them apart?
Both are anise, or licorice, flavored liqueurs. Both are delicacies of the eastern Mediterranean. And both are most often served with white cheeses and other cold dishes, called “mezes”, like tomatoes, fava beans, roasted chick peas, salted almonds, mackerel and other seafoods.
Past flavor and custom, though, they are not the same.
Raki is a Turkish staple rooted in centuries past, but popular for some 300 years! Originally called arak, it is known to treat every ailment from toothache to depression to appendicitis and anxiety. It is flavored with anise but it much stronger (they say it can reach up to 90 % alcohol!). So, the mere concentration of spirit seems to strip the aromatic appeal you’d expect from anise, and instead, Raki goes down more like gasoline.
I tried it on the island of Crete (a Greek island, yes, but on the far eastern side, close to the Turkish territory) but you can find it throughout the Balkan and larger eastern Mediterranean region, all hours of the day and night. We tried it at 9 in the morning!
It is made from the “tailings” of wine production. The residual skin and pulp is boiled up to produce a steam, that, when condensed, becomes this revered apertif.
Ouzo, on the other hand, is Greek! It is the descendent of Raki, and is related to other European anise drinks, like sambucca for the Italians or pastis for the French. Ouzo, though, is acknowledged to be exclusively of Greek origin with deep roots going back to Hippocrates’ medical work. In modern times, ouzo is a certified as an exclusive Greek product for marketing purposes, and has become the quintessential Greek tradition!
In the Greek isles, ouzo is typically taken an hour before sunset, served in a skinny tall glass, alongside a glass of water. When you mix the two, the anise seed in the drink turns it a milky white. Its licorice scent, lighter alcohol (35-45%), and cheap price, make it a legendary Greek favorite.
Want to taste the favorite Ouzo? Visit the Aegean island of Lesvos!