By Sean Mathews/ Photos courtesy of Babatzim
When 24 year old Athenian Katerina Dimitratou plans for a night out with her friends tsipouro is her drink of choice.
“I go for tsipouro because you can drink a lot without any accident,” she told Levendeia facetiously. “Young tourists I meet in Greece prefer ouzo, but Greeks of the same age they prefer tsipouro.”
Glance around a taverna or bar in Athens and you will probably notice that many Greeks don’t have the recognizable glass of cloudy white ouzo in front of them but rather clear tsipouro with ice.
Steve Kriaris, founder and CEO of Kolonaki Group, the largest importer of Greek alcoholic beverages in Canada says he has witnessed this trend not only in his trips back to Greece, but in the Canadian market as well, “Ouzo sales are flattening or declining and tsipouro is on an incline.”
This is a major shift for a spirit that 30 years ago was not even sold as a bottled product on the market.
Made from grape must, a residue of skins, stems, seeds and juice left over after crushing grapes for wine, tsipouro production was a seasonal event at the end of the harvest season in villages throughout Greece. In the years after WWII, the Greek government saw tsipouro production as a family and village tradition but never envisioned the spirit as a commercially viable product.
All that changed in 1991 when the Greek government was pushed by producers to create a legal framework around the distilling, bottling, and sale of tsipouro.
A family history tied to tsipouro, ouzo, and the region
Dimitris Vavatzis is a member of the Babatzimopoulos family, owners of the trademarked Babatzim Ouzo and Tsipouro, who were at the forefront of pushing for an established tsipouro marketplace.
“My family is Greek from Constantinople, today Istanbul. My great grandfather began making tsipouro in 1875 in Turkey,” Dimitris told Levendeia.
“Our name, Babatzim, which means ‘respected father’ comes from Turkish. At that time people in the villages were looking for a job during harvest time and were told to go to my great grandfather, who was well liked and needed people to work the vineyards. They called him ‘respected father,’” he said proudly.
Like many Greek families of the Eastern Mediterranean, Dimitris’ family flourished in Turkey and soon their tsipouro became well known throughout the homes of Istanbul. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and war between Greece and Turkey, they relocated to Thessaloniki in the population exchanges of 1922-1923.
“When we settled in Greece we started making ouzo,” Dimitris says. “That whole time tourists were never offered tsipouro, and it was never exported.”
Since 1991 when commercial production of tsipouro became possible, it has steadily been gaining ground in the market. Dimitris says that Babatzim’s sales today in Greece are roughly 80 percent tsipouro and 20 percent ouzo.
As a producer of both ouzo and tsipouro Dimitris is well placed to explain the difference in craft between his two products.
Tsipouro is a grape based spirit made once a year from grape must. This mixture is fermented then boiled in a copper distilling pot, called a Kazani.
“The first alcohol that comes from this boiling process is called the head. After the head is the heart and then the tail,” Dimitris told Levendeia. “When you make tsipouro you only want to consume the heart, because the head and tail are very unstable with high levels of methanol.”
A master distiller monitors the process and checks for the alcohol levels to stabilize. The product at this stage is called the heart. “The head contains 80 percent alcohol content, and it goes down and down and stabilizes at 65 percent alcohol before lowering in content in the tail,” Dimitris said.
He cautions that the time period moving from the head to the heart is the most difficult period of distillation and also the period that determines the quality of the tsipouro produced.
“You cannot be cheap with the process,” he says adamantly. “There are some producers who will take the alcohol early at 75 or 70 percent before reaching the heart. They dilute that alcohol with water to make an inferior tsipouro.”
Dimitris says that what makes Babatzim Tsipouro superior is the number of distillations. While some producers may take the head and lower alcohol content tail, combining these and distilling them over and over again to extract more alcohol, Babatzim does only a double distillation.
“We save the head and the tail from the first distillation. Combine them for a second distillation to get another batch of heart, and then we finish. The last step is adding water to the combined hearts to get the alcohol content to 40 percent,” he explains.
This means that producers like Dimitris end up throwing away more much product, leaving them with less to sell in the end, but a higher quality and smoother tsipouro.
The commitment to quality shows in the numbers. In a given year Babatzim may produce 80,000 liters of tsipouro, and end up throwing away 20,000 liters of alcohol from the head and tail in the process.
The biggest differences between ouzo and tsipouro are the type of alcohol used and the spices added to give ouzo its unique anise flavor.
The alcohol for ouzo comes from a variety of ethyl alcohols such as grain. Babatzim for example uses alcohol made from sugar beet, which he says contributes to his ouzo’s unique characteristics.
The second major difference is the blend of spices, fruit, and herbs that are added during the distillation process. While all producers use a combination of anise, giving the drink its milky color when water and ice are added, the exact blends are close kept secrets and Dimitris understandably refused to share his family’s recipe.
The first product of the distillation is a potent, aromatic ouzo referred to as the μαγιά, pronounced mayiá.
Greek law states that a minimum of 20 percent of this first, strong batch of distilled ouzo must be used to contribute to the roughly 40 percent total alcohol content of ouzo. This means that at least 8 percent of the bottle will come from the mayiá with other base alcohols and water making up the rest.
“At Babatzim we take 40 percent of the mayiá to make regular ouzo and 100 percent of it to make our Babatzim Classic,” Dimitris says.
The Classic is only diluted with water and has an even stronger, aromatic taste.
Eager to educate consumers about his products he told Levendeia, “Even in Greece people don't realize that tsipouro is a crafted spirit that always comes from grapes, whereas what makes ouzo unique is not the alcohol but the herbs and spices."
This is also the way to differentiate Turkish raki and Arabic arak from ouzo, both also anise flavored Mediterranean drinks.
“Raki and arak are, like tsipouro, grape based alcohols. The difference is that they are infused with anise, herbs, and spices like ouzo. But unlike Ouzo they are a pure grape based alcohol,” Dimitris said clarifying.
Two Different Spirits, Two Different Tastes
“Ouzo likes seafood,” Dimitris starts off by saying. “The most important thing about these products is the pairing. Ouzo is paired with something that has lemon, something salty or spicy, a traditional meze.”
This is due to the strong anise flavor. In this manner, Turkish raki or Arabic arak, also infused with anise, go just as well with these dishes.
As for tsipouro, like its Italian counter-part grappa, it can be drunk as a digestif, but Dimitris says it has the flexibility to be paired with a wider selection of foods, from pasta to meat, and his particular favorite, traditional Greek sausage.
For him the increasing attention to tsipouro is partially attributed to it being a grape based product. He says, “People like being able to drink a product that comes from a fruit they can eat. Tsipouro is rare in that it’s a white alcohol coming from an edible fruit.”
And while an accompanying meze is almost a requirement for ouzo, tsipouro can be a stand alone apertif. “It is also difficult to drink ouzo straight without food or diluted with water. But Tsipouro you can drink straight and on the rocks,” Dimitris says.
Whatever the reason, the tsipouro market keeps growing, and young people are a major driver.
“The youth today is drinking tsipouro,” says Steve Kriaris from Kolonaki Group.
“There is going to be a generation gap with ouzo. As the next generation moves into their 30’s and 40’s, the years when you have the expendable income to buy the most alcohol and choose specific brands, this group won’t be drinking a lot of ouzo,” he explains.
“I think we are finally passed the point of just being ouzo in Greece. That was the main stay, but those days are gone,” he added. Having worked in the Greek wine and spirits market for 20 years Kriaris believes this is a welcomed development.
He points to the consumer focus on the low price point of ouzo. “People just want to get their hands on a bottle of ouzo, based on how much is your bottle versus the other guy’s bottle.”
Speaking from his experience as an importer in Canada he says, “I think the ouzo market is limited by volume. It certainly won’t grow as far in volume per hectoliters as tsipouro.”
"The ouzo market needs to convert existing customers into trading up and drinking better quality ouzo. This is better for the producer, customer, and the longevity of the brand,” he said.
When discussing the future market for tsipouro it’s obvious from the energy in his voice that the Greek-Canadian importer is optimistic about the room for growth, “I believe the future spirit of Greece will be tsipouro.”
He tells Levendeia, “Tsipouro has so much potential and I say this because I look at the numbers for grappa, tsipouro’s Italian counter-part, which is sold in the market. For every 100 bottles of grappa, we are selling 1 bottle of Greek tsipouro.”
Half jokingly Kriaris shared, “I’m Greek but I have lots of Italian friends that we host dinners with. At some point I usually end up pulling out a bottle of near priced tsipouro and grappa. After we do a taste test, 8 out of 10 of my friends will tell you that the Babatzim Tsipouro is a superior product,” and smiling, but slightly exasperated, he added, “but nobody knows about it.”
He hopes the spirit can get to the point of its Italian counterpart today. “How great would it be to go to a Greek restaurant and have a tsipouro list, like Italian restaurants have grappa lists?”
For both Dimitris and Kriaris, producer and importer, both ouzo and tsipouro have a place. As Dimitris said, “Our motto is drink Babatzim. In our family we have two kids, ouzo and tsipouro. We can differentiate and love both of these kids.”