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Ouzo, tsipouro, mastiha : a true distiller knows how to enhance the Greek liquors

As a famous touristic country, Greece may offer the worst of its gastronomy. We have no lessons to give, we do the same in Paris, at our Mont-Saint-Michel and elsewhere. But when a man is here with his hands, his head and his art...

Yannis Karonis is the fifth generation in Karonis distillery. It started in Nafplion, a town in the Peloponnese, famous for being one of the first capital of the independent Greek state. It was in 1830. Thirty years later, two Karonis brothers set up their small distillery. One travelled to France to see how it goes and buy the good stuff. At this time our country was the reference. He bought a Egrot still in 1881. The history of the brand joins history of the country. Yannis even set up a small family museum with some souvenirs: an extract from the Official Journal of the early 1830s, the first commercial rewards, some shopping bills, a sublime safe made in Marseille...

Visit a distillery is something unusual in Greece. This business like to keep mysteries. But 8 years ago Nafplion was welcoming more and more tourists and Karonis was welcoming more and more requests for visits. Yannis has opened the doors to all since 2007. And Greek pupils are happy to discover another Greek heritage, which is something different from old stones.

First ouzo. How it works? This is quite simple. We fill half of the still with pure alcohol and herbs (anise, coriander, cardamom, ginger...) Every family has its own secrets. Let macerate two or three days. Fill the half of the still with water now. And it's the classic distillation. Heat to boiling for an hour. The steam is fed into the cooled pipes : thus we recover pure ouzo. Alcohol is at 70 °. So add water to lower the alcohol. What are the differences between brands? Of course, quality of alcohol, dosage of spices and the water quality.

Yannis emphasizes the need for "freshness" of ouzo. For flavors. Do not let the ouzo ageing after purchase, it is useless and often the quality lowers over time. This is why the distillery knows a production peak in the spring : to be ready for the summer season. Ouzo is rather consumed during summer by the Greeks and in coastal areas. They drink it with fish and seafood. It's very unusual to see Greeks drinking it without eating.

At Karonis, ouzo comes in two versions. The classic 40°: the taste is quite aromatic, since water and suger have been added to lower the alcoholic degreet. The Special version (44°) was least diluted, not sweet : there is a raw taste of spices, tasting is much more elegant. Of course, as the finest alcohols, it's not burning esophagus ... We understand that we are not dealing with a supermarket product !

Tsipouro (the bottle on the left) follows the same pattern as ouzo, except that instead of pure alcohol, grapes must is distillated three times. One version is raw, another sees anise macerating with alcohol (this is the Greek cousin of the Turkish raki). At Karonis, the taste of grapes explodes in nose and mouth. Since you are now an alkie, you have to drink it slowly to get the taste of fruit. You can find the aroma of Corinth grapes, the famous small black grapes, used by Yannis during distillation.

The distillery produces liquors too. With bergamot, bitter cherry... And the mastiha ! A liquor with Chios mastic. Nothing to do with joints in your bathroom... Mastic is a great, rare, expensive products. Too uncommun in France. It's actually a product derived from the sap of a the mastic tree. This miracle can be harvested on the Greek island of Chios, probably because of a favorable microclimate, though we don't know exactly. Mastic in "tears" or powdered is used by Greek for deserts, chewing gum, scented oils, cosmetics, toothpaste... The Chios mastic is protected by the union of producers that affixes its logo on all products containing really Chios mastic. It is now possible to distinguish between the real mastic and the flavors developed in laboratories. Of course Karonis uses true Chios mastic during distillation. To make a liqueur, just add a little more water and sugar to lower the alcohol degree around 30°. The result is a unique taste, really difficult to describe. I am totally fond of mastic but I understand that this taste can be difficult for some palates... Traditionally Greeks drink a glass of mastiha after meals to speed digestion.

And what about the Greek crisis ? We will talk about it very soon.

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