Few phrases are as loaded with danger as: "Last night I was drinking ouzo ..." You'll never hear the continuation: "... and suddenly I had a strong desire to pick some tulips!" Chances are the story will end in jail, a huge thigh bruise, a mystery hickey or some combination thereof. If tulips are involved, shoes will be muddied and petals will be lodged between teeth. Ouzo is a bad seed, a recipe for disaster -- at least the way we loser Americans pound it. So unsophisticated, so in-yer-face is our consumption of the glorious Greek elixir that the subtleties, and the flavor, never stand a chance.
In America, ouzo is normally taken as a shot. The Grecian formula is to sip it. Therein lies the problem, and the solution.
Ouzo is made with aniseed, so it tastes like licorice. Aniseed is one of the earliest known spices; it was used 3,500-odd years ago as both currency and medicine. It was said to help ward off the evil eye (a malady we've been infected with our entire life) and, placed under a pillow, to combat nightmares. If you don't like that flavor, you'll hate the stuff, and you'd best move on. But if you're a fan and want to go ancient with your drinking, order an ouzo at the Olympia, the city's best traditional Greek restaurant.
"Here's your milk," Olympia server Thomas Economou says as he places your glass of ouzo -- the brand Ouzo 12 is preferred here -- on your table. He's referring to the spirit's color. Although it appears clear in the bottle, ouzo turns a chalky white when served on the rocks; in addition to chilling the drink, the ice tempers the spirit with water. Take a sip before dinner and you'll feel it stroke its way slowly down your esophagus -- a portent. Soon enough, the cold fluid will massage your entire body, and your throat will feel warm and fuzzy (aniseed is commonly used in cough syrups). It will lighten your load, and things won't seem nearly so bad as they actually are. That's because ouzo tastes so yummy, and it's about 46 percent alcohol. But ouzo is a skull-and-crossbones kind of drink, so be careful: Two of them will make you giddy; three will make you stupid ugly or, if you're lucky, blissfully unaware.
"I got a belly full of ouzo, a head full of hurt," screams Mark Arm in Mudhoney's punk classic "Mudslide," and though we never recommend drinking to kill your pain -- eventually the pain and the drink will eat you alive -- there's nothing better than dabbing the cool, damp cloth of ouzo against your forehead from time to time.