Almost everyone has heard of ouzo—you may have even had a taste—and if you’re Greek, you’ve definitely downed a shot or five at your cousin Nick’s wedding before smashing a glass. But that’s not all Greece has to offer when it comes to sippable spirits.
While they don’t get a lot of time in the spotlight, Greek spirits beyond the almighty ouzo are worth exploring, as Dimitrios Manousakis—head bartender at The Greek in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood—would certainly tell you. He features under-the-radar Greek bottlings on his “Odyssey” cocktail menu, which is designed to take the drinker on a boozy journey of new and exciting flavors never before experienced. Here, Manousakis recommends a few traditional Greek spirits to try and how to use them in modern day cocktails.
Think of tsipouro as Greek grappa, that fiery Italian brandy. Distilled from grape must, which includes grape stems, seeds and peels, tsipouro started out as a peasant drink, which people made and drank when they couldn’t afford finer wines and spirits. According to Manousakis, it’s still seen as a “grandfather’s drink.”
Like grappa, tsipouro has a strong smell and taste, which might make it seem like a tough cocktail contender. But Manousakis found a way. “I’d been trying for awhile to put a spicy cocktail on the menu but nothing exactly worked—until I decided to infuse tsipouro with habanero peppers,” he says. “That changed everything.”
Manousakis considers the Minos—made with Giffard Pamplemousse Rose liqueur, lemon juice, a few drops of orange blossom water and habanero-infused tsipouro—to be his crowning achievement. It’s sour, spicy and smooth—certainly not your grandfather’s cocktail.
Kretaraki is a lot like tsipouro. In fact, they are distilled from nearly identical ingredients. But kretaraki is native to the island of Crete rather than the mainland, so it tends to be fresher and more herb- and vegetable-forward, rather than heavy with the lush spices common in the north. While he played up the natural heat in tsipouro by infusing it with peppers, Manousakis opted to enhance kretaraki’s freshness by infusing it with lemon and rosemary.
“I sourced the recipe from an old tradition called kitroraki,” Manousakis says. “Upon distillation, the spirit is flavored with lemon peels. This tartness is balanced by the rosemary’s bitterness, and both infusions work together to sharpen the kretaraki’s natural flavor.”
He mixes the infused kretaraki with a spiced syrup, lemon juice and organic Greek yogurt to give the cocktail—which he calls the Helios—a sweet-tart taste and smooth body.
Rakomelo is, essentially, raki (an absinthe-like, anise-flavored spirit) mixed with honey, cinnamon and clove. It’s traditionally homemade in Crete and the Cyclades Islands, and it’s typically served hot or at room temperature.
“Liqueur making is a very Greek-home-specific tradition,” Manousakis says. “Every family used to have a liqueur that the lady of the house made with raw alcohol (like tsipouro or raki) and the agricultural products of the area. These unique liqueurs are a big part of hospitality—a liqueur is always offered to visiting guests, and the flavor is specific to the particular house and host.”
But you don’t have to be invited over to dinner by a Cycladic family to experience rakomelo. Some is bottled and sold commercially. Manousakis sources his bottles from Peloponnese producer Finest Roots—he was personally responsible for bringing their product stateside. He uses it in the Paris cocktail, which includes St-Germain, lemon juice and lavender bitters. Light, floral and beautifully sweet, it’s the perfect intro cocktail for those looking to explore the lesser known world of Greek spirits.