We may laugh at the fact that ouzo transforms the famous Long Island cocktail into the Makronissos (literally long island) in the bars on Milos island, or that the Tuba Libre, a retsina-based drink inspired by fans of the PAOK soccer team, has traveled all the way from Toumba in Thessaloniki to London, but Greek drinks have been making a splash with bartenders and earning kudos over the past three years or so.
The star of the bar is a liqueur made with mastic gum from Chios, which is already widely used in Greece but is also turning heads abroad.
“When customers learn how the liqueur is produced from the mastic trees, they get even more excited about it,” says Nikos Tachmazis, a Greek barman at Termini in London’s trendy Soho district, who, along with his teammate William Hetzel, won this year’s Mediterranean Cocktail Challenge, organized by Greek liqueur-maker Skinos Mastiha Spirit.
“Greek ingredients are quite popular,” he says. “We use caper leaves from Santorini, Greek olive oil, seaweed, olives from Crete, oregano, sage etc. Personally, I am currently exploring creating a cocktail that will bring something very familiar to mind, like the freshness you feel standing on top of a hill in the sea breeze.”
Other top favorite liqueurs are kumquat, which is produced in Corfu, the bittersweet citron of Naxos, cinnamon-flavored tentura from Patra and almond-based soumada, while herbs such as oregano, thyme and Kozani saffron are used to lend fragrance to drinks such as gin-based cocktails, explains Giorgos Kavaklis from Spoiled in Athens. The barman also makes use of Greek beers from microbreweries, from which he produces tasty syrups and punches, while he also uses them for their rich foam.
“Bartenders are a lot more educated and well-trained, taking a serious interest in cocktails over the past few years, and that is something that people also appreciate because they don’t like throwing their money away,” says Kavaklis.
Constantinos Tsatsiras from Otto, also in Athens, says that Greek consumers tend to favor bittersweet and fruity drinks, a preference that is likely rooted in the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle.
“I personally use all sorts of different products grown in Greece, such as pineapple, avocado or lime, which are cultivated in Crete. There are a lot of wonderful Greek liquors, but what’s important is how they are managed by their producers,” Tsatsiras says, stressing that barmen today are much more discerning and always on the lookout for new things.
“Marketing also plays an important role,” he says.
As Greek continue to enjoy colorful, fruit cocktails, overseas the hot new trend is bitters, while bartenders are more mindful of details like the ice they use and more ambitious about creating bold, almost arrogant new drinks.
“Bitters are like spices. The different varieties have intense flavors with varying degrees of sweetness but also their namesake bitterness,” says Master of Wine Konstantinos Lazarakis.
The quality of the ice used, the temperature of the key liquor and mixers, and the water that is added are other areas where professionals abroad are paying close attention in order to stand out from the competition.
“The issue is to what extent the bar scene can motivate producers. There are a lot of drinks that aren’t patented and don’t have protected geographic designations,” says Lazarakis. “New Zealand, for example, makes vodka and Japan whisky. There’s no reason why Greece couldn’t make rum.”
When it comes to his area of expertise, Lazarakis explains that wine is just not the right choice for a mixer, even though wine consumers may be happy to experiment.
“With wine, it’s all about the wine, its temperature, the glass and the food you’re having it with. Cocktails are sexy: They have energy, they are physical, shaken and stirred, and the barman is a showman. Wine is nothing like that, and I’m not at all sure whether it should be in cocktails.”