The spirit of relaxation
Anisette, the sweet, candy-flavored drink, encourages us to pull up a chair and chat the afternoon away.
By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published July 26, 2006
What is it that makes anisette a perfect summer drink?
Not its color: It starts crystal clear, and quickly turns into sandstorm or dense fog and remains endlessly cloudy. Nor is it bracingly cold and invigorating. It is usually served just barely chilled, with rarely more than two or three modest ice cubes.
No, the appeal is that anisettes are distilled idleness: our laziest, most sociable spirits in a bottle.
There is no more potent alcohol that is so easygoing. Taste it straight and you and the bottle breathe fire. Add water and the glass drifts into a cloud, so seemingly soft and friendly it begs to be drunk before lunch, and sometimes long after in one of the slowest rites of summer.
All around the Mediterranean, from the Riviera to the once-happy corniche of Beirut, summer idlers would spend long hours around small tables filled with tiny glasses, big talk and bigger dreams. Call it ouzo in Greece, raki in Turkey, arak in Lebanon, oghi in Armenia, anis in northern Spain or pastis in France. The infusion of anise and licorice into strong alcohol gives an adult drink the candy flavor of a childhood pleasure.
Banish the prohibitionist woodcuts of the 18th century absinthe drinker paralyzed by the devilishly green liquor. That was the wormwood, which even the Gauls banned.
But don't forget that warning altogether, for anisettes remain the most deceptive of liquors. If you hate licorice, you might escape the temptation.
Despite its fuzzy sweetness, fans of ouzo, raki and its cousins never pretend that it's weak. They take pride in its power, although by the sixth or seventh, they might forget. The next morning a velvet hammer may tattoo a reminder on the brain. Or not.
In Provence, remembers Dominic Christini of Cafe Largo, "I was born and raised with it. Where I come from we drink it by the meter," although they start small.
"Before lunch you go in and have one and meet your friends. Five or six, you can have a lot of friends," he says, chuckling.
In Turkey, men call raki "lion's milk," and drinking it is something of a national ritual. Not everyone likes the stuff.
"My wife doesn't like it," laughs Dr. Sami Solu, a retired physician in Clearwater Beach, "and she doesn't like me when I drink it."
Greek bars and clubs make Tarpon Springs the ouzo capital of the Tampa Bay area. At B-21 liquor store in Tarpon, Bob Sprentall keeps the area's largest stock - 11 labels, of which Ouzo 12 is the top, plus a full range of other anisettes - and sells 150 cases a year.
Former Tarpon Mayor Anita Protos is a big fan of Greek food but approaches ouzo with caution. "Take a drink of that stuff and light a cigarette, you could explode."
Yet purists take their anisette slow, small, simple and diluted, even if the drinking can last hours.
Bartenders have had fun with anisette: Galliano puts extra punch in Harvey Wallbangers, and ouzo makes the special effects in a Purple Cloud.
Ouzo and its cloudy ilk are not booming as the next tequila, vodka or rum, but many more are available through increased trade. The new Efe premium brand of raki has just been imported into Florida.
The traditional format for almost every anisette is a small glass, often tubular, with a short pour of booze and a small pitcher, often branded with a distillery logo, of plain, pure springwater for a much longer pour. The ratio is at least twice as much water to anisette, sometimes five times as much.
Always there is food, more savory than sweet. With pastis it will be the dry salami called saucisson and perhaps cheese. With ouzo the Greeks might nibble on bread, olives, feta, stuffed grape leaves. Arak and raki are always taken with a meze of odd bits, grape leaves, falafel, nuts, kibbe; white cheese and melons are special favorites in Turkey.
Everywhere, indoors and especially outdoors, pastis, ouzo and raki are served with friends and conversation.
"With raki," Solu remembers fondly, "they drink a little, eat a little, drink a little, eat a little and talk very much."
Chris Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or firstname.lastname@example.org.