Part 2 – Spirits, Liqueurs and other Dangerous Drinks
Carrying on from Part 1, I first want to talk about some other wines, beginning with the infamous “Retsina’ wine from Greece. Now this wine is definitely an acquired taste. The presence of a pine resin taste in the wine definitely throws most people off. As it turned out, Diana and I developed a liking for this wine years ago, even before we went to Greece. I suppose it was when we were researching Greece, its food and of course its wine that we tried the wine and enjoyed it. This is especially true when the wine is chilled, and you are enjoying some good Greek food.
What makes Retsina so different from other wines is the resin they add to the wine. This is actual raw resin from the Aleppo pine trees found all over Greece. Again, Diana and I were fortunate to find, on our first trip to Greece, a stand of pine trees south of Korinth that were being ‘harvested’ of their resin.
The little metal buckets are strapped on the tree, and several gashes are made in the bark above them, so eventually, very slowly, the resin bleeds out of the tree and drops slowly into the collection bucket. This system always reminds me of the way they harvest maple syrup, by cutting into the tree the same way.
Don’t worry, we did not steal a ‘resin farmer’s bucket. This one was picked up from some abandoned buckets from an area no longer being ‘farmed’.
Over the years, I had listened to many horror stories, many humorous ones, about retsina, how terrible it was, how potent it was, how it tastes like turpentine, paint thinner and many other derogatory remarks.
Fear not, retsina is just a white wine, made from the Roditis and Savatiano varieties, although in the Attica region, Greek wine laws limit them to the use of only Savatiano grapes. From my “retsina research”, I have found that one producer uses about 800 grams of resin per 100 litres of must during the fermentation process, while another uses only 200 grams of resin, mainly to produce a balanced retsina which complements the character of the Savatiano grape. The maximum resin permitted is 1 kg of resin per 100 litres of must.
In any case, you must at least try a glass of chilled retsina, together with a tasty Greek meal, I think you will like it. In times past in Greece, customers would order wine not only by the glass or bottle, but by weight, by the kilo, usually poured from a barrel of wine the restaurant owner had. Even today, I order my retsina in a taverna in Greece either by a bottle, or miso-kilo (half litre), which nowadays usually is served in a half litre bottle. Very few places tap their wines from a barrel in the back somewhere.
Which reminds me of another incident on the island of Tinos. Nearby where we were staying was a tiny little ‘mini-market’, a small store ran by a diminutive old Greek lady, all dressed in black, who always greeted us cheerfully in Greek each time we stopped by for some groceries. One day, our friends Carol and Irene, who were staying at the same place we were, dropped by the store and happened to ask if she had any ‘red wine’. Most mini-markets in Greece and other countries in Europe stock many wines and spirits on their shelves, where you can easily browse their selection before buying. Not so with this lady!
“Málista!, Certainly” she replied, and told them to follow her to the back of the store, where she had several small barrels of various wines, ready to dispense as required. Before the ladies purchased any, they wanted to confirm that this was the wine they wanted. In broken English, the lady told them “Yes, this was her special ‘reddish wine’, that they were looking for.” Carol and Irene hesitated, not sure they wanted to buy a jug of ‘reddish wine’. We still joke about the time when they almost tried a ‘reddish wine’ in Greece.
Before we left for a trip to Portugal, I had read about the Vinho Verde and famous Ports that Portugal was famous for. These wines were available at home, so they did not excite me too much. What was not available at home was GinGinja, a popular drink served in Lisboa and throughout Portugal. In fact, in Lisbon, there is a bar named after this drink, of course called GinGinja Bar. So, of course, shortly after we arrived at our hotel in Lisboa, we went down to the hotel bar for a celebratory drink.
GinGinja is a sweet liqueur made from Morello sour cherries soaked in a distilled spirit called aguardente. The mixture is flavoured with sugar and spices. Depending on what brand or what variety you buy, the bottle might also be filled with little cherries, this is called “com elas”, which means ‘with them’. This delightful drink is very pleasant to sip and enjoy. It is about 18% alcohol, not as strong as many spirits, but can still be dangerous because it tastes so good!
We have discovered many other flavoured spirits in our travels, many specific to a country or even a region. Like the beautiful Sherry from the Jerez de la Frontera region of southern Spain. After the fermentation is complete, they fortify the wine with a grape spirit up to about 15.5 % . As the wine ages in a barrel, a new kind of flor yeast forms on the surface, protecting the sherry from further oxidation. Some sherries go as high as 18% alcohol, so be careful with them!
Then there is Madeira, from the island of Madeira, a wine that is formed by repeated heating the wine. The story tells us the barrels were kept in a ship for a long, hot voyages, crossing through the tropics. They discovered this changed the nature and flavour of the wine. They called this ‘sea-aging’ “Vinho da Rhoda”.
For other liqueurs, Corfu grows Kumquats and from that makes a lovely citrus flavoured liqueur. The Greeks have many other liqueurs and spirits, depending on which island you visit. Tentura is one, an herbal concoction from the city of Patras, on the Peloponnese.
The Island of Chios produces mastic, a natural resin from mastic trees, harvested for making gum and other health food supplements. They also produce a drink from this gum called Mastica, about 15% alcohol, a sweet, pleasant tasting liqueur.
When we visited Provence, we spent most of our time in the south, near Arles, Nimes and Avignon. This area is dominated by the Camargue, the large delta area populated by horses, cattle and ‘Cowboys of the Camargue’, or Guardians. (See my travel tale ‘Cowboys of the Camargue) These hardy residents have their own special liqueur, one we discovered one day in a restaurant in Arles. We loved it after the first taste. I had not seen it for sale anywhere, but we managed to convince the restaurant owner to sell us a bottle. I still have most of that bottle in the cabinet at home, ready to taste again to trigger memories.
Working our way back through the Greek Islands, we find Naxos, the largest of the Cycladic islands. Naxos has a very special spirit, one which comes in three variations. It is called Kitron, made from both the fruit and the leaves of the citron tree, similar to a lemon tree. We have visited the distillery in the village of Halki on Naxos, where they process and distill the essence from this tree, producing a green variety, sweeter and less alcohol, a yellow variety, which is the strongest and has less sugar, and a clear variety which is somewhere in between. As soon as we tried this liqueur, I loved it, very distinct and different from what you might think of as a citron or lemon drink. We brought home bottles of the first two, mainly to try them on friends. Again, these are about 30 to 40% alcohol, so should be treated with respect!
Speaking of lemon drinks, you should try Limoncello, a delightful, refreshing after dinner sipper. Although this drink is readily available at home, we were first introduced to it in Tuscany, by our friends Carol and Dave Mills, who invited us to stay at an old Tuscan farmhouse they had rented. One evening, after we had enjoyed a barbecue of pork steaks covered with a coating of fresh rosemary and garlic, Dave brought out a chilled (almost frozen) bottle of this golden delight and we enjoyed few tiny glasses of it. Even now, we always have a bottle lying in the freezer at home, just for this kind of occasion.
We now move on to the ‘big guns’, the more dangerous, stronger spirits. First, the herbal mixtures, like Germany’s Jägermeister, a well know digestive made from 56 herbs and spices. They call it a ‘digestive’, but it’s a pleasant sipping drink on ice, about 35% alcohol.
Our favourite is the French Bénédictine, an old French secret recipe of 27 flowers, berries, herbs, roots and spices. This drink is abut 40% alcohol, and it’s other variation (B&B) is mixed with brandy. I like it straight, on ice, on ice-cream, or even better, out of a heated snifter! It is a great way to clear your sinuses! This was a favourite item served at the William Tell restaurant in Vancouver years ago. They would come to the table, flame some Benedictine in a large brandy snifter, dump it out, and refill with some fresh stuff. The result was amazing, both to smell in the glass, and to sip.
I won’t get into many of the other well known drinks, like Cointreau, Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, Campari, Pisco, Tequila (dangerous), and dozens of other fruit or herbal concoctions!
I should mention, however, the demon Rum! Rum, like whiskey, has it own followers. And of course what variation thereof? I won’t get into whiskies, especially Scotch and single malts, etc.,which is an entire different world of beverage appreciation. My preference is dark rum, actually a Demerara rum. (and NOT with coke, which spoils the taste of both parts of the drink). In the U.S.A., it is hard to get a good demerara rum, they seem to only bring in a lighter version from Puerto Rico, Jamaica or other U.S. associates, rather than going to the source to find a dark demerara rum from Guyana. This is the rum that was rationed out daily to the sailors in the British Navy. This ‘tot of rum’ was doled out to sailors from 1655 right up to 1970. One of the best, and my favourite, is Pussers Rum, the original Navy Rum, is made in different variations and strengths, sold world-wide, but unfortunately not where I live. I have discovered another demerara rum here, one very popular in Newfoundland, appropriately called Screech. It is a regular 40% alcohol drink, but for some reason, there are many stories in ‘Newfie’ folklore about the deadly Screech Rum, and what they do with it, especially to unsuspecting tourists.
But I do want to cover some examples of those I encounter quite often. (at least as often as I can.) These are Raki and Ouzo. I talk about these at the same time as I class them as the same drink, just flavoured differently. I know, some of you purists will disagree with that simplification, but hear me out. In Turkey, the Yeni (brand) Raki is much like the Ouzo of their neighbour Greece, distilled from Grape pomace to about 40 to 50 % alcohol, flavoured with anise seed, or what many say is liquorice flavour, similar as well to the Italian Sambuca. When I was in Turkey, I was practicing my Turkish with a bartender in Istanbul. The most significant progress I made that time, was how to order “Raki on Ice’, in Turkish. For those of you heading to Istanbul, just walk into a bar and order Raki buzlu. – pronounced just like it is written ‘rakee booz-loo’, and you will get your raki served in a glass of ice-cubes.
I have tried Ouzo in many parts of Greece, as it is a popular drink, usually enjoyed with small snack, appetizers, or what the Greeks call mezedes. It is usually served with a glass of water, which you pour into your ouzo, tuning the clear liqueur into a milky drink. Like the raki, I usually order my ouzo on ice, me pago (με πάγο). On the island of Cyprus, (on the Greek side), their ouzo is called Zivania. I have even tried a cocktail at home with ouzo and tonic water, lovely!
One of the best producers of ouzo in Greece are in the historic city of Plomari on the island of Lesbos. I know this first hand as I had the opportunity one evening on Poros to visit a taverna who had a large selection of ouzos. This was my chance to try several brands myself and determin which one I thought was the best. Now this is a great idea, but very dangerous! I think I only tried a half dozen, but that was enough that Diana had to give me a steadying hand on the way back to our B&B. Not all was lost, I really did agree that the ouzo from Lesbos was the best. This brand is called Barbayanni, and I further learned that they have different levels or label colours, of which I brought home both green and blue to add to my collection.
Greeks have their own versions of Raki as well. On the island of Crete, it seems everyone makes their own raki, and it is served at almost every taverna or welcoming drink at a hotel or B&B. We were surprised at one taverna/restaurant in Crete, they had a flask of raki on the table, along with a flask of olive oil, salt and pepper shakers, and a couple of small shot glasses for the raki.
A small warning here folks, do not toss this drink back from shot glasses! It is strong, usually 40 to 50 % alcohol, and will surely bite you back if you do not treat it with respect! Enjoy it like the Greeks, with a little food, and you can’t go wrong. We have seen sad cases of school or uni students from the UK flying off to a Greek island for spring break. In some cases, the drinking age is much lower than what they have back home, and they stay at an ‘all inclusive’ resort, which usually includes all the booze they can consume. This is a deadly combination, with young immature girls doing ‘shots’ with these powerful spirits, and sadly, many of them wake up the next morning on the side of the country road leading out to the resort, hung over, no memories, and often pregnant!
On Crete, they have several versions or names for their raki. It is called tsipouro, or tsikoudia, and they have another version where they mix the raki with honey and cinnamon, a lovely combination called rakomelo.
So there you have it, my brief but informative tale about some drinks you might try while travelling. Just try to remember, drink them like the locals drink them, which is usually with some food. Forget this ‘shots’ thing, that’s the quickest way to get into trouble! If you are on a cruise, don’t pay the ship’s bartender to mix you a ‘counterfeit’ drink from the country you are visiting. Go ashore and try the ‘real thing’.
Better still, book another trip to whatever island or country you like, and stay a while, a week, two weeks, three . . . get to know somebody there, the family who owns the B&B, the hotel, or even the restaurant. Sometimes, the taxi driver is a good place to start. Many restaurants in most countries (not chains) are family run, someone to cook, someone serving, and the kids playing around or collecting dirty dishes. If you spend just a little time, they will show you how hospitable and friendly they can be . . . and they love practicing their English with you!
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