Sunday, March 7, 2010

Greek Booze

A few days ago, I dined out at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, a Greek place called Ari's. While I was there, I decided once and for all to satisfy my curiosity about one of the signature drinks of Greek culture: ouzo.

I had heard of the "ouzo effect," but had never beheld it with my own eyes. I'm all for viewing wonders of nature, as long as they are drinkable and enlivened by the elixir of joy (i.e., alcohol). For example, I have long been fascinated by the principle that keeps the black beer on top of the tan beer in a glass of Black & Tan. Besides, I like how both colors taste. But the closest I had come to drinking ouzo was (forgive me) J├Ągermeister, an ethnically-themed liquor with a similar herbal flavor profile. I liked that drink well enough, so I figured ouzo would be safe to try.

Well, now I know better. Ouzo is actually quite dangerous, if you ask me. A body could get hooked on it if a body isn't careful. For one thing, there's the flavor with its hint of licorice: it goes down very easily. For another, there's the mysteriously cloudy appearance the drink takes on as soon as you mix the clear booze with equally clear water or even ice.

The reason for this effect is that ouzo contains an aromatic oil from some herb in the anise family, an oil that dissolves in alcohol but not in water. So, while the water readily dissolves the alcohol and the alochol holds the oil (called anethole) suspended in a stable solution, the water and the anethole duke it out on a molecular level. The result is a cloudy appearance, similar to an oil-in-water emulsion. It's the same thing that happens when absinthe drinkers pour water into their drink over that sugar-cube-on-a-slotted-spoon gizmo. And you thought the dissolving sugar had something to do with it!

Admittedly, the cloudy effect only enhances the danger of drinking ouzo while you still have enough neurons firing to register surprise at the mysteries of the universe. But then again, the drink's pleasant flavor is only dangerous while your tastebuds last. Drink with care, people!

During that same visit to Ari's, I noticed that they now offer a "Greek Martini," which contains two interesting flavors of organic vodka: one distilled directly from cucumbers, and the other based on tomatoes. On a later visit, yesterday in fact, I enjoyed a sample of the cucumber vodka. Then I ordered a Bloody Mary that contained the tomato vodka.

Yes, I realize that the Bloody Mary is a drink for momma's boys. In my case, that's a step-momma's boy. Nearly all of the Bloody Marys I have had in my adult life were drunk in the fellowship of my Dad and Stepmom. I've come to think of her whenever that drink comes up. And I'm used to the family recipe containing tomato juice, lime juice, Worcestershire and Tobasco sauces, salt and pepper, a mess of stuffed green olives, and celery salt (an addition that my Dad prefers to having a stalk of celery poke one in the eye as one raises the wrist).

Much as I like the family recipe, I was sold on Ari's Bloody Mary as soon as the bartender explained what was in it. It was really fun to watch the guy make it, too. When I discussed it with Dad later on, I admitted that a glass of the drink contained only tiny amounts of most of the ingredients. Dad wisely pointed out that most of the ingredients probably play little role in the actual flavor, other than the effect they have on your imagination as you think of them being in there. Nevertheless, because it's such an interesting recipe, I'm going to share it as it was shared with me - i.e. without any specific measurements or proportions, so be aware that you'll have to do a lot of experimentation to get it right. Have fun!

Ari's Bloody Mary Mix
A nice, dark beer
Fresh tomatoes
Onion juice
Olive juice
Sauerkraut juice
Tobasco sauce
Hot Wings sauce
Worcestershire sauce
A-1 steak sauce
Kosher salt

First, let the beer stand in a glass overnight so that it goes completely flat. Then peel the tomatoes and crush them to a pulpy juice (I gather the seeds must be strained out). Add these ingredients, and small amounts of all the others, to an empty one-gallon juice jug. Screw the cap on and, as Ari's bartender says, "shake the $#!% out of it." Keep the jug in the fridge until it's needed. Then, pour it over a shot of tomato vodka on ice in a tall salt-rimmed glass, and stir.

Strangely, the version I served was not garnished with olives or celery, just a straw to stir it with. It had a nice zing that seared the surface of my tongue while, at the same time, delivering an interestingly nuanced flavor. There were a couple of moments when my nose picked up something unexpected as I leaned in for another sip - maybe even something just a bit "off" - but the next moment, my taste buds would say, "That's a Bloody Mary all right."

If I had to tinker with this recipe, I might eventually question whether the Hot Wings sauce and the A-1 really served any purpose not already covered by the Tobasco and Worcestershire, and whether a couple of olives and cocktail onions might not stand in for their respective juices. I might also debate amongst myself as to which form of celery (fresh or powdered) should be reintroduced to the recipe. I might also add a touch of clam juice - but I'm weird that way. The thing is, receipes like this are never settled. They are always a work in progress. Really there are countless ingredients you could try, and that some people may even consider essential. Once you begin experimenting, it only ends when you hang up your last stir-stick and salt your last rim...

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