Bottom Line Right at the Top: anise—or what most US citizens would immediately identify as "black licorice"—is polarizing. This Wisconsin effort at the Greek tradition will be welcome by anyone visiting from the Mediterranean, within one or two generations of Mediterranean ancestry, or anyone else who has acquired the taste for anise in the past. For others, it's going to be tough... we don't think it wins converts easily or quickly. For those who enjoy absinthe, sambuca, ouzo, raki, or a host of other anise specialties, we can give this very high recommendations. It's highest and best use is imply poured neat in a glass.
In his "The Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails," Andre Domine says, "Aniseed wafts around the Mediterranean like an aromatic breeze—the seeds are primarily to flavor drinks, playing only a secondary role as food flavoring. Combined with cold, fresh water, aniseed drinks are thirst quenching, low in alcohol in comparison to other spirits, and easily digestible." It's a beautiful vision, this idea of anise flavoring all manner of drinks from France, to Italy, to Persia, and to Greece.
Sadly, the Americans we run into have been largely trained to hate licorice, with which they immediately associate anise. Our guess is that this is the result of the vile, black licorice taffy and other candies that carry the sordid, miserable, artificial flavor. It's like claiming one hates the flavor of cherry after only being exposed to cough drops or hates mint after eating only toothpaste.
It is against this cultural backdrop that the Old Sugar Distillery produced their American version of ouzo: Americanaki. Ouzo is a particular spirit of Greece—indeed, the European Union claims that ouzo is a spirit peculiar to the region and would be distressed to see the Americanaki exhibit ouzo on the label—is traditionally flavored primarily with anise, sweetened, and can include other botanicals as well. It is diluted by custom with cold water (to louche, in a fashion familiar to absinthe drinkers) or else drunk neat and chased with cold water. Cross-reference with the American penchant for sweetened, dessert drinks, energy drinks, and soft drinks and one immediately perceives what a tall order this is.
So how do we go about introducing the idea of ouzo to America? We compared Americanaki to the world's top-selling ouzo in Ouzo 12. We also compared it to something Americans are familiar with, namely Jagermeister. This is a strange choice but it is in an herbal, bitters style liqueur often drunk neat (or at least shot) in bars across the country so at least serves as a point of departure... presumably, people who are willing to sip Jagermeister would at least mull the idea of sipping ouzo. For our program, we opened by drinking neat and with cold water in traditional Greek fashion and followed it up with several cocktails.
Americanaki vs Ouzo 12 and Jagermeister Neat and with Cold Water [no ice]
Jagermeister, to start with the familiar, tastes of root beer, licorice, and cola. With cold water, it gets weaker and colder. To many, it reminds of college. "It's like mixing pepper and Kool AdeAid... manageable," which is about as college as it gets.
Ouzo, by comparison, has a pronounced licorice/anise bouquet and flavor. We do not say "heavy" flavor because the anise overtones are defined, distinct, and deft... not the cloying, clumsy, and curdling flavors the American palate might expect from black licorice candy. The Ouzo 12 carried a waft of pine and a decidedly spearmint/toothpaste finish, the Americanaki had more of a bitter orange and a beautifully executed craft for the higher proof. The Ouzo 12 gives a classic, pearly louche while the barest mist touches the Americanaki with cold water.
Judgment: where the Ouzo 12 might have a more classic presentation (louche) and flavor (mint), we still find the Americanaki easier to drink and actually preferable served neat. We feel like the Wisconsin folks could serve, with dignity, their version of ouzo at the Greek embassy in DC.
Bonus Newbie Statement: we served all three spirits to people who had never had ouzo before with the express purpose of seeing if ouzo could convert new consumers. We were disappointed! With very few exceptions, people new to the spirit did not appreciate either ouzo and would not purchase. This leads us to believe this is a rather niche product, at least in traditional Greek settings. It could not usurp Jager in their minds.
Americanaki vs Ouzo 12 with Ginger Beer
This was a recommended drink by the Old Sugar Distillery that we mixed as 1 part ouzo, 3 parts ginger beer, and a float of angostura bitters. Interestingly, the bitters were very important to this drink... without, it was awful but with was palatable and reminiscent of a craft root beer. At least, that was in the Americanaki... the Ouzo 12, perhaps because of the spearmint taste, was absolutely vile when mixed with ginger. An overall odd drink and not one we'd order again.
Judgment: the decisive win to Americanaki but the drink is more of a one-time adventure than a staple. We're finding that ouzo is difficult to mix and is better on its own.
Bonus Newbie Statement: boy did the newbie crowd hate this drink with Ouzo 12 and on this we agree with them! They did agree that the drink was better with the Americanaki, though not repeatable.
Americanaki vs Ouzo 12 in Orange Juice
This is a pseudo-homage to the golden-era cocktail the Harvey Wallbanger, which called for vodka, orange juice, and a float of the anise liqueur Galliano. We used 3 parts orange juice and one part ouzo where the ouzo accounts for both vodka and Galliano. In neither ouzo was this a great drink but the orange came out somewhat better in the classic Ouzo 12 where it seemed to enfeeble the Americanaki. It's as if the extra flavors were an unwelcome encumberment. This must be why the Greeks take their ouzo neat despite an abundance of nearby citrus.
Judgment: in a meager drink, the nod goes to Ouzo 12 for complementing the orange flavor. We have to say in general that ouzo is contraindicated with citrus.
Bonus Newbie Statement: on this side of the equation, the newbies still did not like the drink but found the setting more pleasant than neat. They felt that the orange juice "smoothed out" the Americanaki and generally preferred it to the Ouzo 12.
Americanaki vs Ouzo 12 in Kahlua
Another invention on our end was to follow in the tradition of sambuca and aim to mix with coffee... or at least coffee flavors. The herbaceous nature of ouzo with that anise kick should, at least in our heads, mix quite nicely with coffee flavors. We elected for equal parts Kahlua and ouzo on ice. As it turned out, the sweetness of Kahlua layered on top of the sweetness of ouzo was more conflict than synergy. Neither ouzo performed particularly well with the slight edge in a bad drink going to Americanaki. This performed much better in regular coffee, however. Both ouzos performed well in this drink, presuming one is ready for the anise / black licorice flavor, yet here the slight edge going to Ouzo 12.
Judgment: black coffee is a splendid canvas for many different herbal and nut-based liqueurs and ouzo fits this like a glove. We have to say they both equally well and would consider this another tie.
Bonus Newbie Statement: alas for Greece, the Kahlua mixture found no favor at all with our batch of first-time drinkers. Perhaps fatigued by having anise blasted at them all evening, remarks were uncharitable to the point where we would not dare repeat them in polite company. This finalizes our conclusion that those unprepared and unfamiliar with anise will need some enticement and acclimation before enjoying this spirit.
It's exciting to see craft distillers sojourn in realms that contain things like ouzo. It's the kind of thing a Big Market firm like Diageo or Suntory/Beam wouldn't try—at least not without long, torturous rounds of focus groups and similar research—yet it's something that small operations like the Old Sugar Distillery can do and do well. The spirits world is better for it. We feel like the Americanaki can be served with pride to any person visiting from the Mediterranean region even with some differences in characteristics and lack of a traditional louche. It's technical execution is excellent. For all that, the taste is undeniably foreign to the North American palate and will be viewed with suspicion by many. A lot of people eye sushi suspiciously as well before they eat it and typically end up adoring it. But with sushi, these are familiar flavors presented in a new way. With ouzo, these are unfamiliar flavors being presented in a traditional way... that, we're afraid, is going to unsettle many as it did our newbie crowd.
by Neal MacDonald, editor
[Disclaimer: we received a bottle of Americanaki Ouzo from the Old Sugar Distillery for review purposes. All other products mentioned in this review were acquired at our own expense.]