The Greek word “opa” doesn’t have one true meaning but also means everything. Rather, it’s an emotional expression. It’s exclaimed during weddings or celebrations whilst smashing plates into oblivion — yes, the scenes depicting Greek culture in movies aren’t embellishing that. But it’s also a word used when an accident happens, like “oops,” or to say “hey” to a friend spotted across the street. It can be used by a grandmother shaking her head at her granddaughter’s skin-baring tank top. “Opaaaa,” she mutters as she grazes her weathered hands to her face. Opa means all of these things and more. I learned this from a bartender at Minas Taverna on the island, Meganisi, in western Greece two weeks ago, and in my quest while traveling to eat and drink everything and talk to everyone (always the bartender), I learned that this word embodies the essence of Greece. There are so many native flavors, monuments, panoramic views, tavernas and colors that tantalize the senses while in the land described as the cradle of Western Civilization. In the end, they all say one thing: This is what it means to be Greek.
Embarking on my 17-day journey to the land of Athena had me assuming I’d be imbibing heaps of ouzo. I wasn’t wrong, as it’s the national drink of Greece and available everywhere from coffee shops to flea markets to mystical cobblestone alleyways offering samplings. Ouzo is a clear spirit, a dry, anise-flavored aperitif produced by partial distillation of plain alcohol with aromatic herbs — that iconic licorice flavor imparted by aniseed, but, depending on the brand, you may find some with fennel, clove or other herbaceous flavorings.
I had my first Greek taste of ouzo on a rooftop bar, shortly after taking the Metro to our Airbnb in the funky city center neighborhood of Monastiraki. Couleur Locale boasts panoramic views of the Acropolis, delicious and reasonably priced cocktails, small plates and an extensive ouzo list. I asked our hunky server for whatever he thought was best for a beginner, and he brought us tall, skinny, cylindrical glasses filled about a third of the way with a foggy, white liquid and one ice cube. I found out that water is added to release essential oils from the aniseed, which creates the cloudy visual. Was it a black licorice explosion? Yes and no. That flavor is definitely there, but it’s true the herbal components shine when water is added. I swirled the foggy elixir and breathed it in, nose in glass but through the mouth first, just as I’ve been taught to do with bourbon. I sat back, surrounded by my partner Jamie and his family and watched the golden hour descend over the looming Parthenon. It was practically the first hour of my trip.
Could it get any better?
It turns out, ouzo isn’t the only native spirit of Greece. I found this out quickly as it’s customary for the server to bring the table a round of tiny glasses of liqueur at the end of a meal — whether you ask for it or not. Where you are in the country often dictates the spirit you’re given, and sometimes due to the language barrier, you simply don’t know until you taste it (and even then, it could be something Milos’ grandfather has brewed in the apartment upstairs for 50 years).
I tasted raki from Crete, an elixir made from grapes and spicy herbs. Jamie asked a street vendor what to mix it with when purchasing a bottle, and the young man simply replied with Greek gusto, “You don’t.” Noted. Drink it straight or die. I had masticha, which is common in Athens but sourced only from the island of Chios. A digestif from the masticha plant, said to have been the root of the world’s first ever chewing gum, masticha has the perfect minty post-meal finish (a great way to begin an evening of exploring the maze of alleyways that twist and turn through the heart of Athens).
I had tsipouro in various places, but the best was on the island of Kastos at a traditional windmill that had been refurbished by a local family and turned into a cocktail bar overlooking the Ionian Sea. Tsipouro is essentially an unaged brandy or a pure grape distillate. It seems the Greeks are partial to distilling the byproducts of wine and adding herbs for a bit of a punch. The bartender at Mylos Cocktail Bar made me a “Mediterranean Mule” with tsipouro, Aegean ginger beer and herbs growing in carafes and tins around his windmill. “Goodbye, cruel world,” I thought. “I live here now.”
On the island of Lefkada, I tasted the traditional Ionian spirit rozoli at the Fragoulis Distillery, made from local orange and cinnamon — think a delightful, artisanal Fireball. This is a 10-barrel, family operation where the grandmother was behind the counter, and a sweaty, muscular man came out from behind the bottling area to pour me samples. It made it feel a bit like I was in an “Eat, Pray, Love” dream.
I had so many of these “oh my god, this feels so Greek,” moments. Every sip of a spirit, a bite of feta soaked in honey, the sight of dramatic cliffs looming in the distance to expose a village just hanging onto mainland Greece by a thread. They all mean quintessential Greece, and opa, and yamas — cheers! •