Founded in 1875, a family-run distillery – near Thessaloniki on Greece’s northeast coast – began experimenting with their own organically grown grapes in the ‘70s under the guidance of owner Anestis Babatzimopoulos. He continues his grandfather’s operation, producing traditional ouzo and tsipouro (a distilled spirit) made from local grapes.
Photos + interview editing by Alecia Wood
Interview translation by Kalliopi Koutoupa
Tell us about your distillery and what products you make here.
This part of the winery was built in 1936. I respect tradition. I kept this building as it is, and built the other new buildings around it in order not to destroy it. I want to continue using traditional methods that I learnt from past generations.
The distillation takes place here. Northeast of here is our estate where we make wine. There it’s only organic [wine], but here we collect grapes from all over the Macedonia region of Greece. I didn’t want to make any confusion for consumers, this is why I decided to separate the two.
When the wine is finished, I have two options – to bottle the wine, or to bring the wine here to start the distillation process. Then it becomes tsipouro – like a grappa – or ouzo made with anise. I always do single varieties for the tsipouro – cabernet sauvignon, merlot – and roditis, an indigenous grape variety.
I have this opportunity to give you pleasure either with the wine, or to give you a sense of satisfaction and to feel more light after a meal [with tsipouro or ouzo].
These are to drink. Not to get drunk, but to enjoy.
What’s the history of these kind of distilled drinks in Greece?
After the Roman Empire, which collapsed a little bit in the east part, the Byzantine Empire started. The Seljuks, they destroyed the Byzantine Empire. They forbid the Greeks from cultivating grapes, making wine and selling wine. They didn’t allow them to do all these actions. The Greeks were very bound with wine and winemaking so they had to destroy all their vineyards. The grandfathers said that if wine is not allowed, we’ll find another product that is allowed.
So they created this drink that they call raki. Like most of the Greeks, if you ask someone is raki a Greek or Turkish word, they’ll say it’s Turkish. This word is 100% Greek, and it comes from the ancient word rax that means the grape, the fruit.
This seed, anise [used to make ouzo], makes men more passionate. It’s the most magic seed in the whole universe. It grows in Greece, it’s a plant of the Mediterranean – Spain, North Africa, Turkey. Here, the best is from the Halkidiki Peninsula.
What’s the most important part of making your products?
I have to play three roles – the cultivator, the winemaker and the distiller. Which one should I live, at the end? For me, I want to play these three parts, like three parts of a golden chain. I cannot leave anything out from these three, because I want to work passionately and give people pleasure and take pleasure for myself.
I’m very passionate in the vine cultivation part. Throughout the summer, I pay attention to see the vines growing healthy with a lot of grapes. I try to bring out the best of the grapes, and turn them into a very high quality wine.
How do you like to enjoy tsipouro? After we finish dinner, and we’ve had a very fatty meat, we drink a good red wine like a cabernet sauvignon. After that, I’ll bring the most special tsipouro also made with cabernet sauvignon, because I make them from single varieties of grapes. With the first you clean the palate, with the second you clean the stomach.
What about a glass of ouzo?
The ideal equilibrium is to combine what we drink with small portions – meze in Greek – so this allows us to enjoy both. Ouzo pairs well with food that comes from the sea. It matches very nicely with fish meze, or appetizers – mussels, sardines. Also, with the sea scenery and good company.
When I drink ouzo, because you drink it with seafood, even though I’m not close to the sea, I feel the breeze of the sea. I feel this sense of freedom, a sense of open horizons. Wherever you are, you can feel this kind of freedom inside you.
What does the future of your distillery look like?
There are members of the family who are going to continue with this business. Your generation is more impatient, they want to do things fast and reach goals very fast. On the other hand, because of the financial crisis, this makes us more pessimistic. In the future, when you come here, you might feel a different way. What I can give you now, maybe no one else can give it to you in this way, with my passion… I love what I do and I love life.
This place must seem messy, old and not so clean, but from this place came a lot of very important awards, not because of the luxury of the place but because I insisted on doing something different – on quality. I did it my own way, with my passion. That’s what made the difference.