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I Try Ouzo

It is a rule of travel to always try the local drink of choice.

RHODES, Greece- I didn’t notice the Mustik bar in Ialysos for two weeks. It’s right in the center of the village, right across from the church, but it’s tucked away in a string of historic shop fronts that are predominantly shut down at this time of year.

But tonight I was looking to do a deep survey of this place at night. Ialysos is a pretty village under the askance mix of halogen, incandescent, sodium-vapor, tungsten halogen, mercury-vapor, and bright white florescent and LED lights. The streets here are a menagerie of colors,  of white, blue, and orange.

Movies don’t show places lighted at night how they usually really are. The directors usually choose the color light they want and then insert those bulbs into the scenes they set up. In real life, however, lights are usually mixed — especially in small towns and villages — giving the streets this askance luminosity that’s akin to the look of a poorly-bred mutt. In Ialysos, there are actually public light posts with orange sodium-vapor bulbs on one side and white LEDs in the other. Kind of ghetto but I like it.

I figured I would just go to this sports bar kind of place that’s near my house but I found myself walk right past it. Inside was some guy on his phone and that seemed to be the most exciting thing going on. I walked to the main intersection, found nothing but a swanky cafe bar, thought better of it, then doubled back and went to a bar that’s clearly the highest class place in town.

It was called River-something. It was full, with just one bar stool either unoccupied or unreserved. I took it and ordered a pint of Mythos.

Greeks are not unfriendly but often seem to have a bit of a defensive barrier towards people they don’t really know — like most of Europe. This place isn’t like the hospitality cultures of the east and you’re not going to roll up and expect to get the attention of an entire bar just because you’re from somewhere else. This is the kind of culture that requires a key to get in.

So I just sat up at that bar wedged between a girl smoking cigarettes from a long holder with tall genuine leather boots and a short older guy. The girl had her back turned towards me and the older guy was fixated on the soccer game that was on the TV.

Something seemed off about the place. It was hard to get into it — the place was packed and lively but the mood was raw. What was it? Were the lights were too bright and white? It was kind of like being in a doctor’s office — you just had this feeling of being examined.

I left after my first pint and began looking for somewhere else. I took a flier walking down a street that I hadn’t previously notice a bar on but thought it would be an appropriate place for one.

I couldn’t tell if it was open at first. I saw a couple dudes inside but they seemed to just be hanging out. Rhodes is getting ready for the coming tourist season now, so many businesses are not really open yet. I reached for the door and gauged the reaction of the people inside when I walked in.

Eventually, the bartender said hello. I took a seat at the bar and the bartender set about making the place look a little more open — which I took at the time to be for my benefit. He flipped on the music. He dimmed the overhead lights down real low and then turned on these small, orange lights that hovered over each barstool and strips of blue lights behind the bottles on the bar. The place had style, and the bartender clearly knew how to set a mood.

You want bars light enough to notice everything but not so light that you feel as if you’re being noticed. You need shadows and soft, diffused track lights — the feel of candlelight, perhaps. Only then can you drink comfortably.

The bartender then poured a couple of drinks in front of me. One came from a giant jug that even he had difficulty weilding.

“What is that?”

“Ouzo and cola,” he replied. “Local alcohol. Very strong. Drink two or three of these and then you are woooo.” He lifted the back of his hand to his forehead for effect.

I’ve been seeing this stuff everywhere but had never tried it.

The bartender then turned to me and asked what I wanted.

“Ouzo and cola,” I replied. He smiled.

The local alcohol, in any part of the world, is the best way into a place.

He poured my drink and watched as I lifted it to my lips. I knew this stuff. The last time I had it I was in Serbia and it was called raki.

(Cue: angry commenter who is going to tell me how different ouzo is from raki and how he / she is so offended that I could dare write such a thing.)

That said, ouzo is basically an anise-flavoured drink that is said to be derived from the work of 14th-century monks on Mount Athos. But it didn’t really become too popular until it became the go-to stand in for absinthe in the early 20th century. It comes with tapas: carrots in vinegar, feta cheese, and pretzels.

I downed my first glass and then realized that the bartender wasn’t mistaken: the stuff is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it’s not only palatable but actually tastes good. Whiskey, rum, vodka … can not be considered dangerous drinks as they taste horrible — you’re body has a convulsing, gag reflex against them. But ouzo goes down smooth, doesn’t get caught in your throat, and doesn’t burn your belly. It was really something special — kind of like high-quality tequila.

The bartender asked if I wanted another one …

Filed under: Alcohol, Drink Drank Drunk, Greece, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3527 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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