Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Committee: New Greek Spirits To Explore

"Nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was every granted by the gods to man."

I've been an advocate of Greek wines for a number of years and one of my prior articles provided my readers with Ten Reasons To Drink Greek Wine. At the new Mediterranean restaurant Committee, which serves many Greek dishes, their wine list includes numerous Greek wines, including White, Red, Sparkling and Rosé. They are all worthy of exploration.

Committee recently hired Consulting Wine Director Lauren Friel to revamp their beverage program and she made some changes to the wine list. In addition, and of great interest to me, Lauren introduced several traditional Greek & Lebanese spirits to the beverage program, including rakomelo, ouzo, tsipouro, mastiha and arak. If you consult my Ten Reasons To Drink Greek Wine, you'll find that most of those reasons would apply to Greek spirits as well.

Recently, I was invited as a media guest to check out these new Greek spirits and it was an excellent opportunity for me to further my education as I was previously unfamiliar with most of these spirits except for ouzo. Though these spirits can be found in a few restaurants and wine shops in the Boston area, they often get sparse attention. That might start to change as more Greek restaurants having been opening in the area but it will still require customers taking a step to expand their palate by trying these new spirits. With their ancient history, and often a strong connection to wine, these spirits can be intriguing and delicious and are worth experiencing.

For many years, there was little commercial sale of Greek spirits until there were changes to the law around 1990. Regulations on the production, bottling and sales of these spirits were enacted, allowing the commercial spread of these spirits outside of Greece. This eventually led to the European Union listing a number of these spirits as Protected Geographical Indications, including Ouzo, Tsipouro/Tsikoudia, Tentura, Masticha of Chios, Kitro of Naxos, and Koum Kouat of Corfu. A number of these spirits are now available in the Boston area, with more likely available in the near future.

Lauren stated to me that all of the Greek spirits at Committee were triple-distilled in copper stills, with the heads and tails of the distillation discarded. In addition, the spirits do not contain any artificial flavors or additives. As I've tasted Ouzo before, I didn't taste any of the three brands available at Committee, including Plomari, Barbayanni and Mytilini, instead concentrating my efforts on those spirits unfamiliar to me.

You can order the spirits by the Glass ($6-$8), 300ml ($22-$34), or 500ml ($44-$58). The 300ml is recommended for 1-2 people while the 500ml for 2-4 people. The spirits are also presented with ice on the side allowing guests to use as much or as little ice as they desire. In addition, you can order a Tasting Flight of 3 Ouzo ($10), 3 Spirits ($12)--including an Ouzo, Tsipouro & Mastiha, or 3 Anisettes ($11)--including two Ouzo & an Arak. Currently, none of their listed Cocktails are made with any of these spirits.

Rakomelo (not available by the Glass, 300ml $26, 500ml $44) is commonly a blend of Tsipouro/Tsikoudia with honey, aromatic herbs and spices. The origin of this drink allegedly extends back to at least the 12th century and is produced throughout Greece, including Crete and other islands. It is intended to be a social drink so it is usually enjoyed in small shots, like Japanese Sake. In the winter, it is served warm and in the summer, it is consumed cold.

At Committee, they create their Rakomelo with Tsikoudia, honey, clove and cinnamon and will serve it warm during the winter and cold in the summer. I tasted the warm version and it reminded me of hot, spiced apple cider without the apples. It was easy drinking, more savory and only minimally sweet, with plenty of flavors of fall spices. The alcohol was well hidden within the drink so you could easily finish one of the carafes without realizing how much alcohol you might have consumed. On the night I tasted the Rakomelo, it was one of the most chilly nights of this winter, and this was a perfect option. It would act as an excellent aperitif though I think it would pair well with a number of foods too, anything that might pair well with fall spices.

Tsipouro is a grape marc/pomace spirit, basically a type of brandy, and it allegedly originated with monks in the 14th century. Essentially, they distill the pomace, the skins, pits, seeds, and stems left over from grapes when they are pressed. Tsikoudia, also known as Raki, is the same as Tsipuro except it is produced on Crete. As I mentioned, the EU protects these spirit names, but also sets for specific regions too, including Tsipouro of Thessaly, Tsipouro of Macedonia, Tsipouro of Tyrnavos and Tsikoudia of Crete. Some producers add aromatic seeds or plants, such as anise, fennel and saffron,  to their Tsipouro.

In general, both Tsipouro and Tsikoudia are commonly drunk before a meal with fruits and cheeses or after a meal as a digestif. It's less common to drink them throughout a meal though there are some who recommend Tsipouro with pungent meat dishes or other earthy ones, such as mushrooms and pickles. On Crete, Tsikoudia is usually offered as an after-dinner digestif, sometimes served with fruit or dessert. There is also an old custom that you should have two drinks of Tsikoudia because you have two legs, and if you only have one drink, you might have to leave on just one leg.

I tasted the Idoniko Tsipouro (Glass $8, 300ml $34, 500ml $58), produced by the Domaine Costa Lazaridi, a winery founded in 1992 in the municipality of Drama. The winery currently has about 200 hectares and creates a number of different wines as well as Tsipouro. With a smooth taste of subtle citrus and herbs, this spirit went down very easily and even though it was 80 proof, the alcohol seems to take the backseat and you wouldn't suspect the actual alcohol level. I preferred this spirit on ice rather than at room temp, though it was still good at room temp. This would be a good spirit to introduce newcomers to the unique spirits of Greece.

The Haraki Tsikoudia (Glass $6, 300ml $26, 500ml $44) is produced by the Patsakis Distillery, which was founded in 1990 by Michael Patsakis in the area around the village of Prinias in Crete. They were one of the first to legally produce Tsikoudia. This spirit had a different taste profile than the Idoniko, presenting with less fruit flavors, more herbal notes and a mild licorice note. There was also some intriguing briny elements, especially on the finish. However, even though this is also 80 proof, the alcohol was much more prominent than in the Idoniko. It possesses a little more complexity than the Idoniko, but it might be best on the rocks so that the water can dilute some of the strong alcohol flavor.

Mastiha of Chios is a liqueur made from the aromatic resin, known as mastic, of the mastiha tree and grown on the island of Chios, especially in the southern regions. The resin is also sometimes called Arabic Gum and Tears of Chios. The sap from the tree is it softens into a gum which may taste initially bitter but then acquires a pine/cedar taste. The ancient Greeks chewed this mastic gum to aid digestion and Chian wine were also highly prized during that period. Nowadays, it is considered a local tradition that Masticha, chilled or on ice, should be served with dessert or coffee.

The Homericon Mastiha (Glass $8, 300ml $34, 500ml $58) is produced by the Stoupakis Distillery, which was founded in 1896 on Chios, which was still under Turkish occupation at the time. In 2008 the company was renamed into Stoupakis Distillery of Chios S.A., producing Ouzo and Mastiha. The name Homericon is an homage to Homer, the famous ancient Poet, said to be the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to legend, Chios was the birthplace of Homer. I found the Homericon to possess an intriguing herbal aroma and on the palate, it was thick and viscous, with a strong herbal taste including notes of clove and pine with a hint of sweetness. It was like a more savory dessert wine and I can understand why it pairs well with dessert.

The last spirit isn't Greek but it is Mediterranean, Arak from Lebanon. Arak is an anisette spirit, kind of Lebanese Ouzo. It commonly is clear and colorless, and traditionally mixed with water, often one part Arak to two parts water. It may be mixed in a water vessel called the Abarik (or Barik), and the Arak will become milky-white. It is usually drunk with food and not on its own. This is partially due to the fact that the anise helps cleanse the palate and help digestion.

El Massaya Arak (Glass $7, 300ml $30, 500ml $50) is produced by Massaya (which means "twilight") from the pomace of an indigenous grape, Obeida. It is triple distilled, in copper still fired with vine wood, and during the third distillation, they add some macerated green organic aniseed from the village of Hineh on the Syrian slopes of Mount Hermon. The Arak is then aged for a number of months in traditional clay amphorae made by the potters in the Mount Lebanon village of Beit Chebab. This Arak is 100 proof, so a potent spirit, which definitely reminded me of ouzo, with its intense anise aromas and taste. There are hints of an almost oxidized taste, adding a touch of earthiness to the Arak too. A fascinating spirit which might convert you to anisette spirits.

Overall, I recommend you check out these new spirits at Committee, to broaden your palate and maybe find some new favorites. Don't have the same old Vodka or Gin, but instead try a Tsipouro or Arak. For these wintry days, share some warm Rakomelo with friends. See why the Greeks have been enjoying these spirits for many centuries.

While sampling this spirits, I also enjoyed a few different dishes of Committee's cuisine. In the near future, I'll be writing about those dishes and others I enjoyed on another visit. However, in short, the food at Committee is excellent, with many compelling flavors, and plenty to appeal to both vegetarians and carnivores. In fact, Committee has become one of my favorite new restaurants and I highly recommend you dine there, to enjoy its delicious Mediterranean and Greek cuisine, as well as its intriguing wines and spirits.

As the Greeks say, Kali Orexi, or as the French would put it, Bon Appétit!

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