When you think of Lakewood, Washington, an historic town in my old stomping grounds of Pierce County - the lush green setting of Fort Steilacoom, the rambling gardens of Thornwood Castle, the lakes and forests of the south Puget Sound - Greece probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
But one sip of Mastrogiannis Distillery's Ouzo will alter your perception of Lakewood forever.
I worked for several years as editor of a newspaper in Tacoma, just northeast of Lakewood. We lived on Vashon Island at the time, having moved to the island from Queen Anne, in Seattle. Queen Anne was getting a little too yuppy, and the island beckoned with its blue herons and orcas and long lines for the ferry. At the time, microbreweries were becoming all the rage, though the Harmon Brewing Co. was the only one in downtown Tacoma. Now, it is joined by a host of others - Wingman, Odd Otter, Narrows, Dystopian State, North 47, 7 Seas, Sluggo, and others.
Distillers are following much the same course, and are now exploding in popularity. I recently visited an excellent organic vodka and rum distiller - on Maui (Ocean Vodka), and I've been greatly enjoying the Dr. Zzyzx line of desert-inspired vodkas from Sespe Creek Distillery in Oxnard, California. But, as our eldest son who is an executive chef in Seattle has often noted, many start-up distillers, though their intentions are the best, produce mediocre, amateur-level spirits. The result is that you never know when you raise your glass for the first time, whether you're going to be treated to something divine, or something disheartening.
Two days ago, a package arrived from my Instagram pals in Seattle, Butter & Bacon (@butter.bacon.pnw). They specialize in cooking with distilled spirits, and are in fact, producing a cookbook based around it (reserve a copy through their Kickstarter campaign HERE). They had recently visited with Ilias from Mastrogiannis Distillery in Lakewood, and knowing my Greek connection, sent a bottle of Mastrogiannis' Ouzo. My wife, a Greek-American clarino (clarinet) player and Byzantine iconographer, was returning from visiting the grandkids in New Jersey, and her clarinet was due to arrive at any time after being completely overhauled by the world's best clarinet technician in Athens, Greece.
The clarinet arrived via DHL, and after she assembled it and tried it out enthusiastically (it essentially was a 100+ year-old instrument now made new again), we decided we should celebrate that evening with what else? Ouzo!
We've both had plenty of different ouzos over the years, and her family comes from Lesvos, where ouzo is big business and some of the biggest names in ouzo can be found - Barbayannis, Plomari, and others. In fact, cousin Matt Barrett has a good guide to Greek ouzos in his Greek travel guides that's a fun read, as much focused on the mezedes (small plates) you eat with ouzo, as the ouzo itself (read it HERE). Matt is somewhat of a celebrity in Greece these days with his Greek travel guide site, GreeceTravel.com, and his guide to The Greek Islands.
It was natural to wonder how an ouzo from Lakewood, Washington - made far from the sun drenched shores of Lesvos - would hold up to the classic anise-flavored Greek classic.
I poured a pretty good four-finger pull from the Mastrogiannis bottle, and was met with a pleasant, and welcoming aroma - not overpowering, but enticing. The taste was equally satisfying. Mastrogiannis Ouzo is smooth, well bodied, and exceptionally balanced. The flavor profile with its foundation of anise, includes subtle spicy and citrus notes with the presence of orange peel, fennel, coriander, cinnamon, and a hint of cane sugar. The end result is simply delicious, with that low, slow ouzo burn that warms you through and through. It's the kind of ouzo I can drink long into the night with friends, great food, and good music.
I may not make it back to Greece this year, but Mastrogiannis Ouzo stirs something deep inside of me, conjuring up memories of endless summer nights laughing and relaxing in open air ouzeries and cafeneons, with plates of keftedes (meatballs), dolmades (homemade, of course, not those canned ones), melitzanosalata, gigantes, grilled octopodi, and plates of small fishes, whether sardeles pastes (Matt's favorite - salted raw sardines), gavros (anchovies), marides (smelt) and grilled sardeles. Matt has his favorite mezedes HERE, though be forewarned - you will be hungry after visiting that page.
It's been far too long since I've spent a night like that in Greece, but Mastrogiannis Ouzo brings the kefi (a feeling of the spirit of loving life, often despite the odds - it's also the name my wife and I perform Greek traditional and pop music under) into play, and while Greece is physically distant, this ouzo closes the distance, through time and space.
Honestly, it's no wonder. Here at Mastrogiannis Distillery, the best of intentions, the desire to make the best quality spirits possible, combines with meraki - the deep, creative passion that has you put your heart and soul into what you do - is met with skill, talent, and dedication. Meraki is the motto for Mastrogiannis Distillery.
Mastrogiannis Ouzo is distilled from wine from eastern Washington and botanicals in a copper pot distiller.
Photo courtesy: Mastrogiannis Distillery.
Founder Ilias Mastrogriannis comes from a hard working family from the Aetolia-Ararnania region of Greece, north and west of Athens, where his father, Constantinos, learned winemaking. Their family's story is that of the Greek diaspora - the younger generation leaving Greece for opportunities abroad. Luckily, Ilias came to stay with cousins in Lakewood, just before 9/11. There is a great article on Ilias' story at Greeks in Washington.
Mastrogiannis Ouzo has proven to be a delightful find - a high quality ouzo that is extremely drinkable and enjoyable, with wonderful people and a great story behind it. This ouzo should be welcome at any table, and though ouzo is not everyone's favorite liqueur, this ouzo should be more accessible than many. Mastrogiannis Distillery also makes a grappa (tsipouro), rakomelo (brandy liqueur), and mastiha. My bet is they're all well worth investigating.
Ilias also produces the Distillery Nation Podcast, and you can listen in HERE.
My thanks to Ilias, Mastrogiannis Distillery, and of course, Butter & Bacon, for this inspired - and inspiring - bottle of deliciousness.