In Thessaloniki, chef and tsipouro expert Grigoris Helmis explains how to enjoy and understand the time-honoured traditions surrounding this Greek alcoholic spirit.
Tsipouro is the forgotten cousin of the more popular ouzo and raki; although little known outside Greece, the spirit is an indelible part of the country’s culture. It is believed to date back to the hallowed ground of the 14th-century monasteries on Mount Athos, and the customs surrounding its consumption have made tsipouro something akin to sacred to the Greeks. Traditionally served alongside small meze dishes, it’s much more than just a drink; it’s an art form that has historically brought people together.
Grigoris Helmis, chef and co-owner of tsipouro bar MeZen in Thessaloniki, spoke to Culture Trip about this Greek tradition, explained how best to drink the spirit – and even let us in on the golden rule of tsipouro.
As tsipouro isn’t commonly found outside Greece, Helmis has witnessed many people’s first encounters with the spirit when they arrive at MeZen’s bars in Volos and Thessaloniki. He’s therefore well equipped to give a crash course on the topic. “Tsipouro is a spirit made from grape skins and the leftovers of wine. Up until 1899, you couldn’t find any bottled tsipouro. People would make it themselves out of the byproduct of the wine. It was a very underground drink – and a very underrated drink.”
Even as tsipouro has become more widely, and more commercially, manufactured, it’s remained very much a community spirit (no pun intended). “There are now over 300 different labels of tsipouro. But it is still a very local product; because you’re using the byproducts of wine, you’re mainly using the local wines, which means all the different regions – Mykonos, Crete, Volos – make their own varieties.”
There are varying standards of tsipouro, which range from blended varieties made in bulk to the distilled versions of the spirit, which Helmis describes as “clearer, more crisp, better quality.” The origins of the tsipouro served at MeZen are important to Helmis; he and his business partner Andreas Diaconimitris travel around Greece, meeting producers and distillers to learn more about the individual brands and their production. Each tsipouro on the menu is accompanied by details of the year, the city of origin and tasting notes. “We deal with tsipouro like it is wine, because I think it deserves it.”
Drinking tsipouro is a slow affair. With most varieties clocking in at 40 percent ABV, it should be sipped leisurely in between bites of Greek meze – and according to Helmis, never, ever taken as a shot.
Helmis was inspired to open an authentic tsipouro bar in the Greek city of Volos after he and his business partner saw the bastardisation of the tsipouro tradition. Adapted to cater to tourists, rather than the Greek residents of the city, the tsipouro bars had strayed far from their origins. “We saw tsipouro places which were racing to serve the most food, to pull in customers; but it was too much food for meze. And to keep the cost down it was cheap, frozen food.”
Instead, when conceptualising his tsipouro bar, Helmis returned to the tradition and the culture he loved. “We came to it with a respect for the procedure, for the whole culture. We took the tradition of tsipouro and we brought it to the 21st century, with a more gastronomic view.” The dishes that traditionally accompany tsipouro include grilled mackerel, tiny salted fish and fermented cabbage (sometimes with the fermenting juice served on the side as a sour, pickled shot). While MeZen’s menu doesn’t neglect these beloved classics, other dishes skew towards the contemporary; the restaurant’s signature is the artisanal black garlic tzatziki, and it specialises in innovative marriages of meat and seafood such as the cod croquettes, made with lamb fat.
Although most tsipouro bars will give you the option to mix the spirit with anise, Helmis recommends drinking it in its pure and original form to best enjoy the unique flavours. “I recommend that you try it without anise; you can’t clearly understand the difference between the different varieties and flavours if you have it mixed, as the anise itself is so strong. It covers all the other tastes. You can try the tsipouro straight, you can try it with ice, or you can try it with water. For the best-quality tsipouro, you want to try it with ice only, in a wide glass so you can smell it and taste it.”
Tsipouro is always accompanied by small plates of Greek meze, served in a manner similar to Spanish tapas. “We put the meze in the middle of the table – it’s not individual plates. They are designed so everyone can share, and can have a little of each dish.”
However, the dishes that come out of the kitchen may be a surprise; most traditional bars don’t have a menu at all. Helmis describes how, typically, people visiting a tsipouro bar put their dining experience in the capable hands of the chef. “In many traditional places, you don’t order the food – you simply order the tsipouro and the chef and the waiter personalise the order to you. That’s why many traditional tsipouro bars have an open kitchen – so the chef sees who is in the restaurant, and decides what they will send out to them.”
And unlike with a typical set menu, the chefs don’t whip up identikit dishes for every diner. “Every table might be eating something completely different. For example, one of the traditional meze is salted fish, so if there is a table with four older men, heavy drinkers, we will send them the very traditional dishes. But for a table with young 18-year-old girls on a night out, from the university, we might send them something else – we try and please every table, and send them what suits them.”
Helmis’s first round of meze always features bold, brash flavours: house-made salted mackerel (which he describes as “aggressively fishy”), smoked feta cheese mixed with tart tomato paste and glugs of Greek olive oil, and eye-wateringly sour pickled beans. The choice to start the meze with such distinctive tastes is a deliberate one. “The first mezes that we bring to the table always have very strong and individual flavours. They are salty, they are smoky, they are sour; they are all balanced. This is because the first few sips of the tsipouro can make your tongue numb, so we need to make the flavours of the first dishes very strong to compete with the alcohol.”
And that’s not the only reason Helmis always makes sure diners start with the most intense dishes; it’s also to combat your greed. “The other reason is that after you take the first few sips, you become hungry – so we have to stop you from eating too much by making the dishes very strong! You have to keep a balance between eating and drinking.” To Helmis, it’s about respecting the spirit, and that means appreciating its subtle flavours rather than gulping it down.
Long before farm-to-table, seasonal and local became the holy trinity of buzzwords proudly displayed on every pop-up restaurant board, tsipouro bars were creating fresh and adaptable menus with whatever ingredients they could find in the region.
At MeZen, the menu heavily depends on what’s on offer in Thessaloniki’s local markets. “Every day we go to the fish market and the produce market, see what’s happening and what is available; then we decide what we will make that day. And the next day might be something completely different, and the next day as well. Some dishes stay the same – for example, mackerel is very common and very popular, so we often have that. However, people who come on a Monday can come back on a Tuesday and they may find lots of different dishes – we will make a different type of pickled vegetable, a different grilled fish. It really depends on the ingredients at the market.”
Helmis recommends that anyone in search of a decent plate of meze to accompany their tsipouro bypass larger restaurants in favour of the smallest, most hole-in-the-wall-style bar you can find. “Many times, you don’t get the same quality in big places. Imagine you have a restaurant with 200 seats; in rush hour, that is 200 people who all want to drink and to eat. The kitchen has to supply each of these tables with three or four plates for each drink, and you cannot keep up with that demand with fresh, good food – many places serve frozen food.”
“So the best thing is to go to small meze places, ones where you can see into the kitchen and where the kitchen can keep up with the pace and the clientele. Here, our kitchen is actually bigger than the restaurant!”
One thing Helmis is firm about is that you shouldn’t expect a buffet-style meal at a tsipouro bar; despite the abundance of small plates available, you won’t get an onslaught of dishes arriving at your table all at once.
“As a chef we always keep an eye and make sure people are eating at the right pace. One of the rules is that you should only have three plates in front of you. This means you can eat the grilled or fried food quickly, before it goes cold. It also means you can focus on each individual plate and talk about the flavours. The dishes are all small, they’re humble, they’re cheap. But they are very good.”
Tsipouro is not just a drink, nor is it simply an opportunity to try a selection of Greek meze. It’s a communal experience, one to be savoured and enjoyed with friends and family. Though the food may be complex, the philosophy behind MeZen is simple. “The idea – and the origin of the name – is to step out of here and be in a Zen mood. Zen from the alcohol, Zen from the food and Zen from the company.”
Helmis says, “You’re not here just for drinking, or for food – you are here for the combination of both, and for the company. The golden rule is one sip, one bite, talk – and repeat. By following this procedure you can sit here for hours, drinking and eating, and go out of here sober. It’s all about the balance.”
Helmis believes that the balance of the tsipouro tradition is something that has inspired the greatest minds of Greece throughout history. “I think tsipouro is the closest thing to the ancient Greek symposium; they drank wine mixed with water, they ate together, and they discussed their ideas. It was about debating philosophy, and exchanging thoughts, with the help of alcohol.”
After consuming numerous shots of 40-percent spirits, leaving a tsipouro bar sober may be a stretch – but at least when you emerge full, content and perhaps just a little tipsy, you’ll have the knowledge that you’ve partaken in a Greek tradition dating back centuries.