If you look at the back of most British drinks cupboards, there will be a dusty, untouched bottle of ouzo or raki brought back from holiday. When I was a student, if we were considering broaching the ouzo, we knew it was time to call it a night. Ouzo is associated with sunburnt flesh, Demis Roussos and carnage on the streets of Malia. It has a reputation for causing a particularly intense kind of drunkenness, but this is only because it’s usually taken when the imbibers are already extremely drunk. They wake up the next day bruised and ashamed with a taste of aniseed in their mouths, and naturally they blame the ouzo.
Ouzo is part of a family of drinks common to most countries with a strong Muslim influence – let’s not forget that Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire for around 400 years. In Lebanon they have arak, in Turkey raki, and they even make something similar in Saudi Arabia. This is not so surprising as the Arabs were probably the first people to distil alcohol; alcohol is an Arabic word. “Arak” means “sweat” in Arabic, and describes the distillation process rather than what happens when you drink too much.
When the East India Company first began conquering bits of India, they had terrible problems with their men going on arak binges. In 1756, after too much arak, one of General Clive’s men tried to take the enemy fort of Baj-baj near Calcutta on his own. An eyewitness account reported: “He took it into his head to scale a breach that had been made by the cannon … then after having given three loud huzzas, he cried out, ‘the place is mine’.” Sounds like Saturday night in Malia.