Ouzo opium

A long standing urban myth holds that ouzo has opium or that the “proper” ouzo in the past contained opium.   It is maintained that “my Greek grandfather once told me” or that “I heard from a sailor” and equally improbably sources that it used to be the norm for the drink to contain opiates.   This is of course ridiculous for many reasons not least of which that it would be a pretty ineffective way of ingesting opium!

There does seem to be some truth to the fact that “rebetes” (a movement in the early 20th century in Greece for non conformists) may have enjoyed ouzo and various mind altering drugs concurrently.   Whether or not they dropped something in their ouzo by mistake will never be historically known of course!  However they were more often associated with the consumption of wine so maybe we should start an urban myth about greek wine and opium!

In another popular post we explore how brands should (or if they even can) to these rumours regarding opium in ouzo drawing from Coca Cola’s experience and recent academic research.

Again from Wikipedia:


"Photo of Smyrna Style Trio (1932)

D. Semsis, A. Tomboulis, R. Eskenazi (Athens, 1932)

Rebetiko probably originated in the music of the larger Greek cities, most of them coastal, in today’s Greece and Asia Minor. In these cities the cradles of rebetiko were likely to be the taverna, the ouzeri, the hashish den, and the prison. In view of the paucity of documentation prior to the era of sound recordings it is difficult to assert further facts on the very early history of this music.[nb 6] There is a certain amount of recorded Greek material from the first two decades of the 20th century, recorded in Constantinople/Istanbul, in Egypt and in America, of which isolated examples have some bearing on rebetiko, such as in the very first case of the use of the word itself on a record label.[15] But there are no recordings from this early period which gives an inkling of the local music of Piraeus such as first emerged on disc in 1931 (see above).


In the wake of the population exchange of 1923, huge numbers of refugees settled in PiraeusThessaloniki and other harbor cities. They brought with them both European and Ottoman musical elements and musical instruments, particularly Ottoman café music, but also, and often neglected in such accounts, a somewhat Italianate style with mandolins and choral singing in parallel thirds and sixths. Some of these musicians from Asia Minor were highly competent musicians who quickly became studío directors and A&R men for the major companies. From the middle of the 1920s a substantial number of Ottoman-style songs were recorded in Greece, whereas examples of Piraeus-style rebetiko song first reached shellac in 1931 (see above).

[edit]The 1930s

Photo of Rebetes in Karaiskaki, Piraeus (1933)

Rebetes in Karaiskaki, Piraeus (1933). Left Vamvakaris with bouzouki, middle Batis with guitar.

During the 1930s, the relatively sophisticated musical styles met with, and cross-fertilised, the more heavy-hitting local urban styles exemplified by the earliest recordings of Vamvakaris and Batis.[GH 1][16]

This historical process has led to a currently used terminology intended to distinguish between the clearly Asia Minor oriental style, often called “Smyrneïka”, and the bouzouki-based style of the 1930s, often called Piraeus style.[nb 7]

By the end of the 1930s rebetiko had reached what can reasonably be called its classic phase, in which elements of the early Piraeus style, elements of the Asia Minor style, and clearly European elements, had fused to generate a genuinely syncretic musical form. Simultaneously, with the onset of censorship, a process began in which rebetiko lyrics slowly began to lose what had been their defining underworld character. This process extended over more than a decade.

Photo of the Piraeus Quartet (mid-1930)

Piraeus Quartet: A. Delias aka Artemis, G. Batis, M. Vamvakaris, S. Pagioumtzis (mid-1930)

In 1936, the 4th of August Regime under Ioannis Metaxas was established and with it, the onset of censorship. Some of the subject matter of rebetiko songs was now considered disreputable and unacceptable. During this period, when the Metaxas dictatorship subjected all song lyrics to censorship, song composers would rewrite lyrics, or practice self-censorship before submitting lyrics for approval.[17] The music itself was not subject to censorship, although proclamations were made recommending the “europeanisation” of Turkish music, which led to certain radio stations banning “amanedes” in 1938, i.e. on the basis of music rather than lyrics. This was, however, not bouzouki music. The term amanedes, (sing. amanes, gr. αμανέδες, sing. αμανές) refers to a kind of improvised sung lament, in ummeasured time, sung in a particulardromos/makam. The amanedes were perhaps the most pointedly oriental kind of songs in the Greek repertoire of the time.[18][nb 8]

References to drugs and other criminal or disreputable activities now vanished from recordings made in Greek studios, to reappear briefly in the first recordings made at the resumption of recording activity in 1946.[4] In the United States, however, a flourishing Greek musical production continued, with song lyrics apparently unaffected by censorship, (see below) although, strangely, the bouzouki continued to be rare on American recordings until after WWII.[1]

Click here for a related article about why the opium – ouzo rumours persist and what the brands should do about it.

1 comment

  1. There is ouzo and in some places there is chipra, a homemade, opium-based ouzo. I can attest to both. The latter having a more cinnamon-licorice flavor to it and yes it will set your mouth and stomach on fire. However, Greeks are social drinkers and usually provide olives or cucumbers and tomatoes in spices and olive oil or squid with goat cheese to coat the stomach and bread to absorb the alcohol.

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