What is tsípouro and why are the Greeks so upset about it?


In the frenzy of measures that are being legislated as part of the conditions for the latest bailout deal for Greece, few have attracted the popular attention as much as the proposed prohibition of bulk sales of tsípouro (τσίπουρο).

Translation: “We’re here, you will have to come door to door to take it from us, you c**s”. Twitter #free_tsipouro trended strongly at the start of the week with mainly humourous content, whose message can be summarised as “out of our cold dead hands,” or for the classically educated, “μολὼν λαβέ” .

Tsípouro is a distilled alcoholic drink that is produced from the grape skins after pressing for wine. It is essentially a by-product of wine-making, originally practiced by Orthodox monks in the Ottoman era, and popular in many areas of Greece under a variety of names (the Cretan rakí (ρακή) or tsikoudiá (τσικουδιά) is essentially the same thing). Although it can taste similar to its more commercial cousin ouzo, the latter is generally produced from a mixture of grape and grain alcohol and is always flavoured with anise. Unlike ouzo, tsípouro is often homemade, and so, like moonshine, it has rural working-class and slightly illicit connotations.

Tsípouro is generally served chilled as an aperitif or as the main feature of a long evening with mezédes (μεζέδες) and good company. When I was growing up it was considered an old man’s drink, in contrast to whisky-and-coke which was the epitome of urban sophistication. More recently it has enjoyed a renaissance, along with other traditional artisanal drinks and foods, and comes in several gourmet varieties as well as being sold from the barrel in nouveau-traditional delis. Similar to the “locavore” movements in the US and UK, the revival of traditional flavours and artisanal techniques is much more broad-based and tinged with patriotic pride.

Now for the tedious stuff…

In 1917, a law was passed to allow winemakers to distill tsípouro for their own use and sell any surplus. In 1988, a new law permitted the bottling of tsípouro by larger producers. A preferential tax rate currently applies to smaller producers whose primary business is winemaking. A good potted history can be found here, rendered unintentionally humourous by heavy-handed use of Google Translate.

Why is it suddenly controversial?

In 2012, the OECD was invited to conduct a Competition Assessment Project in collaboration with the Greek Government. Its aim was to identify areas of economic activity where anti-competitive practices were either increasing prices to consumers or creating barriers to entry for new businesses, and to make recommendations to combat them. This has become known as the “OECD tooklit” (Εργαλειοθήκη του Ο.Ο.Σ.Α.) and has proved controversial chiefly along producer groups for several of its recommendations (e.g. liberalising the market for milk and dairy products), that were however largely incomprehensible to consumers. This has played to the general feeling that reform was being forced on Greece by foreign grey-suited phlegmatic technocrats with nefarious motives.

The latest iteration of this project reportedly found that 80% of the estimated 24 million litres of tsípouro on the market at any time are evading tax, resulting in a loss of revenue to the government and unfair competition for the makers of the bottled version (I would like to understand the methodology, but unfortunately the latest OECD paper does not seem to be publicly available). The OECD have recommended either banning the sale of bulk tsípouro altogether, or requiring more stringent tax reporting for small producers. Hence the popular revolt. The “troikanoí” wouldn’t know a good drink if it was poured over them and set alight.

On this blog we are against the use of violence, and the wasting of good booze. We are sometimes a bit wary of unbottled spirits, largely because of the increased risk of a bad hangover. But I think I speak for most Greeks when I say that it will be a sad day if we have to give up small pleasures like this in exchange for mass-manufactured ethanols produced by conglomerates. After all, traditional tsípouro is also part of a zero-waste production process, and that is good for the planet.

There are pragmatic, as well as sentimental reasons for questioning this initiative and its timing. The danger here is that by using a sledgehammer to crack a small but culturally sensitive nut (pun intended, given the masculinist connotations clearly evident in the tweet above), the rumoured ban on bulk tsípouro has already excited disproportionate popular resistance that is likely to spill over to more fundamental and useful reforms. Think of it this way: if the Greek state loses an estimated €97m a year in tax revenue to illicit hooch, it loses up to €1.5bn from fuel smuggling, and €800m to sales of contraband cigarettes.

These sectors are not only magnets for international organised crime and money laundering, they also create pervasive networks of corruption within the state apparatus. By its nature, tsípouro has almost no export value but both fuel and tobacco have significant cross-border reach, making them much more lucrative for criminal organisations. They have fewer points of entry and are thus potentially more easily controlled, providing the political will is present to enforce existing legislation. Finally, rather than creating flashpoints of resistance, they command at least nominal popular support. Repeated initiatives have been announced, but results so far have been underwhelming.

Άντε, στην υγειά μας! (Go on, to our health!)

Main image from karfitsa.gr

What is tsípouro and why are the Greeks so upset about it?

2 thoughts on “What is tsípouro and why are the Greeks so upset about it?

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