The iconic Greek-American town of Tarpon Springs, Florida now has another achievement to boast of to tie it back to the homeland — it now distills its very own Ouzo!
Lisa and Barry Butler, who opened Tarpon Springs Distillery in January of 2020, are the very first distillers to have Ouzo approved, and sold, under new classification laws in the United States.
Named “Papous Ouzo,” you can now find this famed Greek libation in all the popular Greek restaurants around town, and even take a history-packed distillery tour which ends with complimentary samples of the emblematic Greek delight.
Tarpon Springs has an incredibly rich Greek heritage which dates back to the late 1800s. The current mayor of the town, who is actually from Greece, has been in office since 2016.
The center of town even boasts lovely white and blue buildings reminiscent of Greece. Added to Tarpon Springs’ already pervasive Greek character is the fact that now it finally distills its own Ouzo, so it is now even harder to argue against the town’s motto, “Visit Greece without leaving Florida.”
Greek Reporter spoke with the Butlers to hear how they make their popular drink, what the local Greeks think of this development, and what it is like to live in the most densely-populated Greek-American community in the US.
Old recipe for ouzo
“For a long time in the US, ouzo was misclassified as a liqueur, so to call a product ouzo you had to add sugar to it — at least 2.5% — and this caused it to taste more like Sambuca, sickly sweet. And it gave you a terrible hangover!” Barry Butler, the chief distiller, explains.
“If we were going to open up a distillery in Tarpon Springs, we had to create a traditional Greek drink. I started searching the internet high and low for a recipe. Finally, buried deep in an old blog, a guy had posted a recipe from his great uncle, who lived on the island of Lesbos and brewed Ouzo,” Barry goes on to relate.
“I extrapolated the recipe and added a Florida twist — Florida orange — and there you have it, Tarpon Springs’ ‘Papous Ouzo’. I think that we were the first, and maybe the only so far, to be distilled and sold under the new classification,” Butler proudly tells Greek Reporter.
The reclassification of Ouzo was not the only fortunate thing to happen to the Butlers, however. When they began to look for a distillery location they came across the Katzaras Family warehouse, which once housed an old sponge business steeped in Tarpon Springs history and tradition.
Making Ouzo behind a burlap curtain
“The Katzaras family ran a successful sponge business out of the warehouse for over 60 years, but when Stephen (Papou) died in 2004 the family struggled to keep the business going. When we took over the warehouse we did a lot of renovation work, but with the support and communication of the Katzaras family, we feel we have been able to keep the history of the building alive,” Barry states.
“We start all of our distillery tours at the warehouse’s storyboard, where you can find a copper dive helmet, and original sponges the family have kindly let us keep. The family told us that Stephen used to make his own Ouzo behind a burlap curtain where our Ouzo still is kept today,” he adds.
“With such a rich history to tell we think it is important that people visiting us understand this, as this will lead to a greater understanding of the spirits,” Lisa Butler tells Greek Reporter.
The major annual event for Tarpon Springs is undoubtedly the Epiphany celebration. In 2020, the 114th celebration of its kind, was attended by the Greek Prime Minister and Archbishop Elpidophoros, the highest-ranking officials to ever attend the celebrations.
It is thought that over 25,000 people attended that year’s ceremony.
Lisa Butler says that this year’s Epiphany celebrations were galvanizing for the introduction of the new drink. “This was the first real opportunity we had to show the local community what we had created. Skeptical Greeks purchasing our Ouzo for the first time quickly turned into regular customers throughout the celebrations, and it was shortly after that that ‘Papou’s’ began to be stocked in the restaurants and stores around town.
“The Katzaras family visited during the Epiphany as well, four generations of them. To see their happy, and sometimes teary, reactions to what we have done at the distillery was truly special,” Lisa tells Greek Reporter with emotion.
The Butlers speak of Tarpon Springs with such delight that it is hard to believe they have only lived there a few years; but like many who live in this part of the US, Tarpon Springs was always a popular place for them to visit.
“We used to visit Tarpon Springs all the time with family, doing the sponge tour boats, taking in the history, the amazing Greek restaurants. When we were looking for somewhere to live we wanted two things: proximity to the water, and a nice community.
“Tarpon Springs fits both categories perfectly. We found our home on the second day and immediately felt welcome from the locals, and then we came across the Katzaras Sponge warehouse; it felt like it was meant to be,” Lisa explains to Greek Reporter.
The Butlers are working hard to ensure their distillery reflects the community that it is part of, and that it pays homage to the rich heritage of the famous Greek-American town.
They have yet to visit Greece, since they have been working been non-stop since they launched the distillery. However, they are hoping to visit the idyllic Dodecanese Islands at some point this year and experience for themselves the amazing Greek culture we all know and love.
For more information about the Tarpon Springs Distillery, please click here.