Distillerie ZOTTOS: A Greek Family Affair

By Norbert Schiller

In the beginning, the Greeks acted as middlemen between Egypt and the more established European powers, most notably France and Britain, two countries Mohammed Ali Pasha was seeking to lure for investment. Later, the Greeks played a crucial role in the construction of the Suez Canal and the running of the cotton industry, which flourished in the wake of the American civil war when international demand was at an all-time high.

During the construction of the Suez Canal Greeks flooded to Egypt in search of jobs. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Arnoux

During the construction of the Suez Canal Greeks flooded to Egypt in search of work. Norbert Schiller Collection, Phot. Arnoux

In the process of modernizing the country, Egypt’s rulers were forced to borrow money from foreign banks, mainly in Europe. By 1876 the country’s debt was so high that the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II declared Egypt bankrupt. Fearful of losing their investments, the banks put pressure on their governments and in no time Egypt’s finances came under European control. It didn’t take long for disgruntled parties in Egypt, namely the military under the command of Ahmed Urabi, to call for a revolt. In June 1882, violent clashes broke out between Egyptians and foreigners in Alexandria, which prompted British and French ships to sail into the Alexandria harbor hoping that their presence would quell the unrest. As the revolt became imminent with Urabi’s forces unwilling to withdraw their cannons, the British fleet opened fire on the city. In the end, Urabi was sent into exile, and the British took over the day-to-day running of the country through their Egyptian proxies.

For Egyptians, the foreign domination was humiliating. However, for the Greeks and other foreigners, the British presence was a welcome relief. Not only did it give the foreign community a sense of security, but it also gave them greater opportunities to expand. In no time, Greek entrepreneurs fanned out across the country opening business that ranged from cotton mills to grocery shops. To this day, there are numerous shops throughout Egypt, some in the most remote locations that still bear their original Greek name.

Royal Nestor, the cigarette label for Nestor Gianaclis Co.

Cigarette label for Nestor Gianaclis Co.


As the foreign population grew, so did the demand for imported foodstuff and drink. The Greeks built numerous food processing plants, including the first chocolate factory and the first carbonated water plant. Soon, the Greeks dominated the alcoholic beverage industry. Bolanachi began making rum, brandy and whiskey as early as 1884; Klonaridis Bros. opened one of the first brewery in the 1890s, and Andreas Zottos, who is featured in this photography exhibition, opened his distillery in Alexandria in 1918. In 1869, Nestor Gianaclis moved from Constantinople (Istanbul) and opened the largest cigarette factory in Egypt. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gianaclis, using foreign grapes, reintroduced Egyptian wine for the first time since the days of the pharaohs. In 1930, shortly before his death, Gianaclis was able to taste his first vintage before it hit the market. One could argue that the heyday for the Greeks and other foreigners living in Egypt lasted between the 1882 British bombardment of Alexandria and 1922, when a popular uprising led by nationalist Saad Zaghloul forced Britain to grant Egypt limited autonomy.

In 1939, with an impending world war about to erupt, Egypt’s beverage industry was about to explode. With war raging across Europe and Rommel’s forces racing across North Africa, over a million Allied troops from as far away as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa descended onto Egypt on their way to the various battle fronts. Nobody could have predicted the impact all these thirsty servicemen would have on the wine, beer and spirits industries. After the war, nationalist fervor once again threatened foreign interests in Egypt. With Britain releasing its grip over the country, it was only a matter of time before Egypt would enter a new era.

Different generations  of the Zottos family posing for a photograph. Circa 1930s.  Norbert Schiller Collection

Three generations of the Zottos family posing for a photograph. Circa 1930s. Norbert Schiller Collection

The riots of 26 January 1952, known as “Black Saturday,” marked the beginning of the end for Egypt’s expatriate communities. Six months after the riots that left many foreigners dead and foreign-owned business in ruins, the Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy. Initially some in the foreign community had hoped that the revolution would be sympathetic to their presence. In the end, however, Nasser made it very clear that from then on Egypt would be for the Egyptians. Over the course of the next decade, the bulk of the foreign community was forced to abandon their livelihoods, their properties, and leave the country. Many who had arrived decades earlier with nothing were once again empty-handed as they waited to board ships at Alexandria harbor.

Sixty years have passed since the foreign exodus began and if you look closely at some of the old buildings you can still see faded signs from this bygone era. Some names, such as Gianaclis or Stella have been rebranded and continue to be sold to this day while others have disappeared. I recently asked a friend who lives in Cairo to inquire at her local liquor store if they carried any Zottos products. The owner told her that the name Zottos had been discontinued “but if you like that same taste try Vat 1865!”

I purchased the Distillerie Zottos photo album from a dealer in Athens, Greece. I don’t know exactly when the Zottos family left Egypt or what their destination was. After WWII, Greece was in an unstable state and, as a result, many Egyptian Greeks chose not to go to their native country, but to emigrate to as far away as Australia, South Africa, and America.

If anyone has additional information they would like to share or photographs that are relevant to this exhibition or any other collection, please do not hesitate to contact me.

 

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18 Comments

  1. Wonderful little gem of Cairo history. I remember Zotto from the 1980s, when imported liquor was hard to come by. My friend the late Curtis Jones invented a cocktail consisting of Zotto’s (quite excellent) dark rum, condensed milk and a dash of nutmeg served over as much ice as we could lay our hands on (another precious commodity). He called it ‘camel’s milk’ and it had quite a kick to it.

  2. Costas Sakogiannis

    Dear Mr, Schiller

    I was born in Alex (1944) to Greek parents born also in Alex (2nd gneration immigrants from mainland Greece).
    I live in Athens with my family. I still have a bottle of Ouzo (ZIBIB) made by ZOTOS bought in Alex circa 1965 !!
    Have lots of data about Alex and plan to write a book with many unpublished (personal) information.
    All the best
    Costas

    • Elias Awad

      Hello Mr Sakogiannis,

      Myself a third generation Egyptian born in Heliopolis to a Greek mother born in Istanbul and a Cairo-born father of Syrian descent,
      I migrated to France in the early seventies.
      I am presently a retired journalist after a career of forty odd years working in a wide array of fields, mainly sci-tech, economy and some politics.
      For many years now — since the late 1980’s, actually —I’ve been a free lance translator between English, French and Arabic.
      I’d love to read your book when published… And maybe translate it?!

      Regards,

      Elias

  3. Giorgos Argyrou (@ArgyrouGiorgos)

    I was born in Alexandria 1942 , surely from Hellenic parents , mother from Leros Island and
    my fother from Pafos of Cyprus , both of them are two human being , of the 2nd generation
    I live in Athina , with my family and two twins grand dauthers , and many time my memories goes to Alexandria life , and a lot of my memories , makes my very sad , from all the behaviours of the Tzihatism of all the People , even now with my Second country Hellas .
    But with the Memorie of Zotos (Zebib) and a nice salat with Feta cheese I am try to forget the past and cryieng for the Fucture .
    Please try the best for every one of Hellenic Peoples .
    Name
    Giorgos Argyrou

  4. Thomas Zottos

    I’m a Zottos currently living in New York! I was born in Geneva and moved when I was 11. I am now turning 15 soon. It is great to see where my family came from!

    • Norbert Schiller

      Hi Thomas,

      If you have additional information on what became of your family after they left Egypt I would be very interested to know. I would also include and update to the story.

      Thanks
      Norbert

      • Alix Parodi

        Good evening Mister Norbert, I (the grand mother of Thomas) was married to Spyridon Pyrrhos Zottos, born in Alexandria in 1935 and died in Athens in 1991, son of Stefanos Zottos who died in Athens too. Andreas Zottos (dead too) left just before Nasser took the power for Greece. Stefanos, instead, believed in Nasser and stayed until 1967/68 and was ruined, he had 3 sons: Spyros, my husband, Miltiades, born in 1937, still alive in Athens, I think, and Platon, born in 1946, alive in Athens. The third brother, Leonidas? stayed in Egypte, he had done studies in eunology in Bordeaux, and then returned to Greece., and Nasser called him back to Egypt to handel the Zottos factory. There was a sister, Aphroditi, but I don’t know anything about that branch. After the death of Spyros, we haven’t had any news from the family. Miltiades Zottos, in Athens, could give you news :
        I have 2 children Alexis, father of Thomas, and a daughter, Eléonore, no children, we live in geneva, Thomas, with his mother, in NY!
        Regards,
        Alix Parodi Zottou

      • Alix Parodi

        Dear Norbert,
        Just for the history, my father was born in Cairo in 1909, my grand father was bey and the chemist of the khediv Humbert Denis Parodi), his wife, my grand mother arrived in Egypt in 1978 Mathilde Bernard), french, her father was an education inspector. 7 brothers and sisters where born in Egypt. One of the brothers of my grand father died in Egypt.
        Regards,
        Alix wife of Spyros Zottos

  5. SARANDIS LAGOUDAKIS.

    Hello to all the Greeks from Egypt. My name is Sarandis Lagoudakis another well known name of the Greeks from Alexandria.
    I was born in Alexandria 1 of October 1942 from Greek parents from Asia Minor and in particular from Smyrni
    I left Alexandria in 1957 still good times those days, and I returned back for a visit in November of 2011.Great disappointment but
    I am still happy to visit the place I was born regardless what the impressions are.

    Thank you.

    Sarandis. .

  6. Mona Anis

    Hello everyone! I am from Alexandria also,all my ancestors ,on my father maternal side were Greeks ,my nanna’s name was Athina Nicolaidis.Could anyone let me know what happened to Nino Zottos ?

    I now live in the U.S. In Fort Lauderdale Florida.
    Thank you.

    • Alix Parodi

      Yes, I can tell you: Nino lived some time in Geneva and died there is 15 or 20 years. He has a son, but I didn’t get to now him and don’t know where he is.. My husband, Spyros Zottos, was his cousin.
      Best regards,
      Alix Z.-P.

  7. Edgar Müller-Gotthard

    Memories, memories. Nino Zottos and I were classmates at the BBS in Alexandria (were I also was born)- WE had a great time there inspite of a serious car-accident Nino was a victim of. We did continue contacting by phone also after he left for Switzerland. During our last call ( I from the golf course in Athens) it appeared clearly that he was close ro departure for ever. Bless his soul! Edgar

    • Norbert Schiller

      Hi Edgar,
      I would like to do a followup story with photos on Nino Zottos. Who is he and what is his relationship to Andreas Zottos who I feature in this article?? Is he the grandson, great grandson?? I would like to know more about the Zottos family after they left Egypt. From the comments I received I see that p[art of them moved to Switzerland and recently to America. Could someone fill me in on the family and bring me up to date. It could make an interesting story if I can get enough information and accompanying photographs.
      Thanks and best regards
      Norbert

  8. JOHN MOSCHOPOULOS

    Yia sas,
    I was also born in Alexandria in 1946. My grandmother, from mother side, was from Leros while grandfather and father were from Smirna.
    We left Alexandria in 1958 and moved to Athens, Greece. I am currently living in the U.S.
    I was very close friend with Platon Zottos, son of Stefanos and Vilma Zottos. Stefanos was one of, I believe, three brothers and Vilma was born in Hungary. Platon had two brothers. I remember the name of one of them, Spiros, who moved to Switzerland around the late 50s time. Platon and his parents moved to Athens probably in the early 60’s. After we left Alexandria, I lost contact with Platon.
    I also, remember that Telis Zottos, son of one of Stefanos brothers, became a successful actor in Athens, around the 60s and 80s. You can find him through google.
    I also remember the Vahlas family who owned Sinalco, the soft drink. Was very good friend with their son Alkis, but lost contact after they left Alexandria and moved to France.

    • Alix Parodi

      Just a little hello!
      I was the wife of Spyros Zottos! We made 2 children, Alexis who has a son, 15, Thomas who lives in NY, and Eléonore, no childrem. We all live in geneva. Platon is married and has 2 children: a son Jason, who had a terrible accident in the military service and is in a wheel chair, and Wilma. The Zottos family cut all contacts wis us, after the death of Spyros in 1991.
      Best regards,
      Alix

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