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Parting shot
Published:  28 May, 2015

Can sambuca be both a serious cocktail ingredient and a party shot? Lucy Britner looks for answers 

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EVERYONE HAS A SAMBUCA STORY. Some of us even have a sambuca scar. From singed eyebrows in the student bar to shots at a birthday celebration, sambuca has fuelled dares, charged toasts and provided the start – as well as the finish – to many great nights out. But in today’s ever-more sophisticated drinking climate, is that enough? 

From dedicated cocktail competitions, interest in provenance and even lawsuits to defend its integrity, this anise liqueur’s success is much more than a random shot in the dark. 

After the mighty vodka flavour wave, we saw a raft of sambucas of all flavours, colours and abvs come on to the market, and in 2014 this even sparked a legal battle. UK distributor Hi-Spirits and its Antica sambuca owner Antiche sued Fratelli Francoli over its 30% abv Opal brand because sambuca, by EU definition, has to be 38%. The matter was settled confidentially and in April 2014, a 38% Opal Nera appeared on the UK market. 

Nick Rodgers, head of Instil Drinks Co, who started to distribute Opal in 2013, said at the time that he was delighted with Opal’s return to its home in the sambuca category. “Opal Nera has a strong brand identity, but has been in a bit of an odd space since the abv was lowered in 2011, which has left many customers confused,” he said. “Often when they wanted to celebrate a high energy occasion with a sambuca, they were refused their preferred first choice of Opal.”

Antica’s efforts to protect sambuca’s heritage, along with general consumer and bartender interest in provenance, history and quality, has sparked a sea-change in the category, especially in one of its core markets, the UK. 

UK ontrade numbers suggest sambuca is in growth – in fact, it’s sold in 75,000 licensed outlets according to trade analysts CGA Strategy. 

MAT to January 24, 2015 shows sambuca is up by 0.9% and CGA surmises that this has been driven by an increase in distribution, which is up 1.6%. 

A spokesperson for CGA says: “We have largely seen increased consumer interest in the more traditional spirits categories over recent times (eg the return of gin), and this sambuca trend largely represents this. 

“Luxardo has accounted for the majority of gains, with volumes up 10.6% as a brand family. The key winners within its portfolio have been the Dei Cesari and Passione Nera variants.” Though this hasn’t slowed the company’s flavour favour, but more of that later. 

Antica global brand ambassador Bruno Vanzan says bartenders are working hard to innovate when it comes to sambuca consumption. “In the past 10 years, bars around the world have changed how they mix products and how they serve drinks. 

“Of course, sambuca takes something from that. In the beginning, sambuca was a ‘perfect shot’ after dinner or with a cup of coffee – the way old Italian people were drinking – but in the past three or four years, we have been working hard in several ways, such as inventing new recipes and through mixologist competitions to mix sambuca in drinks and change the minds of people drinking sambuca.”