Can sambuca relight its fire?

Flavours, packaging and a concentration on cocktails in the on-trade could be the way to a new audience for the Italian liqueur.

It’s unsurprising that the dominant approach within sambuca prioritises tradition over innovation, given the nature of the category, not to mention the volumes sold in its domestic market where much of that traditional consumption occurs. But with those volumes declining while other markets show promise, those who talk of bringing this classic Italian liqueur into the 21st century may have a point. 

In spite of those declining volumes in Italy – by 3% in 2021 according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis – and in its second biggest market, the US, sambuca volumes were up 3.6% globally. And that’s with Italy accounting for 52% of total volumes. The other big sambuca drinking countries in the top five – UK, Germany and Australia – all posted increases in volume and value for the same period. 

When it comes to value, figures from the IWSR for the category show a bit more promise, with global value up 11.1%, and the domestic market growing by 1.3% in 2021. Looking ahead, the IWSR sees the entire category dropping by 0.1% in volume over 2021-2026 CAGR, with Italy’s volumes declining by 2%. 

Those other markets certainly look attractive in this light, and it’s not too far fetched to assume that consumers in these might be more receptive to new, interesting takes on the category. 


Meanwhile, there are those who are optimistic about sambuca’s home market, seeing signs of a younger audience for the classic liqueur. “In Italy sambuca is an evergreen liqueur which is also being appreciated and discovered by younger generations,” says Sandro Bottega, president of winery, cellar and distillery Bottega, which includes an eponymous sambuca in its range. “The tradition to add sambuca to coffee – a caff è corretto – is very common among the older generations, but younger people are beginning to appreciate it,” he adds. 

But for some, the category needs to do more to remain contemporary and draw in new consumers. Nicola Dal Toso, chief executive at Rossi D’Asiago, the company behind the decidedly modern Antica sambuca, is among them. “Sambuca is usually perceived as one of the least versatile categories, and very linked to Italian tradition, but the ability to combine tradition and innovation is now more important than ever,” he says. 

“Our current mission is to redefine the perception of sambuca and revitalise the category, making it cool again to every generation. Staying relevant to the current consumer, while remaining true to ourselves, is the guideline,” he adds. 

For Rossi D’Asiago, the addition of flavours to its sambuca brand is one way that it’s achieving this, and with great success. The brand’s offering is diverse, featuring everything from coffee to banana, via apple, raspberry and everything in between. 

“We have brought innovation to the category by developing exciting line extensions such as Antica sambuca with flavours,” says Dal Toso, who considers these to be particularly well suited to the drinks market at the moment. “We believe the growing market trends for complex flavours and premium liqueurs to be the perfect playground for our flavoured Antica liqueurs. Sweet and spicy, fruity and fragrant, sharp and refreshing… it’s a diverse offer that lets consumers experiment and find their favourite flavour.” 

Not everyone in the category is as bullish about the potential for flavoured sambuca. “We have some extensions of the category in the form of flavoured sambuca, but the presence of these is limited to certain countries,” says Elena Branda, export marketing manager for Perlino, whose sambuca forms part of its Villa Cardea range of Italian liqueurs. “Sambuca is rather classic, with little room for innovation,” she believes. 

Luxardo export director Matteo Luxardo is similarly unenthusiastic about the promise flavoured sambucas hold. “We have tried in the past to make flavoured sambuca, but with not much success,” he reports. 

There are, of course, many ways to broaden the appeal of a spirits category without interfering with its flavour. Bottega seeks to stand out from its more traditional competitors and attract new drinkers with its appearance instead. “The image of our product breaks with traditional packaging and is addressed at a young and dynamic consumer,” says Bottega, who describes an “oval shaped bottle that is innovative compared with competitors” and “a label that recalls [Spanish artist Joan] Miró’s chromatic suggestions and conveys warm Mediterranean sensations”. 

He believes that Bottega sambuca’s liquid sets it apart too, being produced in part via the steam distillation of aniseed. “The main difference from other sambucas is the content of anethole, which is obtained from star anise and normal anise, and blended directly with pure alcohol, then diluted with water and cane sugar,” he says, adding that there’s a family secret involved in the process too. 

For an example of striking packaging innovation in sambuca, there’s the patented technology that the team at Antica, not content with their extensive explorations in flavour, developed nearly 10 years ago. The brand’s ProPour system incorporates a retractable pourer into its cap, positioning the brand as firmly targeted at the ontrade in the process. Dal Toso enumerates the benefits of this system, from convenience for bartenders, to hygiene and safety. 


This detail forms part of Antica’s overall dedication to the on-trade. “Bartenders are our strategic partners, and we engage with them in multiple ways, from POS development through activations, to masterclasses and cocktail competitions,” says Dal Toso. “The on-trade is a fundamental channel for a spirit brand development, and sambuca is no exception.” 

Luxardo couldn’t agree more. “The on-trade plays a very important role. It’s there that you introduce a product, and if it works and you create demand for it, you can go on to the off-trade,” he says. “Sambuca has always been an on-trade product, whether that’s as an after-dinner drink in restaurants, or as a shot in bars and clubs,” he adds. 

He raises a good point, not only about the importance of bars and clubs to the sambuca category, but of shots in general. As with so much else, the degree to which sambuca brands acknowledge this varies widely from one to another. 

Antica is among those that are accepting of the fact, and indeed encouraging. Images of the brand’s various products on its website are each accompanied by a shot glass, and its three suggestions for how to enjoy sambuca are “chilled shot”, “in shooters” and “mixed in cocktails”. Dal Toso confirms the brand’s acknowledgement of the popularity of shots among the brand’s drinkers. 

“In response to consumers’ ever growing appetite for new and exciting serves, we have developed interesting and creative cocktail recipes as well as mixed shooters menus, to enlarge the consumption occasions, to keep innovating and to always offer something new to our loyal customers and consumers,” he says, giving the example of The Snowflake, a shot consisting of two parts Antica Sambuca Classic with one part blue curaçao. 

Most agree that cocktails are important to the development of the category, however. “While the consumption of sambuca in cocktails doesn’t represent a significant part of the total category’s volume, creative uses of sambuca in cocktails is important to sustain its popularity, helping to rejuvenate and improve the category’s image through its visibility on the cocktail lists of cocktail bars,” says Perlino’s Branda. 

Luxardo is realistic, meanwhile, that “not many bartenders are willing to use sambuca, although it is a great ingredient”. He confirms that the company is nevertheless promoting its sambuca for cocktails. 

It’s one avenue in which consumers have an opportunity to encounter this Italian liqueur in a new way, and perhaps reconsider their preconceptions about it. But whether they come across sambuca’s occasional flashes of innovation or not, its traditional core seems secure. As Bottega puts it: “We think that there may be small fluctuations, but sambuca will remain a classic that will ever maintain its position.”