Sambuca’s new takes

Clinton Cawood finds sambuca remains a traditional category but one that is being promoted via creative cocktail serves.

Spare a thought for sambuca, forever on the opposite end of the latest drinking trends, at least in recent years – a digestif when we’re all enjoying an aperitivo, a late-night shot when everyone’s chilling out and moderating, and a bastion of tradition while the masses on TikTok search for the next big thing.

If anything, it’s that element of tradition that’s been keeping this classic anise-flavoured liqueur going, particularly in its domestic market of Italy, responsible for most of its volume, where it’s usually served alongside coffee after a meal. This isn’t a category that’s exactly brimming with innovation, but it hasn’t been forgotten either, by its biggest and most predominant players in particular. Luxardo recently revamped its sambuca packaging in line with its other products, complete with new embossed label, and Perlino refreshed the look of its Villa Cardea brand recently too.

In terms of appearance, Bottega has long gone against the grain with its contemporary bottle. “The image breaks with traditional packaging, and is addressed at a young and dynamic consumer, with an oval-shaped bottle that’s innovative compared with competitors,” says company president Sandro Bottega.

Just don’t expect any NPD from the brand though. “Sambuca is a traditional liqueur, and we don’t foresee any developments in the near future,” he says.

It’s interesting, therefore, that Bottega is among those advocating for new and interesting sambuca serves that are well removed from the digestif occasion. He suggests a Sambuca Lemon, for example, pairing the liqueur with sparkling water and lemon juice. “Another excellent cocktail is the Lucky Star, obtained by mixing sambuca with prosecco, grape juice and mint. And there are many others,” he says, adding that sambuca’s flavours pair well with dark chocolate or wild berries too.

Luxardo global brand ambassador Gareth Franklin, meanwhile, has an inventive serving suggestion, combining the company’s sambuca with lemon juice and elderflower cordial, and adding kombucha.

Brands with a black sambuca in their range have an ace up their sleeves when it comes to the appearance of their mixed drinks, believes Quirijn de Koning, global brand director for Galliano at Lucas Bols. “The intense dark-blue Galliano Sambuca Black is gaining popularity in cocktails,” he says. “When mixed with tropical flavours such as pineapple juice, it creates a visually stunning and surprising effect for adventurous consumers seeking new flavour experiences – it’s an interesting trend to explore and build upon for the category.”

While there might be untapped potential for the sector when it comes to cocktails, De Koning is optimistic about traditional occasions and styles of serve too. “It’s gaining interest for its authentic appeal – the classic moment of savouring sambuca after a meal is back in vogue,” he says, adding that there are ways to elevate the serve. “Presentation really matters. Serving it in a bespoke glass, either neat or on hand-cut ice cubes, makes it look outstanding.”

The traditional link with coffee is worth maintaining too, he adds. “An espresso alongside sambuca creates a delightful combination, with the rich coffee flavour complementing the anise notes.”

Bottega is seeing some evidence of growing appreciation for the serve. “The tradition to add sambuca to coffee – the Caffè Corretto – is very common among the older generations, but young people are beginning to appreciate it too.”

That said, the digestif occasion is hardly trending. Speaking of sambuca’s domestic market of Italy, IWSR research director for western Europe Humphrey Serjeantson says: “The key consumption occasion is after a meal, and this is losing out to the aperitif occasion, where this category does not play.”

Globally, sambuca volumes declined between 2022 and 2023 by 8%, according to the IWSR, which forecasts a decline of 2% between 2023 and 2028 CAGR. These lacklustre figures aren’t helped by performance in its largest market, at home.

“In Italy sambuca has been in long-term decline for around 15 years,” says Serjeantson. “Consumers are generally older, and the category is perceived as traditionally Italian. As a result, it is harder to recruit younger LDA consumers.”

Challenges and opportunities

Meanwhile, other categories are faring better. “Within the flavoured spirits category, growth in recent years has come from bitters and spirit aperitifs at the expense of liqueurs and aniseed,” says Serjeantson, adding that broader economic factors are a consideration too. “Like many markets, Italy saw a decline in purchasing power in 2023, and this was felt strongly in sambuca, particularly in retail.”

Luxardo export director Matteo Luxardo is aware of the challenges, and the reliance on the after-dinner occasion. “The Italian market is stable, with consumers of a certain age used to drinking sambuca after eating as a digestive, but young people are not very attracted to sambuca, for various reasons,” he says, citing the liqueur’s alcoholic strength and divisive anise flavour. “To overcome this, we are offering it in long drinks, with lemonade and mint, to reduce the alcohol content and make it more enjoyable.”

For Perlino, whose Villa Cardea brand includes a sambuca alongside other classic Italian liqueurs such as limoncello and amaretto, the domestic market is an important one. “In Italy we are doing well with sambuca, although I’m not sure that younger consumers are attracted to it more than the not-so-young ones,” says marketing manager Elena Branda.

Conversely, Bottega is not only optimistic about the category’s domestic market, but its ability to draw new consumers too. “Sambuca is an evergreen liqueur in Italy, which is being appreciated and discovered by younger generations.”

Richard Glover, UK country manager for Molinari, is similarly upbeat about the Italian market, reporting that it appeals to both new and older generations. “Molinari Extra, in particular, enjoys widespread recognition across all age groups and remains a significant part of Italian culture and heritage,” he says.

“We are continuing to invest in brand engagement and activation programmes at summer music festivals, and we are reaching a younger audience through our social media campaigns.”

Further afield, Italy’s top export markets, according to the IWSR, include the US, Germany, UK and Canada. How it’s consumed in these countries varies, of course, with the US, for example, echoing the traditional way it’s served in Italy.

“In the US, sambuca demand is led primarily by a traditional core consumer base who consumes the spirit as an after-dinner digestif typically consumed with coffee,” says IWSR research director for North America Adam Rogers, who sees potential for the category here. “Since the US is a very large coffee-consuming market, opportunities exist with leveraging this into marketing materials in order to connect younger LDA consumers into the segment.”

When it comes to neighbouring Canada, where demand is led by an older demographic, there are multiple challenges for the category, says Ryan Lee, IWSR market analyst for North America.

“Sambuca served neat or on the rocks has lost share to other spirits, namely tequila and whisky. The cocktail culture trend has benefited total spirits in the market, but the unique flavour profile of sambuca is more challenging for bartenders, as many consumers have gravitated to more fruity, sour, herbal and spicy notes.”

The situation is different, yet no less challenging, in certain European markets, according to IWSR market analyst Fernanda Saldaña. “In Germany, sambuca is associated with high-energy drinking occasions, in which sambuca is consumed as a shot,” she says. “With these occasions shrinking, as consumers move towards daytime, low-energy drinking occasions, the category is under pressure.”

Saldaña adds that pressure on the hospitality sector is having an impact too. “The struggling on-trade, together with a reduction in on-trade visits, adds another layer of difficulty for the category to drive volumes.”

For Perlino, this region remains important for sambuca. “European countries, mainly France and Germany, are still our best performing,” says Branda, who adds that Perlino’'s sambuca benefits from being part of a broader Italian offering. “Being part of our premium liqueur line Villa Cardea, sambuca is constantly promoted with the rest of the portfolio.”

UK highlights

Glover highlights the importance of the on-trade in the UK market. “We are actively targeting this sector with a brand strategy and communication plan that promotes the use of Molinari Extra in cocktails, and see the growth here, but the category is encountering challenges in encouraging this mode of consumption,” he says.

“In the UK market we have the opportunity to address certain challenges,” adds Glover. “Sambuca is sometimes not seen as a relevant choice for consumption, but by overcoming these stereotypes and misconceptions, we can encourage more consumers to experience and appreciate our product.”

He emphasises the brand’s work with both the UK Bartenders Guild and the Italian Awards, to promote the brand and its serves. “Our brand qualities, heritage and icon status in Italy is understood by the UK Italian hospitality sector, and it’s this message that we are looking to take to a wider audience in the UK.”

Sambuca might not be the next online viral sensation any time soon, but there are clearly a number of ways that this age-old Italian liqueur can remain relevant, while maintaining its sense of tradition too.