Jewel of the Mediterranean

The venerable Molinari family founded its eponymous sambuca brand in 1945 in Civitavecchia, a port city near Rome which landed spices such as star anise traded from the far and Middle East by Venetian merchants. Molinari sambuca rode the crest of the rage for all things Italian and la dolce vita that crystallised in Fellini’s 1960 Oscar-winning movie of the same name. Through luck and good planning, drinking Molinari sambuca became popular with domestic and international movie stars such as Walter Chiari, Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg. The company is also credited with inventing the ritual of drinking sambuca con mosca – literally ‘with flies’, but meaning with an uneven number of coffee beans. On the back of those celebrity endorsements and a drinking ritual, Molinari became the number one Italian sambuca brand and claims today to be the world’s best selling.

In the US, meanwhile, liquor importer Abe Rosenberg was sitting on a pile of cash. It was his consolation prize for having J&B scotch whisky, the brand he and his importing firm had built into the number one in the US, taken back by the brand owner. Rosenberg was a benefactor of the Met museum, and one night in 1964 at an Italian event there he bumped into Virgilio Pallini. Pallini had seen first-hand Molinari’s success with sambuca in Italy and recommended Rosenberg sell in the US a sambuca which Pallini would make at his family’s distillery in Rome. There was only one tiny hurdle. “What the hell” enquired Rosenberg “is sambuca?”

Despite this inauspicious start, Rosenberg certainly didn’t lack confidence – his first order was for seven containers. The brand Rosenberg and Pallini co-created, Sambuca Romana, grew into a huge success in just a few years. They succeeded where others had failed, in getting Americans to drink anise. Pallini (himself a regular at Studio 54 when he lived in New York) credits the success in part to how society at the time was changing – and to Playboy magazine.

Back in the 1960s, according to Pallini, American men didn’t talk much, even at dinner – women were expected to keep the conversation going. New magazines such as Playboy and its ilk introduced men to articles on a wide range of topics, giving them conversation fodder for dinner. Because Sambuca Romana’s ad agency, Chester Gore, ensured its client’s brand was widely present in those magazines, sambuca became synonymous with modern restaurant dining. The brand is still produced by Pallini, but was sold to Diageo and has never regained its 1960s heyday of 400,000 cases per year.


So, who’s drinking it now? Well, Italy, duh, but the UK and Germany are significant consumers of sambuca, too, often paying higher prices than would be the case in Italy. Further afield, Rossi d’Asiago, an Italian company dating back to 1868, is seeing significant gains in India and Russia for its Antica sambuca brand, and chief executive Nicola dal Toso is upbeat about possibilities for sambuca in the ongoing craft cocktail movement. “[Sambuca] has been known for hundreds of years as a ‘shot drink’ and it will take a while for this reputation to be changed – but consumers are looking for liquors that offer variety.”