Jewel of the Mediterranean

Philip Duff gets to grips with the history of sambuca and discovers there’s much more to the anise-flavoured liquor than dodgy ’80s cocktails


TO UNDERSTAND SAMBUCA, you have to learn a lot of other words. Words such as ‘mistra’ and ‘anesone’. You have to learn about cities such as Civitavecchia, explore the rise and fall of after-dinner liqueurs and the curious relationship the modern world has with anise flavours. Let’s explore.

Originally, the anise flavour in alcohols made throughout the Mediterranean came from the anethole content of a flowering plant native both to the Mediterranean and to south west Asia, pimpinella anisum. Over time, and with the opening of commercial spice routes, pimpinella anisum was replaced by the far cheaper star anise (illicium verum), a botanically unrelated tree fruit from China that contains a comparable amount of anethole.

For as long as we have had distilling in Europe, it seems, we have had anise-flavoured spirits from countries close to where pimpinella anisum originally grew: ouzo in Greece, mastika in Bulgaria, pastis, anisette and absinthe in France and Switzerland, arak and raki in the Middle East, and so on. Like almost all spirits, anise spirits got their start as medicinal preparations before they became recreational, stabilising herbs in alcohol, so their medicinal properties remained available even when the fresh herbs were out of season. (Anethole, by the way, is medically renowned for its anti-flatulence properties, a fact mystifyingly absent from sambuca advertisements).

Legally sambuca is a liqueur, but one with some special rules. It has to contain distillates of either pimpinella anisum or illicium verum, a minimum 350g of sugar per litre, be at least 38% abv and contain between 1g and 2g per litre of anethole. Bear in mind a typical liqueur only has to contain a minimum of 100g/litre of sugar and be a minimum of 15% abv, so sambuca is a strong, sweet, aniseed liqueur. The minimum anethole content requirement is interesting in light of recent movements to discuss the minimum juniper content of gin – could we see a future where one of the requirements of being gin is a minimum content of some of the molecules found in juniper, just as sambuca mandates a minimum and maximum content of anethole?


Aniseed isn’t the only ingredient, though. Most sambucas contain elderflower or elderberry (sambucus in Latin, thought to be a possible source for the name sambuca) as well as liquorice and various other herbs and spices. Like limoncello, the history of anise alcohol in Italy goes back hundreds of years, but major commercial brands only emerged quite recently.

Sambuca wasn’t the only contender for stardom: anesone and mistra (both similar to sambuca, but typically unsweetened) have always sold, and continue to sell, in large quantities in Italy, and are often used to accompany coffee in a caffè corretto. But sambuca is the one that achieved international success. The caffè corretto, by the way, has a counterintuitive history – coffee-loving as they are, apparently Italians always sold their best quality coffee beans for export, keeping the lesser ones for sale at home, hence inadequate coffee would be ‘corrected’ with a shot of mistra – and it often still is.

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.”

In that regard, Antica’s range has extended to include flavoured sambucas, and it’s not the only one. Luxardo’s Sambuca dei Cesari boasts as many as 11 flavours, ranging from spiced apple to cola, treating sambuca as a flavour platform, as vodka and (latterly) whisky have done. Certainly in the UK sambuca seems ineradicably associated with drinking shots, more so than with coffee after dinner, so flavour extensions seem logical.

But what of cocktails? Sambuca grew up in the dark days of mixology, between the end of Prohibition and the modern-day cocktail renaissance that started around 1990, so there aren’t any classic sambuca cocktails to fall back on. The only somewhat well-known sambuca cocktails are the Slippery Nipple (a layered shooter with Baileys) and the infamous Flaming Lamborghini, a very 1980s concoction that involves flames, sambuca, blue curaçao, Baileys, Kahlua and a diabetes diagnosis. Hardly drinks you’d find on the menu at one of the World’s 50 Best Bars, but that’s not to say all is lost for aniseed flavours. Maison Premiere in Brooklyn does a roaring trade in Absinthe Coladas, selling up to 130 a week, and if you can sell absinthe, you can sell sambuca. Encouragingly, World’s 50 Best Bars #16, Caffe Dante in New York’s Greenwich Village, offers a caffè corretto with sambuca. Perhaps all we need now is new conversation fodder for dinner?