The History of Booze

Sambuca heralds from Italy, and if you want to say it like a native Italian speaker, then it is pronounced sam ‘bu ka. You never want to sound like a tourist when asking for this liqueur on a sultry night in Rome - the price might shoot up twice over, not to mention that you will sound like an idiot and the waiter will snigger about you with the other waiters. Worse still, the person you are wining and dining might also know the correct way to say it and all bets are off on that date!

Fire Fly - The Samba Story

Back to sambuca; it has a divine anise flavour and usually is colourless, known as white sambuca, to differentiate it from its many cousins. The flavour comes from the essential oils of star anise and occasionally from the more unusual green star anise. It also includes the oil and blossoms from the Witch Elder (Sambucus Nigra’) bush. As there is no legal definition of the ingredients of sambuca, they can vary. For example, some brands use liquorice instead of anise. The drink can also be flavoured with other spices, but more of that later.  Sambuca has a high sugar content, around 350 g/litre depending upon the brand and variety The alcohol content of sambuca can vary too, depending on the brand from 38-42%.

The origins of the term sambuca vary depending on which source you read. The Online Etymology Dictionary declares that it comes from the Latin sambucus, meaning “elder tree.”  The English Oxford Living Dictionary says the same. One quite charming description of sambuca’s history and etymology can be found on where it is claimed that sambuca was invented by Luigi Manzi Casamicciola and it is reported that his son, Louis, “derived the name from the liquor sambuchelli, the acquaiuoli who went to the fields to quench the farmers bringing their water and anise.”

Sambuca has a huge family tree, with varieties in colour, from blue, red and through to black, and flavoured with any number of options, including banana , cherry and chilli to name but a few. Of the varieties, black sambuca has the thicker consistency. 

Sambuca was first produced commercially by the afore mentioned Luigi Manzi, Sambuca Manzi in 1851 in the Latium region of Italy. Shortly after the end of WWII, the Molinari brand began operations. Others soon followed. Now many brands are available, including Galliano, Iseo, Luxardo, Molinari, Antica, Romana Opal Nera and Sambuca di Amore. To access the more interesting flavours, you will need to shop online as a quick surf of high street shops and supermarkets shows that there is very little choice available from the sambuca family if you shop this way. 

Sambuca is a very versatile liqueur, more of that later, but like ouzo, it is often combined with water. The drink is frequently enjoyed ‘con la mosca’ which delightfully means ‘with fly’. This fortunately usually means with three coffee beans, not flies, which should be chewed whilst drinking. The effect of doing this is said to neutralise the sweet taste of the sambuca. Another customary part of the sambuca tradition is to flambé the spirit before drinking it. There is a quaint story attached to the coffee bean/ flambé tradition. According to an Italian legend, three flies were drawn to the sweet, sugary smell of the sambuca, disturbing an elderly lady and her family whilst supping their sambuca. A solution was sought - flambé the sambuca and no more flies, well, just three roasted flies. Thankfully, the flies have been substituted with the much more palatable coffee beans! An alternative story about the three beans is that they represent health, happiness and prosperity. Some folks serve it with seven instead of three beans, supposedly representing the seven hills of Rome. Great story tellers, these Italians!

You can drink sambuca with your coffee after dinner, or you can add it to your coffee, to create a ‘caffè corretto’.