Sambuca is an elusive aniseed-flavoured alcoholic spirit from Italy. Although it is well-known for being set alight, sambuca is mostly misunderstood.

However, it’s an excellent digestif that is typically paired with an espresso coffee as you will learn below.

In this guide, you will learn all about sambuca and how it’s made as well as how to properly drink it:

Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read out entire detailed guide. Alternatively, you can also read our separate guides covering the best sambuca brands and sambuca cockails too!

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What Is Sambuca?

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What Is Sambuca?

Sambuca is a clear Italian liqueur that is primarily produced with anise and is often enjoyed as a digestif after a meal. Although often associated with flaming shots today, sambuca was once regarded as a symbol of the country’s “La Dolce Vita” era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Despite being perceived as a traditional Italian drink, sambuca has a surprisingly young history that dates back only to the mid-19th Century.

Sambuca Origins & History

Interestingly, sambuca’s etymology is an often-debated topic. Firstly, its name is potentially derived from the Latin word for “elderberry”. However, while sambuca sometimes features elderberry, it isn’t necessarily an ingredient.

Additionally, others argue that the word comes from “Zammut”, an Arabic anise-flavoured drink that was imported via the Italian port of Civitavecchia. As this is also sambuca’s birthplace, it’s more likely that it best explains the name’s origin. Nevertheless, there is one last additional theory!

Indeed, sambuca was first commercially produced in Italy by Luigi Manzi from 1851. He claimed that it was a fine anisette that was “very good for the stomach after a meal” and added that he named it after the “sambuchelli” watermen who worked between Ischia island and Naples.

Although Sambuca Manzi was a popular local drink, it wouldn’t experience much international recognition until nearly a century later. In 1945, Angelo Molinari started producing his own sambuca for the international market, which launched its worldwide reputation today.

Even Frank Sinatra was fond of sambuca and once wrote a letter to the Molinari to express his admiration of their beverage. Due to its high quality and use of premium ingredients, Molinari Sambuca was recognised by the Italian government as the only brand that could use the term “Extra” after its name.

Ouzo Vs. Sambuca

How To Serve Greek Ouzo

Greek Ouzo

An often asked question is what is the difference between ouzo and sambuca? Indeed, both are clear anise-flavoured alcoholic spirits that are served in Mediterranean countries that are relatively geographically close. Additionally, both sambuca and ouzo were first produced in the mid-19th century.

Firstly, Greek ouzo is typically served as an apéritif before a meal whereas Italian sambuca is often enjoyed as a digestif as we explain below. Additionally, ouzo is almost always served with ice-cold water.

When ouzo is diluted with water, it becomes cloudy, which is known as the “ouzo effect” or the “louche”. Like absinthe, the anise’s essential oils called terpenes are transparent when suspended in alcohol. However, when the concentration drops below 30% ABV, it becomes cloudy.

Occasionally, sambuca will also turn cloudy when diluted in water. However, not all of them feature sufficient anise essential oils for the effect to be visible.

Finally, ouzo is a dry anise-flavoured drink. Meanwhile, sambuca is heavily sweetened with pure sugar. As a result, their overall flavour profiles are only somewhat similar but generally quite different.

How To Make Sambuca

Sambuca is produced using a pure and neutral base alcohol distillate derived from either grain or molasses. In some cases, the alcohol base is distilled locally but it may also be imported.

Antica Sambuca Ingredients

Antica Sambuca Botanicals

Typically, sambuca’s ingredients consist of the alcohol, star anise, and sugar. Occasionally, green anise is used instead. Additionally, sambuca may also include other botanicals including elderflower, fennel, and liquorice.

Overall, the process is not dissimilar to producing akvavit in that the ingredients are simply added to the alcohol to create its unique flavour. However, akvavit steeps the botanicals while sambuca introduces the ingredients as essentials oils.

Firstly, demineralised water is heated to around 70°C (150°F) and is combined with the sugar to produce a syrup. Sambuca contains a significant amount of sugar, which equates to an average of 350 grams per litre or 47 ounces per US gallon.

Afterwards, the star anise is blanched and then crushed before its essential oils are extracted through steam distillation. However, most sambuca producers will often import the star anise from China as an essential and will rarely undertake the process themselves.

Finally, the ingredients are combined and left to rest for just under a week in large steel tanks. Once the mixture has settled, it is always filtered at room temperature as chill-filtering would cause a louche effect and remove the essential oils.

Sambuca Alcohol Volume Percentage

Sambuca has a legal minimum ABV of 38%. While on some occasions, brands will abide by this to the letter, the majority of producers will retail sambuca of at least 40% and sometimes slightly more at around 42% ABV.

What Is Black Sambuca?

Black sambuca or dark sambuca is the most common alternative sambuca flavour. Indeed, some brands may produce a variety of flavours including apple, raspberry, banana, or even coffee.

While a typical clear or white sambuca is flavoured with anise, elderberries, and sugar, black sambuca consists of witch elder bush and liquorice. Usually, it will also contain anise too. However, its presence is far less prolific in black sambuca.

Unlike white sambuca, black sambuca is also served neat and often in a snifter glass rather than a shot glass. Additionally, black sambuca is rarely totally black. In fact, it tends to have hues of dark blue or violet, which resembles ink.

Occasionally, people may refer to red sambuca too, which tends to consist of some of the alternative flavourings listed above.

How To Drink Sambuca

Technically speaking, there is no right or wrong way to drink sambuca. Although there are a number of Italian customs that can be observed when drinking sambuca, you can discover your own way to enjoy it.

Typically, sambuca is rarely enjoyed neat and it will be accompanied by a coffee bean at the very least as we will describe below. Occasionally, it can be enjoyed on the rocks with ice.

Alternatively, sambuca may be slightly diluted with ice water in a similar way to absinthe or pastis. On some occasions, you may observe a louche or “ouzo effect” where the drink becomes cloudy. Interestingly, this cloudiness is an indicator of the sambuca’s anise content.

Finally, sambuca is emerging as an excellent cocktail ingredient to produce some original and exciting flavours. Check out our guide to the best sambuca cocktails to learn more.

How To Drink Sambuca With Coffee

It Italy, sambuca is most commonly enjoyed with coffee. In most cases, it will be served as what is called an ammazzacaffè.

An Italian take on the formal dinner practice of passing through to a different room to smoke and drink cognac, an ammazzacaffè is traditionally practised with grappa. However, sambuca is also sometimes used. Its objective is to dull the coffee’s taste as well as the caffeine’s effect.

Alternatively, the sambuca can be added directly to the coffee in place of sugar, which is referred to as a caffè corretto.

In some cases, a few drops are added by a waiter before the coffee is taken to the customer. Otherwise, the sambuca may be presented in an accompanying shot glass so that the drinker can add their desired portion.

Finally, a dash of sambuca may sometimes be added to a finished espresso cup to “clean” it, which is then knocked back as a shot.

How To Drink Sambuca With Coffee Beans

Often referred to a “sambuca fly”, a shot of the alcoholic spirit may be served with a roasted coffee bean in the glass, which is chewed when drinking. In Italy, this practice is referred to as “sambuca con la mosca” or “sambuca with the fly”.

There are numerous stories as to how the sambuca fly tradition started. One belief is that started as a practical joke where somebody would drop a coffee bean into their friend’s sambuca when they weren’t looking to surprise them.

Meanwhile, the most common legend is that three flies were drawn to the sugary sweet sambuca and landed in an old ladies glass. As they had disturbed the old lady and her family, her solution was to flambé the sambuca with a match.

Indeed, three coffee beans are typically added to the glass, which is said to represent health, happiness, and prosperity (or sometimes the past, present, and future). On some rare occasions, seven coffee beans are used, which supposedly symbolise the seven hills of Rome.

What Is A Flaming Sambuca?

Flaming Sambuca In Shot Glass

As mentioned above the flies were flambéd when they invaded the old ladies glass. Occasionally, sambuca is set on fire with the intention of toasting and slightly caramelising the coffee beans.

However, the coffee beans are sometimes absent and the ritual is mostly for visual effect. Nevertheless, some people, including Davidoff’s Klaas Kelner, follow this practice in order to burn away some of the alcohol before drinking it.

Sambuca Substitutes & Similar Drinks

As mentioned above, there are numerous anise-flavoured drinks that are quite similar to sambuca. For instance, we already discussed ouzo in detail yet Truk Raki is a very similar alternative.

Additionally, absinthe is a well-known anise-flavoured spirit and its ban even helped sambuca’s popularity. Meanwhile, Pastis is a French anise liqueur that was created in the wake of absinthe’s prohibition.

However, both absinthe and pastis feature a number of other ingredients, which result in very different flavours.

Finally, if you’re looking to avoid the aniseed flavour altogether, you could consider akvavit, which is a herbal spirit made using a similar process. Alternatively, eau-de-vie and Schnaps are very popular fruit brandies in France and Germany respectively that are enjoyed as digestifs.

Are There Health Benefits To Drinking Sambuca?

According to the Ancient Greeks, anise aids in breathing, relieves pain, helps urination, and eases thirst. However, it’s best known for its digestive qualities. A well-known carminative, it settles the digestive tract, decreases bloating, and reduces flatulence.

Furthermore, has additional antispasmodic benefits by alleviating cramps, diarrhoea, and convulsions. Therefore, it’s no surprise that sambuca is often consumed after a meal! Similarly, anise can be used to treat coughs, bronchitis, asthma.

However, it’s important to be mindful of sambuca’s high sugar quantity as this surely negates certain benefits.

Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Sambuca

Ideally, sambuca should be fine to consume on a gluten-free diet. In most cases, grain alcohol is considered gluten-free as the starches and proteins are removed during the distillation process. Similarly, sambuca should be safe for people with celiac disease.

Typically, sambuca should only contain anise and sugar as well as potentially elderflower and fennel, which are fine. However, the additional flavourings may cause some reactions so it’s important to check with the producer first.

Finally, a 1 Oz shot of sambuca contains 7 grams of carbs and 100 calories. Given its high sugar content, it’s important to keep your eye on your consumption as it can quickly account for a fair amount!

What Next?

Now that you have learned all about sambuca, why don’t you check out some of our related spirit guides?

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