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What is Sambuca?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sambuca is an Italian alcoholic beverage with a distinct licorice flavor, typically made from star anise and other flavorings, and often used in making cocktails or enjoyed as a digestif or ammazzacaffé. Though originating in Italy, it spread in popularity following World War II and can now be found throughout the world, though it is typically still made in Italy. It has been distilled for well over 100 years and can be enjoyed in a number of ways, depending on the preferences of the drinker.

The primary flavoring in sambuca is the essential oils of star anise, which give the drink its distinct licorice flavor. Sugar is typically added to sweeten the drink slightly, and other flavorings such as elderberry can also be added. Though usually clear, also referred to as white, it can also be a dark blue in color, which is often called blue or black, and even red and green tinted varieties can also be found.

The beverage is popular in a number of different applications and ways of serving. It can be served neat in a glass, often consumed as a shot, or in a snifter to be sipped and enjoyed slowly. This type of serving is often used as a digestif following a meal. It can also be enjoyed on the rocks with ice, though due to the “ouzo effect,” the addition of ice changes the clear alcohol into a cloudy, almost milky white color. The ouzo effect is a chemical reaction in alcohols, such as ouzo, that causes a micro-emulsion to form due to the essential oils in the alcohol mixing with water.

It is also often enjoyed as an ammazzacaffé, or “coffee killer,” and drunk after a cup of coffee. This is typically done to cleanse the mouth of the strong flavor of the coffee, and sometimes can be prepared by swishing the alcohol around in the cup the coffee was served in. It can also be served as a caffé corretto, or “corrected coffee,” much like grappa. Similarly, it may be served with a few roasted coffee beans in a neat preparation of the drink called sambuca con la mosca, meaning “sambuca with the flies,” which includes three beans said to signify prosperity, health, and happiness.

Sometimes, when served neat in a shot glass or snifter, it can also be briefly lit on fire before drinking. This often strengthens the flavor, and it should be blown or snuffed out before drinking. Sometimes, the fumes from the burning alcohol are captured in a separate snifter and inhaled as well, though this is certainly not mandatory to enjoy the drink.

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Discussion Comments
By Belted — On Nov 23, 2012

Does anyone have any good recipes for sambuca cocktails? I would love to serve some at my next dinner party.

By whiteplane — On Nov 23, 2012

I have never been a huge fan of anise flavored drinks but I do like sambuca.

I developed a taste for it when I was living over in Europe. it is a lot more common there than it is in the states.

I like it because the flavor is not aggressive or nauseating like it is in a lot of anise drinks. I couldn't drink it all night, but a little glass of sambuca was a nice compliment to whatever else I was drinking.

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