Sambuca: embracing new ways

22 June, 2023

Sambuca has been in decline for a while, but producers believe it has potential to reach new consumers with evolving serves and cocktails.

With a reliance on its declining domestic market, and an association elsewhere with the kind of high-energy consumption that isn’t quite on-trend at the moment, it’s fair to say that sambuca isn’t the next big thing in drinks. But that doesn’t mean that Italy’s anise-flavoured liqueur is going anywhere, or that its producers aren’t evolving with the times.

On the whole, the sambuca category has been in gradual decline for some time. As a category particularly aligned with the on-trade, it unsurprisingly took a hit during the Covid pandemic, dropping 10% in volume 2019-2020, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. The two subsequent years have been somewhat better, with volume growth of 4% and 3%, respectively, but the IWSR reports an overall volume decline CAGR 2017-2022 of 3%. It forecasts some improvement going forward, with volume CAGR 2022-2027 of -1%.

Long-term decline in Italy, going back to 2007 according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis research director Humphrey Serjeantson, is a significant factor, considering Italy accounts for nearly half of global sambuca volumes. While the category is a staple in the country’s on-trade outlets, it isn’t the first choice for younger consumers, says Serjeantson. “It is consumed by all ages, but the main consumer base is ageing, and younger adult Italians are more likely to drink across a wider range of categories, especially vodka, gin and rum.”

In addition, the common ways of drinking sambuca in Italy, such as with espresso as a caffè corretto, or neat with coffee beans, alla mosca, are “very traditional Italian drinks which have less appeal to younger LDA generations”, he says. “These consumers are less likely to drink what their parents drank, and while these things do go in waves, the likelihood of a significant new wave of sambuca coming along, when there are so many other aspirational categories, seems unlikely in the short term.”

There are brands that nevertheless have their eye on these younger consumers, projecting a more modern image, while others remain true to the category’s roots. Villa Cardea Sambuca, part of La Martiniquaise-Bardinet since its acquisition of Perlino and Dilmoor, recently refreshed its packaging, choosing to balance tradition with modernity. Elena Branda of Perlino’s marketing export office describes it as “an elegant and refined label, giving more impact but rooted to the category code”.

Sambuca Bottega, meanwhile, whose focus remains on Italy and western Europe, has “an image that breaks with traditional packaging, and is addressed to young and dynamic consumers”, says president Sandro Bottega.

As a result, he is seeing some cause for optimism in the domestic market, where sambuca “has been appreciated and discovered by the younger generations”, he says. “The tradition to add sambuca to the coffee is very common among the older generations, but young people are beginning to appreciate it.”

That might be the case, but you still wouldn’t blame sambuca producers for looking further afield, and for some brands, this is proving to be successful. The category’s top export markets are the US, Germany and the UK, all with similar shares of the global category, according to the IWSR. Serjeantson reports that both the UK and Germany are showing some promise in the wake of the pandemic, but adds that “whether either will recover their volumes lost in the last 10-15 years is doubtful”.

Growing share

Some are seeing success, however, such as Villa Cardea. “We have performed very well over the last two years, particularly by increasing our exports,” confirms Branda, who adds that the brand is now distributed in more than 25 markets.

Another is Rossi d’Asiago’s Antica Sambuca, which exports to more than 50 countries. “Antica Sambuca’s market share is constantly growing, with positive performances in 2022 and the first half of 2023, despite some difficult moments linked to the Russian-Ukrainian war, which led to the lack of availability and increased costs of raw materials such as glass, sugar and alcohol,” says chief executive Nicola Dal Toso. “After a period of uncertainty and shrinking due to closures because of the pandemic that affected the entire spirits industry worldwide, finally last year the situation has returned towards normal.”

The biggest export market for the brand is the UK, with other major markets including the Netherlands and countries in Asia such as China and India. Serjeantson confirms that there’s some potential in the latter regions, saying: “Asia is expected to see good growth over the next five years, but this is from a very small base compared to consumption in Europe.”

According to Branda, Villa Cardea is doing well in new markets for the brand such as Cameroon, Thailand, Ecuador and Brazil. Galliano Sambuca, too, is experiencing growth in certain export markets, the Pacific region in particular, according to global business director for Bols, Quirijn de Koning. As he puts it, “Sambuca has its unique flavour palette which is being rediscovered. It’s all about the right serves and right places.”

The focus for Galliano Sambuca, therefore, is on both neat serves after dinner alongside coffee, and in cocktails. The former focuses on the traditional neat serve with coffee beans. “The strong anise flavour of Galliano Sambuca pairs beautifully with the earthy notes of coffee – it’s a delicious beverage to sip slowly after a hearty meal,” he says.

Some export markets are receptive to this style of after-dinner serve, such as Turkey, according to Branda, who agrees that different markets favour different serves. “In the UK, Denmark and Russia, consumers of our Tiburtina and Villa Cardea Sambucas are mostly young, and the consumption is mostly in bars, in Turkey the consumption is in restaurants, after dinner, while in Belgium our sambucas are mostly purchased in retail for home consumption.”

When it comes to mixed drinks, a priority for a number of brands when it comes to export markets, the category’s association with coffee often informs the style of cocktail. One example is Galliano’s twist on the Irish coffee, with sambuca replacing the whiskey.

But there are those promoting sambuca’s use in cocktails more broadly. “I think that sambuca has more opportunities than other anise liqueurs, as it is more versatile for mixology, and is a symbol of Italy,” says Bottega.

Branda agrees. “The creative use of sambuca in cocktails is important to increase its popularity, as it contributes towards improving the image of the category through its visibility on the cocktails lists of cocktail bars.”

De Koning cites two examples of Galliano Sambuca cocktails made at restaurant and bar Bivacco in Auckland, New Zealand. The first, Va Bene, combines the liqueur with reposado tequila infused with fig and cardamom, raspberry, pineapple and more, while Cinque is a clarified combination of Galliano White, gin, cinnamon, coconut milk and lemon.

Shot culture

Elevated cocktails such as these notwithstanding, the fact remains that in many of its export markets, sambuca isn’t for mixing or sipping after dinner, but exclusively for shots. This might not put it on the right side of current trends regarding moderation and mindful drinking, but a number of sambuca brands are leaning into this consumption occasion nevertheless.

Foremost among these is Antica Sambuca, “We think this brand has great potential in shot consumption,” says Dal Toso. “Our goal is to consolidate our existing markets, while looking for distribution in new markets.”

To this end, Rossi d’Asiago is currently introducing its new Antica Sambuca Shot Machine in time for the summer months. Offering chilled shots of sambuca at -7°C, the eye-catching device can hold two flavours of Antica, of which the brand has several to choose from, including raspberry, liquorice, banana and more.

“This new shot machine is a strategic move to increase the visibility and awareness of this growing brand while driving Antica shot consumption,” says Dal Toso.

They’re not the only ones with this approach. “We believe that consumption as a shot still represents the most relevant usage,” says Perlino’s Branda. “We have promoted this by suggesting that bottles are stored in the refrigerator so that our sambuca is served ice cold, in refrigerated shot glasses. We’ve observed that young consumers, both male and female, like this ritual.”

However it’s served, whether as a shot, in cocktails or after dinner, there’s no doubt that sambuca is a category very much aligned with the on-trade. As Dal Toso says: “Bartenders are our strategic partners, and we engage with them in multiple ways, from POS development through activations, to masterclasses and cocktail competitions.”

Packaging for Antica further reinforces this commitment to the on-trade, with bottles of Antica featuring a retractable, time-saving pourer aimed at bartenders.

Ultimately, Italy and its traditional ways of serving this liqueur will continue to account for a significant, if slowly declining percentage of sambuca’s sales going forward, but it seems the potential for the category lies further afield, and with new ways of drinking it.

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