Jewel of the Mediterranean

24 July, 2018

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.

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