Virtually every culture has an anise-flavored spirit that forms an important part of its social fabric. Greece prides itself on Ouzo; France produces Anisette, Absinthe, Pastis and Pernod; Turks drink Raki, while Arak is the favorite among the other (and supposedly abstemious) countries of the Middle East. Italy’s pride and joy is Sambuca, and one brand stands above the rest: Molinari.
Angelo Molinari invented his potion in 1945 in Citavecchia, just outside of Rome. It was basically Anisette with a higher alcohol content and better ingredients, an infusion of essential oils from star anise and elderflowers. It was produced by hand at first, a few bottles at a time, and the first commercial plant wasn’t opened until 1959. In the 1960’s it became synonymous with the dolce vita of Italy, and became the drink of celebrities and film stars; in 1968 it was recognized as being superior in quality, or Extra, by the Italian Supreme Court (now there’s a judiciary focused on life’s important issues). Today it has a stunning 87% market share within its category, a unique achievement in the world of spirits.
Because Sambuca is a liqueur, its high sugar content usually mandates consumption after dinner. The classic presentation is con la mosca (literally “flies”)—served in a snifter with floating coffee beans, always an odd number for superstitious reasons. Many Italians use it in place of sugar to sweeten their espresso, giving rise to the well-known caffè corretto or “corrected coffee.” Flaming the Sambuca for a few seconds in the snifter before drinking is a popular bit of theater, although it may or may not add something to the taste.
Using Sambuca in cocktails is tricky, since its strong flavor tends to dominate other ingredients. For this reason, the most popular bar drinks are shots. If you’re interested in a mixed drink, try the via Veneto cocktail (brandy, Sambuca, egg white, lemon juice and sugar), the Matinee (substitute gin for the brandy), the Genoa (gin, Sambuca, dry vermouth and grappa). Thirsty? Try a Zambeer, a long drink with Sambuca and root beer.