by Scott Stavrou
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.2
How about a dark, mysterious Italian stranger after dinner?
Liqueurs are mysterious things by nature. Most of the world’s more popular ones are prepared with carefully guarded, centuries-old recipes consisting of complicated mixtures of herbs and spices. The Italian favorite, Sambuca, is no different, with its tightly guarded secret recipe that’s kept as close to the pinstriped vest as the blood oath of La Cosa Nostra.
Sambuca has its subtle and mysterious side, just like Brando in The Godfather, but it’s the fiery kick-in-the-ass anisette flavor (think Joe Pesci in Goodfellas or Joe Pesci in Casino or maybe just Joe Pesci) that takes over and boldly smacks you upside the head. Deceptively potent at 84 proof, Sambuca is first and foremost an anise liqueur, in the same family as ouzo, pastis, raki and even absinthe. Sambuca’s the smoothest and most internationally popular of all the black-licorice-tasting cordials — the capo, if you will. And of all the Sambuca capos, the inimitable Capo di Capo is Romana Sambuca: available in over 50 countries worldwide, it’s the world’s number-one selling anise liqueur.
If you’ve ever eaten at an authentic Italian restaurant, you’ve been to a place where the owner hangs out with his patrons like they were having a party; where straw-covered Chianti bottles hang from the ceiling; where the pasta is made fresh; and where after dinner you’re given a snifter of sambuca — on the house, probably — with three coffee beans floating in it (odd numbers, never even, for good luck) to sip with your coffee. And if you want to stick with Italian tradition, make sure your coffee isn’t a cappuccino: Real Italians drink cappuccino only at lunchtime. (Of course, if you’re unconventional by nature and like to thumb your nose at tradition, then sip your cappuccino any old time you want. Just don’t come crying to me when you wake up with a severed horse head in your bed!)
Anisette’s been respected as a wonderful digestive for centuries, hence sambuca’s popularity in Italy, where they’d rather sip a soothing after-dinner digestivo after enjoying their bountiful multi-course meals than toss back a couple of Tums. You can spell relief R-O-L-A-I-D-S if you want, but make mine S-A-M-B-U-C-A, with a cafe macchiato, per favore.
If you’re not a coffee drinker, don’t fret. Sambuca’s also popular served straight up, either neat with coffee beans or over ice. In recent years it’s also become more popular as a shot, and many in-the-know bartenders enjoy the fact that its high alcoholic content makes it flammable, and also that its high density makes it ideal for layered shooters. It’s always fun to try a new twist on an old standby, but a drink doesn’t thrive for centuries unless it just plain tastes good on its own.
Next time you’re seeking a little Italian mystery after dinner, order up a sambuca. And whether you’re superstitious or not, make sure to count those coffee beans. Sleeping with the fishes is probably not nearly as glamorous as it looks in the movies.