Bars are looking to long drinks as well as shots to grow sales of sambuca, reports Mark Ludmon
Dating back to at least the 19th century, sambuca is a classic liqueur enjoyed as a digestif in Italy, often drunk over ice or served neat with three coffee beans. However, in bars and clubs across Britain, its complex recipe of herbs and spices is rarely appreciated as it is knocked back as shots. Sales are being driven by the ever-increasing range of flavours from the two leading brands, Antica and Luxardo. “Sambuca is known as a classic Italian product with strong heritage,” points out Craig Chapman, marketing manager for Luxardo at its UK distributor Cellar Trends, adding: “Fast-paced venues know the simple benefit of serving a 38% ABV sambuca – a chilled shot is as much an arrival drink as it is a closing drink to end the night on a high point.”
At Via bar (pictured top) in West India Quay in London’s Docklands – operated by TCG – shots are the biggest driver of sales of the Antica range of sambucas over the colder winter months. General manager Daniel Janczarek says: “Our core customers are groups coming out from the offices around Canary Wharf, and a shot is an established part of the evening ritual, marking the end of the working day and the start of their evening out, or ‘one for the road’ at the end.” Via normally stocks six of the varieties in the Antica range, including Mandarin and Banana. “The choice of flavours does encourage brand loyalty as customers will want to try a different variety each time they come in,” Daniel says.
Some of Luxardo’s flavours such as Raspberry and Spiced Apple have become so popular in some bars that they have been moved to the speed rail. Luxardo’s most recent new flavour was Mint, with a vibrant blue colour which, like others in the range, makes it eye-catching on the back bar. Bars and clubs are also increasingly offering 70cl bottles of sambuca as table serves, listing them on the menu alongside vodka and other spirits.
Despite the strong notes of anise and liquorice, bartenders are exploring the use of sambuca in cocktails, especially long refreshing drinks over ice. “Many bars have expanded the opportunity for sambuca by creating long drinks with easy mixers so that the sambuca colours are still distinct,” says Craig at Luxardo. “Lemonade is certainly a favourite for highlighting fruity flavours, and a Luxardo Passione Nera and cola mix is a popular alternative to a typrical rum and cola.”
The suitability of sambuca in mixed drinks was demonstrated by its use in an inventive serve created by David Hamilton Boyd when he won last year’s Luxardo Campione bartender competition. For his Phoenix from the Flame, he mixed 12.5ml of Luxardo Chilli & Spices sambuca with his own cherry-wood-smoked vodka, Luxardo Sangue Morlacco cherry liqueur, bergamot juice and cherry juice.
This summer, Antica’s UK distributor Hi-Spirits is to launch a new campaign that promotes its sambucas for enjoying both as a shot and as a long drink. Focusing on its Classic, Raspberry, Apple, Chilli and Liquorice flavours, it will use the message, “Summer starts with Antica”, supported by posters, table talkers and other point-of-sale materials. “There’s absolutely no question that customers increasingly get the flexibility of sambuca, served either with the intensity of a shot on high-energy big nights out or enjoyed as a long drink on more laid-back occasions.” It recommends long shot serves over ice as ideal for a cooling drink in the sun. “We’re using pastel shades in the POS for this summer’s campaign which gives it a warm-weather feel that will help bars to communicate the appeal of sambuca long drinks, which is still an area where there’s considerable scope for bars to grow sales,” Dan adds.
While other brands such as Opal also target the party shot occasion, the heritage of the liqueur is also being highlighted by premium brands like Isolabella, Vaccari, Ramazzotti, and Molinari – the brand credited with taking sambuca beyond Italy after World War Two. Importer Eaux de Vie highlights the extended ageing of Meletti, which is made by steeping one of sambuca’s core ingredients, elderberry, in alcohol at very cold temperatures and then ageing it for four months.
Sari Sambuca from importer and distributor CWF is recommended for enjoying the Italian way: neat, on the rocks, with water, with coffee beans or poured into coffee. CWF’s marketing manager Amy Ledger links its growth to the popularity of Italian spirits and liqueurs such as amaro, fernet, limoncello and grappa. “Consumer interest in all things Italian – be it wines or speciality liqueurs – continues at a pace, particularly with younger consumers. Interest in speciality liqueurs such as sambuca is at an all-time high and are increasingly being used a base for cocktails and long drinks.”
Originally published in the March 2015 print edition of Bar magazine.