Hot shots: sambuca

antica pitcherSambuca is growing in bars thanks to flavours and a new focus on authenticity, reports Mark Ludmon

Italian sambuca has a history dating back over two centuries, with roots that arguably may go back further to Arabia and the Far East and, in Italy, it is often drunk neat, on the rocks or in coffee. But, for Britons, it is still very much about shots. The Luxardo range of sambucas has been promoted for cocktails, but brand manager Craig Chapman at UK distributor Cellar Trends says shots remain the focus for its brand experience and training teams touring UK bars. “The most popular way of enjoying sambuca is still as a shot, and that is the main way in which Cellar Trends will continue to promote Luxardo Sambuca with bars.”

Luxardo Pear colaGrowth in sambuca has been driven by expanding portfolios of flavours from the UK’s two leading brands Luxardo and Antica. Cellar Trends is preparing to review Luxardo’s current line-up and launch an unnamed limited-release flavour that will debut in the UK before other markets. In May, it will also add bright blue Luxardo Mint, which has an intense, tingling flavour, after last year’s launch of flavours Pear and Cola. “Flavours have helped the Luxardo sambuca brand to thrive,” Craig says. “Beyond the classic white Luxardo Sambuca, other flavours in the range now account for 25 per cent of our Luxardo sambuca sales. Some are even being placed on speed rails in addition to the original Luxardo Sambuca.”

He stresses that the sambucas are 38 per cent ABV – the EU definition of an authentic sambuca. “The difference in taste and usage potential is superior to other lower-ABV flavoured sambuca-style drinks,” he says. “A straight shot must deliver on flavour.” Awareness of the ABV rule has been a challenge to some brands such as Opal and strengthened the credibility of others such as Antica which, according to figures from CGA, is a top-10 on-trade spirits brand across all categories.

Jeremy Hill, chairman of Antica’s UK distributor Hi-Spirits, points out that sambuca should not be underestimated. “The CGA figures show that sambuca accounts for four per cent of on-trade spirits sales. In context, that’s more than malt whisky, the equivalent of white rum, and not far behind gin, which has a seven per cent market share. Operators now need to regard sambuca as part of their core range, and plan drinks lists, displays, and point-of-sale accordingly.”

Antica led the growth in flavoured variants in the UK with its raspberry flavour and now has 12 varieties in the range, including last year’s launch of Antica Absinthe flavour. “The variety and choice in the range help to sell sambuca as a category, so outlets which stock the Antica flavours as well as the core Antica Classic will typically see higher sales,” Jeremy says. “Between them, Antica Classic, Black and Raspberry Sambuca account for 50 per cent of total sales, so we advise outlets to stock those as their permanent core range, and then select other flavours according to customer preference, and vary the mix regularly.”

Opal NeraOne of the first national groups to roll out Antica flavours was managed bar and pub group TCG, where it is now core to its shot offering. “Sambuca has moved from being a speciality into the mainstream over the past few years, especially in town centre circuit pubs and bars, and venues offering live music,” says TCG’s commercial director Nick Francis. “Customers on a ‘big night out’ expect to see sambuca on the bar, as it’s a core part of their repertoire of drinks and now consistently among the best-selling spirits categories.”

New drive for Opal

Last year, attention focused on EU regulations that stipulate that an authentic sambuca must have an ABV of 38 to 40 per cent. This threw a spotlight on one of the leading brands, Opal, which has an ABV of only 30 per cent. After a quiet 12 months, UK distribution for the white Opal Bianco and black Opal Nera passed last month to wine and spirits supplier Bibendum along with other liqueurs and grappas from Fratelli Francoli in Italy. While previous distributor Global Brands had considered launching a 38 per cent ABV sambuca, Bibendum is sticking with the 30 per cent ABV products as a lower-alcohol alternative – but calling it a sambuca-flavoured “premium liqueur shot”.

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