Spirits & Liqueurs Liqueur

What the #$@! Do I Do with This? Sambuca: What It Is and How to Use It.

Not just for shots, the anise-flavored liqueur plays well in cocktails, too.

Sambuca illustration

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

You bought a spirit or liqueur because a cocktail recipe called for a very minute amount. Now you’re stuck with the remaining 9/10ths of the bottle and what to do with it. No worries. Bartenders weigh in with tips and recipes for getting every last drop out of an underutilized ingredient so it doesn’t gather dust on your bar shelf.

When you’re at one of those old-school Italian restaurants with tables covered with red-and white-checked tablecloths and straw-covered Chianti bottle vases, your dinner more often than not is probably capped off with espresso, tiramisu and shots of sambuca garnished with coffee beans. 

This clear Italian liqueur is flavored with the essential oils from star anise or green anise, giving it the unmistakable character of licorice. It’s often served neat, and when it has that coffee bean in the glass, it’s referred to as sambuca con la mosca (“with the fly”). (Incidentally, it can also be served with three beans to represent health, happiness and prosperity, or seven beans to symbolize the seven hills of Rome.)

Beyond that, sambuca is often mixed with water, which louches it or causes it to turn cloudy, like absinthe does, and a splash is sometimes added to coffee, called a Caffè Corretto. And coffee cocktails are a good jumping-off point for finding other uses for it, according to Cory Elmi, the general manager at MilkBoy in Philadelphia. “Sambuca has a natural affinity with dairy, so it can be applied to other forms besides just coffee. Try it on ice cream or mix it in a milkshake.” In his Anaïs Nin, he shakes it with creme de banana liqueur and half-and-half and tops it with coffee (iced or hot), a dollop of whipped cream and an additional drizzle of the liqueur. 

Elmi also sees sambuca’s bracing anise flavor as a counterpoint to sweet fruits. His family has a holiday tradition of drizzling it over chunks of fresh pineapple. He thinks the biggest misconception is that it’s viewed as cloyingly sweet and overpowering and says the right amount just needs to be used in the right way. “Sambuca is a great addition to anyone’s liquor shelf,” he says. “It’s just sometimes pigeonholed and underutilized.” 

Peter Hernandez, the regional bar operations supervisor at Wild Wild West in Atlantic City, New Jersey, believes strongly flavored ingredients work best with the liqueur, especially when they are used to make powerful, intense syrups. “Mint, pineapple, figs and coconut carry such strong flavor profiles that they seem quite capable of dancing along with sambuca’s strong flavors,” he says. As an added benefit, the booze’s high alcohol content allows it to easily catch fire and caramelize the sugars in any drinks that are flambeed. 

Hernandez’s A Figgin’ Good Time cocktail combines vodka, espresso and chocolate bitters with a syrup made by cooking down sambuca, brown sugar, sliced figs and orange peels, shaken and served up. 

“Anise can be polarizing, but pairing it with flavor profiles that play well together can turn a niche spirit into a crowd pleaser,” says Josh Daws, the bar manager at Frannie & The Fox in Hotel Emeline in Charleston, South Carolina. The most common cocktail he sees beyond its typical applications is a riff on the Sazerac, where sambuca stands in for absinthe for its sweetness and viscosity. 

Daws also feels the booze works well with citrus, spice and earthy flavors, as in his Unsafe at Any Speed cocktail, which shakes funky Jamaican rum with sambuca, spiced pear liqueur, coconut cream, lemon juice and matcha powder and tops it with Topo Chico sparkling water. “The challenge of creating something great from something that isn’t universally embraced is so much fun,” he says.

  • Anaïs Nin

    Anaïs Nin cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “I wanted to create a cocktail for this winter that used some ingredients that were different from what I was seeing and tasting,” says Elmi. “Creme de banana is like an ingredient from your grandmother’s liquor cabinet in the ’80s. I tried it with sambuca and loved the results.” 

    Get the recipe.

  • A Figgin’ Good Time

    A Figgin’ Good Time cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    Coffee’s bold and bitter character has made it a perfect partner for the Italian liqueur for decades, says Hernandez. “Boiling down figs, sugar, water and sambuca can yield a profound syrup to spruce up any coffee cocktail,” he adds. Vodka gives a relatively neutral canvas for the bitter and sweet notes to shine.

    Get the recipe.

  • Unsafe at Any Speed

    Unsafe at Any Speed cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “This is a citrusy, earthy, vegan riff on an egg white sour,” says Daws. “The misconception is that sambuca is only for sips or shots, but it pairs well with citrus, coconut, earthy flavors and fall spices.” The effervescence of Topo Chico poured through the center of the glass gives the drink a foamy lifted head reminiscent of a Ramos Gin Fizz.

    Get the recipe.