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Up in flames

The innocuous aniseed that makes Hyderabadi Biryani and Hunan Chicken taste so much better is also a key ingredient in one of the world’s most potent and inflammable liqueurs—Sambuca.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay | Print Edition: October 19, 2008

It’s well past 1 a.m. and we are sitting at Venom, one of the Kolkata’s most happening pubs, on the eighth floor of the city’s up-market Camac Street area. The Martinis have been duly consumed and I ask the owner, an old friend, for ‘something new and exciting’. “Have you had a shot of Sambuca?” he asks. “Sam..what?” I wonder, but decide to give it a shot anyway.

The bar captain whips out two glasses, a cocktail glass and a traditional straight one, and creates a flaming drink for me. But it’s not the flames that do the trick. As I down the drink in one gulp, the sweet yet extremely powerful flavour of the liqueur wakes me out of my tipsy stupor and sets my insides on fire. What in the world is this? Next morning, still very much aware of the after-effects of Sambuca, I set about finding out about this fiery Italian liqueur.

The Sambuca story

Sambuca is an Italian aniseedflavoured, usually colourless liqueur. The main ingredients of Sambuca are the essential oils obtained by distilling vapours of the seeds of Star Anise,thus giving the liquor a strong smell of anise. These are then added to pure alcohol, a concentrated solution of sugar and other natural flavours to create Sambuca. No wonder, it tasted sweet. I also find out why it set my throat on fire: The liqueur is 76 or 80 per cent proof and is one of the most inflammable ones around.

The origin

The name Sambuca comes from an Arabic word: Zammut. This was apparently the name of an anise-flavoured drink that arrived to the port of Civitavecchia in Italy over 400 years ago. The Italian word Sambuca was first used as the name of another anise-based liquor that was created in Civitavecchia about 150 years ago. The first commercial version of such a drink started at the end of 1800 in Civitavecchia, thanks to a château owner called Luigi Manzi who started selling Sambuca Manzi, that is still produced today. In 1945, soon after the end of Second World War, Commendatore Angelo Molinari started producing the brand Sambuca Extra Molinari that helped Sambuca become popular all over Italy.

Sambuca in India


Antica is one of the best-known Sambuca brands. Now available in India, Antica has eight flavours of Sambuca— Raspberry, Banana, Blue Mandarin, Apple, Orange & Mango, Vanilla, Liquorice (Black) and Coffee. You can buy Antica Sambuca at most leading wine and beer shops in India now. In Delhi, the price for a 750 ml bottle of standard Antica Sambuca is around Rs 1,450 and a flavoured one would be Rs 1,500

How to serve Sambuca

Neat:
Sambuca can be served neat, slightly chilled.

On the rocks: Sambuca can be served with ice, or by adding some coffee beans as ornament. The ice exalts the flavours and changes the colour of the drink from transparent to dense white.

With toasted coffee
Beans: In Italy, it is common to serve neat Sambuca with some floating coffee beans dropped on it: it is called Sambuca con mosca (literally, “Sambuca with flies”). The beans are there as an ornament, but they can be chewed to exalt the taste of anise.

In coffee: Sambuca can be added to coffee as a sweetener instead of sugar. The mixed drink in Italian is called caffè corretto or “corrected coffee”, though more commonly caffè corretto refers to grappa and coffee.

On fire: Sambuca can be served in a shot glass and then set on fire for a second or two, in order to increase the flavour. Another alternative is known as “Gas Chambers”, which is almost the same, but here the fumes are caught in a glass and after the shot is taken the fumes are sucked up through a straw.

Flaming sambuca

While a trained bartender can prepare a flaming Sambuca with ease, it is not advisable that you try this at home without expert supervision. But a bit of extra knowledge never hurts, does it? So, here goes

Step 1: Preapare the equipment. A cocktail glass (a snifter is ideal), a standard glass, paper napkins with a hard straw inserted through it. Put 30 ml of Sambuca in the snifter. Add a dash of coffee liqueur (Kahlua).

Step 2: Rotate the snifter a few times before setting the liquid inside on fire. Continue to rotate snifter for five seconds. Please operate very carefully.

Step 3: Pour the flame in the old-fashioned glass.

Step 4: Extinguish the fire in this way.

Step 5: Gulp down the drink, place snifter over straw and inhale.

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