Sambuca is an anise-flavoured liqueur.
Popular brands are Galliano, Luxardo, Molinari, Opal Nera, Romana, and Sambuca di Amore. The alcohol content varies from 38 to 42% alcohol, depending on the brand and variety.
The main ingredients are oil and blossoms from the Witch Elder (aka ‘Sambuca Nigra’) bush, and anise seeds. Some brands, such as Romana, use liquorice root instead of anise.
There colours of the liqueur are made: clear (but called “white”), black, and red. The black is thicker; the white has a smoother taste.
It is drunk as a digestive.
It is often drunk flambéed. To do this, put it into a small glass (not a shot glass, which would be too small.) Swirl the liquid in the glass enough to coat the sides of the glass. (Optional: add 1 or 2 coffee beans.) Then, light the liquid with a match or lighter. The heat from the flame usually cracks the coffee beans (if using.) Extinguish the flame before it burns all the alcohol away, and let cool enough before drinking it.
In Italy, 3 coffee beans are floated on top; they call this “Sambuca con mosca (“Sambuca with flies.”)
Sambuca does not turn cloudy when water is added.
The first commercial brand was Sambuca Manzi, made by Luigi Manzi starting in 1851 in Civitavecchia in the Latium region of Italy. The Molinari brand started shortly after the end of World War II.
Some credit the name “Sambuca” to Arabic ships which may have traded with Italy. Others point to the Arabic word “zammut” for “nice fragrance” (this theory appears to have been started by the Molinari company.) Reputedly, Manzi was asked by “someone” why the name “Sambuca”, and he replied “«L’ho chiamato Sambuca per via dei Sambuchelli, gli acquaiuoli delle mie parti, che vanno nei campi a dissetare i contadini e recano loro acqua e anice». (I named it that on account of the “Sambuchelli”, the water carriers in my area, who go into the fields to (quench the thirst of) the peasants, and bring them water and anise.”) [Ed. sambuchello / i appears to be an otherwise unknown dialect word. [Comune di Casamicciola – L’inventore della Sambuca é di Casamicciola! Retrieved June 2009 from http://www.comunecasamicciola.it/storia.php?subaction=showfull&id=1062098768&archive=&cnshow=news&start_from=&ucat=17.
All that poetry aside, the Oxford English dictionary still sees no reason to look any further than the name of its main ingredient, the plant named Sambuca Nigra.
Molinari. The Words. Retrieved June 2009 from http://www.molinari.it/english/lasambuca.html