The category of anise spirits is broad reaching. It encompasses a number of spirits types that deserve attention, but don’t always receive it.
For starters, sambuca and anisette are two spirits that seem interchangeable, yet are not. Since Italian producer Meletti makes both, we asked producer Matteo Meletti to briefly outline the differences, which basically boils down to production and regulation.
Sambuca is regulated by the European Union, while anisette is not. “So when a company produces sambuca, it has to follow some strict rules, while anisette is more open recipe,” says Meletti. This may have to do with the fact that anisette is a much older product, dating back to the 18th century, while Sambuca is more recent.
Sambuca is made from a distillate of star anise or green anise. Anise is always the main ingredient, and the liqueur also must meet minimum sugar (350 g/L), alcohol (38% abv) and anethole (anise aroma) content requirements.
“When a company produces sambuca, it has to follow some strict rules, while anisette is more open recipe.” —Matteo Meletti
By comparison, anisette (sometimes seen as anisetta), is also an anise distillate, but it can be made with other ingredients in addition to anise. “Without restrictions, each formula can be very personalized,” says Meletti. Anisettes can range widely from citrusy and bright to distinctly earthy and molasses-driven to even sweet and spicy.
How do you drink these liqueurs? For those seeking an intro to anise, producer Poli has an excellent suggestion called rasentin in Italian. This ritual consists of rinsing the coffee cup with a dash of Sambuca after having a good espresso.
10 Recommended Bottles
Atxa Pacharáan Sierra de Orduña (Spain; T. Edward Wines & Spirits, New York, NY); $40, 94 points. With its bright rosy hue and dried cherry fragrance, few would guess this liqueur is made with three different types of anise, blended with a maceration of sloe berries. This classic Basque spirit is light-bodied and tart, suggesting dried cranberry and cherry, finishing with barely-there hints of anise and eucalyptus. Sip or mix.
Poli Elisir Sambuca (Italy; Winebow, New York, NY); $35, 93 points. More complex than most sambucas, this light, moderately sweet liqueur opens with bright licorice on nose and palate. Hints of vanilla and spice play against a backbone of warming anise, finishing with mild rosewater on the exhale.
Meletti Anisetta Dry (Italy; Opici Wines, Glen Rock, NJ); $24, 92 points. Recommended by the producer for cocktails, this higher-octane, lower sugar anisette offers a bright orange peel aroma and fruity-spiced palate that finishes with brisk cayenne and cinnamon, fading off into an earthy aniseed hint. Best Buy.
Kleos The Mastiha Spirit (Greece; Park Street Imports, Miami, FL); $36, 90 points. This clear spirit offers a slight floral aroma tinged with pine. The full-bodied palate is distinctly sweet, opening with vanilla sugar and echoing the pine-y hint from the aroma, layered with mouthwatering cucumber and cinnamon tingle. Created by a former bartender, the bottle is covered with cocktail recipes.
Apologue Celery Root Herbal Liqueur (USA; Apologue, Thornton, IL); $35, 89 points. This unusual, spicy-sweet liqueur is made with celery root and celery stalk, fennel, anise, dill and lemon peel. The overall effect opens as mildly spiced and vegetal, finishing with honey sweetness tinged with mild but persistent peppery heat. Enjoyable topped up with soda water or tonic water.
Bottega Sambuca (Italy; Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, FL); $30, 89 points. Anise aroma, with hints of licorice and warming spice. The palate feels quite light, and shows robust licorice and lime finishing long with flashes of black pepper and clove.
Larusée Verte Green Absinthe (Switzerland; PM Spirits, Brooklyn, NY); $127, 89 points. Pours out olive drab, then slouches to a lively light green. The aroma entices with a sweet floral note, while the palate is bolder, reverberating with anise overload and a tingly finish. Hit the right water-to-liqueur balance and the flavor profile becomes a bit more delicate and refreshing, tinged with fresh celery. Made with a neutral beet spirit base blended with a dozen herbs and aromatic plants.
St. George Absinthe Verte (USA; St George Spirits, Alameda, CA); $60, 89 points. Released in 2007, this was the first U.S. absinthe produced after the ban was lifted. The yellow-green liquid louches to milky yellow. With plenty of star anise evident on nose and palate, look for hints of lime, lemon balm, fennel, tarragon and a gingery tinge that yields to a long licorice finish. Made with a brandy base.
Absent Minded (USA; Wigle Whiskey, Pittsburgh, PA); $40, 88 points. Made in the style of absinthe, this clear spirit louches to opalescent white. Look for a pretty anise and lime blossom fragrance. The slightly astringent palate rings with bold anise and finishes with lime peel, mint and pine. The base spirit is distilled from regional, organic wheat.
Shelta Cavern Spirits Absinthe Verte (USA; Straight to Ale Spirits, Hunsville, AL); $50, 88 points. Pours olive green and louches to murky yellow. The savory, slightly funky aroma suggests fennel and star anise. The complex palate resounds with plenty of anise, along with eucalyptus, lemon verbena and hint of lime curd. Base spirit is distilled from wheat.