The main ingredients of Sambuca are the essential oils obtained by distilling vapours of the seeds of a kind of aniseed called Illicium verum (Star Anise), thus giving the liquor a strong smell of anise. Those are added to pure alcohol, a concentrated solution of sugar and other natural flavours. Sambuca is commonly brewed to 84 proof, and is easily set alight.
The Molinari company states that the name Sambuca comes from an Arabic word: Zammut. This was the name of an anise-flavoured drink that arrived to the port of Civitavecchia by ships coming from the East. The Oxford English Dictionary states, however, that the term comes from the Latin word sambūc-us, meaning "elderberry".
A "Sambuq" is a type of Arabic ship which may originally have been used to import the drink and may have given it its name.
The Italian word Sambuca was first used as the name of another anise-based liquor that was created in Civitavecchia about 130 years ago.
The first commercial version of such a drink started at the end of 1800 in Civitavecchia thanks to Luigi Manzi that started selling Sambuca Manzi, that is still produced today. In 1945, soon after the end of Second World War, commendatore Angelo Molinari started producing Sambuca Extra Molinari, that helped the diffusion of Sambuca all over Italy.
Sambuca can be served with ice, optionally adding some coffee beans as ornament. The ice exalts the flavours and changes the colour of the drink from transparent to dense white.
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.
Sambuca can be added to coffee as a sweetener instead of sugar. The mixed drink in Italian is called Caffè corretto (literally, "corrected coffee"), though more commonly caffè corretto refers to grappa and coffee.
Sambuca can be served adding fresh water, becoming a refreshing less alcoholic drink.