Review: Opal Sambuca
The last time I drank Sambuca, I was about 21 years old, very drunk, and had to first cover the shot glass with my hand in order to extinguish the flames. If ever there was a spirit associated with the heavy excesses of student life, surely Sambuca is it. Over the years I have however learned that just because it formed an integral part of any ‘good’ night out during my university days, a spirit need not necessarily be consigned to the back of the shelf in these altogether more sophisticated times.
Opal Nera was created in the late 1980’s by Alessandro Francoli to address the issue that the Sambuca available at the time had a harsh burning aftertaste. It is produced using distillates of green anise, star anise, elderberries (the skins of which provide the distinctive blackcolour), elderflowers, coriander and lemon peel. In addition there are reportedly “a few secret little treats”. These distillates are blended with neutral alcohol from beet, and presumably some sugar as well.
Nose: Sweet liquorice and anise dominate, with a touch of citrus and the faintest whiff of spice.
Neat: Huge sweetness and anise/liquorice combine to assault the palate without mercy. As the sweetness fades slightly some bitter spice notes make a brief appearance with perhaps a hint of summer fruit. Minimal alcohol burn and the finish is more pleasant than the upfront flavour which sits too heavily on the sweet side for my palate.
Anise is one of those flavours that you either love or hate and there is no getting away from these flavours when mixing. The intense sweetness also means it needs some careful handling if you are to avoid the depression that follows a sugar rush of this magnitude. However, when used in measured way, and combined with sufficient sour or bitter flavours to counter the sweetness, the result can be rather enjoyable. This sweetness combined with the relatively low abv of 30% means that it should be considered more of a liqueur than a full strength spirit, but in doing so Alessandro’s desire to create something without a harsh buying aftertaste has certainly been achieved.
Although containing anise alongside several other botanicals such as gentian, coriander, cinnamon, and lemon peel, Opal Rossa is not designed to be a Sambuca-based product. Instead, the primary ingredient is claimed to be sour cherry juice. With the signature serve suggested as mixing with “your favourite energy drink”, this is not a product targeted to the high-end cocktail market, but instead as a more approachable botanical-based liqueur.
Nose: Cherry drop sweets dominate with the alcohol offering reminders of cherry flavoured cold remedy. A hint of almond adds a little complexity and despite the somewhat artificial aroma, I sort of like it!
Neat: Just as intensely sweet as the Opal Nera and regrettably nowhere near as much cherry as the nose promises. The anise is clearly present, but I’m not convinced it works all that well with the cherry. The finish is too cloying for my liking and the combination of flavours just doesn’t work.
It would be unjust of me to judge this product as a ‘serious’ cocktail ingredient and so I shall refrain. Mixing with an ‘energy’ drink as recommended certainly results in an interesting taste, albeit one that I can’t say was a revelation. Those who like the sound of a cherry-flavoured Sumbuca-esque liqueur should give it a go, those that don’t shouldn’t
Opal Sambuca is a disappointing product that is best left to student drinking. Whilst it does have some mixing potential, there are many other products out there that should be chosen in preference.
Opal Nera and Rossa are available to buy from Master of Malt.
★: Terrible, only drink for a dare.
★★: Meh, not undrinkable but best left alone.
★★★: Reasonable, middle of the road.
★★★★: Tasty stuff, well worth seeking out.
★★★★★: Incredible, booze doesn’t get better than this. You need a bottle in your life.