Bottle #36: Opal Nera Black Sambuca

I owe this tiny bottle an apology. In the reveal video where I unboxed Bottle #36, Opal Nera Black Sambuca, I cast shade on its claim to be “the original black sambuca.” But it turns out it actually is!

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All my years of researching cocktails and spirits means that I never trust an origin story, but Opal Nera has a nice tidy one. In 1988, Allesandro Francoli, president of Distillerie Francoli in Piemonte, Italy was in the US on his honeymoon. I don’t know what is new wife was doing at the time, but Francoli took some time out to talk business over dinner with Jim Murphy, president of the Hiram Walker distillery. Hiram Walker is one of the Big 4 liquor companies that I’ve mentioned from time to time, but this is their first connection to one of my tiny bottles so far. Jim was interested in a coffee-flavored Sambuca, but the idea of a dark color got Allesandro thinking in a different direction, and he eventually pitched a black Sambuca.

Sambuca, for the uninitiated, is usually a clear, anise-flavored, and heavily sweetened liqueur. Its main ingredient is star anise, although green anise and licorice can also be used. It can also contain other flavorings, including elderflower and elderberry: the word Sambuca is related to the Latin word for elder tree. And it was the elderberry that inspired Allesandro. To create his black Sambuca, he added some lemon to the base liqueur, then finished it off with an infusion of dark purple elderberries and spices to give it a deep purple-black color.

In its first go-round, Opal Nera was sold in the US as an “Import Selection of Hiram Walker.” Hiram Walker held the Opal Nera trademark from 1989 to 1996, after which Francoli claimed it. My guess is that my bottle is from the Hiram Walker time period, based on the appearance of the label. It was wildly successful and sold in over 50 countries, sometimes as the bestselling Sambuca in that market. One group that seemed to really enjoy it in the 1990s was the LGBTQ community, since it was called out by name in a fascinating article from 1992 about the potential dangers of marketing to “homosexuals.” Which… sigh. On the one hand, look how far we’ve come! On the other, everything old is new again.

It was available in the US until 2001, then disappeared until 2011, when a new importer reintroduced it to the US market. But as far as I can tell, it’s gone again! The only bottles available online cost $200 or more. Francoli still lists it as one of its products on their website, but the actual Opal Nera website just says “New website coming soon” and directs you to “check out the cool things on our Facebook and Instagram.” But those pages are empty, despite Opal Nera launching a whole new look which included some kind of secret code game in late 2019. Perhaps a victim of the Covid 19 pandemic?

As My Tiny Bottles followers know, I’m no fan of anise flavored things, but the hint of lemon and idea of elderberries is giving me a little hope for this one when I eventually taste it!

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Bottle #36: Opal Nera Black Sambuca

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I owe this tiny bottle an apology. In the reveal video where I unboxed Bottle #36, Opal Nera Black Sambuca, I cast shade on its claim to be “the original black sambuca.” But it turns out it actually is!

All my years of researching cocktails and spirits means that I never trust an origin story, but Opal Nera has a nice tidy one. In 1988, Allesandro Francoli, president of Distillerie Francoli in Piemonte, Italy was in the US on his honeymoon. I don’t know what is new wife was doing at the time, but Francoli took some time out to talk business over dinner with Jim Murphy, president of the Hiram Walker distillery. Hiram Walker is one of the Big 4 liquor companies that I’ve mentioned from time to time, but this is their first connection to one of my tiny bottles so far. Jim was interested in a coffee-flavored Sambuca, but the idea of a dark color got Allesandro thinking in a different direction, and he eventually pitched a black Sambuca.

Sambuca, for the uninitiated, is usually a clear, anise-flavored, and heavily sweetened liqueur. Its main ingredient is star anise, although green anise and licorice can also be used. It can also contain other flavorings, including elderflower and elderberry: the word Sambuca is related to the Latin word for elder tree. And it was the elderberry that inspired Allesandro. To create his black Sambuca, he added some lemon to the base liqueur, then finished it off with an infusion of dark purple elderberries and spices to give it a deep purple-black color.

In its first go-round, Opal Nera was sold in the US as an “Import Selection of Hiram Walker.” Hiram Walker held the Opal Nera trademark from 1989 to 1996, after which Francoli claimed it. My guess is that my bottle is from the Hiram Walker time period, based on the appearance of the label. It was wildly successful and sold in over 50 countries, sometimes as the bestselling Sambuca in that market. One group that seemed to really enjoy it in the 1990s was the LGBTQ community, since it was called out by name in a fascinating article from 1992 about the potential dangers of marketing to “homosexuals.” Which… sigh. On the one hand, look how far we’ve come! On the other, everything old is new again.

It was available in the US until 2001, then disappeared until 2011, when a new importer reintroduced it to the US market. But as far as I can tell, it’s gone again! The only bottles available online cost $200 or more. Francoli still lists it as one of its products on their website, but the actual Opal Nera website just says “New website coming soon” and directs you to “check out the cool things on our Facebook and Instagram.” But those pages are empty, despite Opal Nera launching a whole new look which included some kind of secret code game in late 2019. Perhaps a victim of the Covid 19 pandemic?

As My Tiny Bottles followers know, I’m no fan of anise flavored things, but the hint of lemon and idea of elderberries is giving me a little hope for this one when I eventually taste it!

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