28 Apr 2016
By the start of July every year, trees all over the Veneto region in north-eastern Italy are weighed down with rich, juicy marasca cherries. It is the perfect time to visit to see the fruit harvested, starting the process of making iconic liqueur Luxardo Maraschino. However, when I visited in early July, I was five days too late. Although normally harvested at the start of July, an unusually warm June meant the cherries had to be picked a week earlier than usual. “We can’t decide when we harvest the cherries – nature decides,” points out export Director Matteo Luxardo, one of the sixth generation of the Luxardo family who run the business.
The company owns around 30,000 cherry trees in Torreglia near Padua in the Veneto region, with more being added each year. However, its history is back in Croatia where in 1821 Genoese businessman Girolamo Luxardo founded a distillery in Zara, now Zadar, on the Italian-ruled Dalmatian coast to produce a liqueur based on the region’s traditional marasca and rose liqueur. After World War Two, the then-Italian province was seized by Yugoslavia, forcing Giorgio Luxardo – the only surviving brother from the fourth generation – to flee and set up a new distillery in Veneto in 1947.
Now exported to 78 countries, Luxardo Maraschino has become a must-stock item in any cocktail bar, used in classics such as a Martinez. It is made to the same recipe that Girolamo and his wife Maria Canevari devised over 190 years ago, using the whole cherry, including the pits, seeds and stems, to create its unique aroma and flavour notes similar to almonds. The cherries are initially stored in alcohol in larch wood vats for two years to create an infusion that is then distilled. The maraschino distillate is matured in vats made of Finnish ash for about six months before being diluted and sweetened with sugar and aged a little longer.
It is bottled at 32% ABV and wrapped in its distinctive straw-like packaging by hand, with the aid of a machine that we are not allowed to photograph because it is the patented invention of two other Luxardos, Matteo’s father Franco, who is export director, and his cousin Guido, who is general manager.
Luxardo also makes the dark red Sangue Morlacco liqueur which dates back to the early 20th century and was given its name, “Morlacco blood”, by Italian poet and patriot Gabriele d’Annunzio. This intense 30% ABV liqueur is made from an infusion of fermented marasca cherry juice and matured for two years in oak vats. It is available in the UK alongside other Luxardo liqueurs Limoncello and Sour Apple, the eight-strong Sambuca range, and marasca cherries for cocktails.
The products are all sold at the distillery shop alongside others unique to Italy such as Campari substitute Luxardo Aperitivo and the Chartreuse-like Sant’Antonio liqueur produced for sale around Padua’s cathedral. While the shop attracts passers-by, the distillery itself can be visited only by appointment, such as bartenders and other trade visitors. The best times to visit are when the cherry trees are in blossom in April and during the harvest – if you can catch it in time.
Mark Ludmon is editor of Bar magazine, the UK’s monthly bar trade magazine and website, and has been writing about bars, pubs and drinks for over 15 years.