For Luxardo founder Girolamo Luxardo, it was the petite Marasca cherry—and a desire to bottle and share its exquisite essence with the world—that launched 200 years of family history to follow. The mahogany-colored fruit is a type of sour cherry called Morello, famous for its inky hue, thick skin, and tender pulp. When the trees bloom in early spring, the button-like berries ripen with a deep acidity and broodingly bittersweet quality—characteristics that make them particularly suitable for liqueur production.
The story of Luxardo starts in 1821 when Girolamo founded the distillery in the town of Zara, which was the Venetian capital of the Dalmatian coast at the time. “Zara was known as the city of the maraschino because it’s where it was invented, by a pharmacist monk in the 18th century,” says Matteo Luxardo, who represents the seventh generation of the family-owned company. “Francesco Drioli was the first to produce maraschino on an industrial level in the city, in 1759. Later, in the 1800’s, it became common for European housewives to produce homemade cordials: in Italy, it was limoncello, nocino, etc.; in Zara, it was the Rosolio Maraschino—a blend of cherry distillate, sugar, and rose infusion.”
Though the distillery would come to produce a range of cherry products, the maraschino was the flagship and the one that would come to solidify the company’s global reputation over time. It took eight years for Girolamo to perfect his recipe, which came to be honored by the Emperor of Austria as a product “of superior quality.” At the time, it was typically enjoyed as a sipping cordial. “In the 1800s, maraschino was similar to what limoncello and sambuca are today, consumed after a meal,” explains Matteo. “It was very common to find a bottle of maraschino in most Italian houses, but only after the creation of popular cocktails featuring the liqueur did it experience such a boom.”
After the destruction of WWII curbed production, Girolamo’s great-grandson Giorgio moved the distillery to Torreglia in Italy, bringing Luxardo’s beloved cherries along for the ride. “When Giorgio restarted the company here in 1947, he remembered that a professor and botanist at the University of Florence a few years prior had gone to Zara because he was interested in the Marasca cherries. Giorgio reached out to the professor and managed to get some plants from him to restart the production of the Maraschino,” Matteo says. Luxardo eventually became the biggest customer for these cherries, and in 1998 when Matteo joined the family business he registered the fruit with the local agricultural authorities, securing the name “Luxardo Marasca Cherry.”
Today at the Luxardo distillery in Torreglia, several generations of the Luxardo family produce a range of products (Matteo works alongside fifth-generation Franco, sixth generation Piero, Guido, Matteo and Filippo and his siblings Gaia and Nicolò), including a London dry gin, sambuca, and apricot liqueur, but their signature cherry remains the star. “We give our cherry plants to the farmers that own the land for free and teach them how to grow the plants and how to take care of them. Then, when it’s time, we buy the cherries back at market cost,” says Matteo. “All of the cherries grown are Luxardo Marasca cherries, and they can be sold only to us.” These orchards are mainly located in the Veneto region due to the quality of the soil, he adds, which has a high pH, and the’ve also begun planting trees in other parts of the region to expand their crop.
The life cycle of the cherries after being harvested is varied and holistic. Once plucked from the trees, cherries are carted into the distillery, destoned, and transferred to a secret location to soak in a syrup made from Marasca juice to make the Luxardo cocktail cherries (of which they sell over a million jars a year). Juice from the cherries is also left to ferment then aged for the Sangue Morlacco, the thick and decadent liqueur that has been a staple since production first began in 1821. A more contemporary release, the Sour Cherry Gin, showcases the sweet juice infused into the distillery’s signature London Dry, and most recently, the company launched Antico, their version of a vermouth made with fermented sour cherry juice and spices.
But the maraschino liqueur remains Luxardo’s heart and soul. It’s a wondrously complex cordial that first exported to New Orleans in 1839, where it found a home in cocktails like the Aviation, Last Word, Brooklyn, and Floridita. Still made using the same formula Girolamo developed in the early 1800s, what makes the liqueur so special, and what many people might not realize, is how it expresses the personality of the entire cherry tree and not just the juice of the fruit. It is not a cherry-flavored liqueur, per se, but a liqueur that fully captures the whole spirit of the Marasca.
The process begins at the beginning of the summer season, when cherries are plucked from the trees and left to macerate in neutral beet alcohol in enormous larch-wood vats alongside the leaves, branches, and other bits. This stew soaks for up to three years, creating a mash of leftover solids that smells redolent of tobacco, dirt, and seaweed. This process takes so long, Matteo explains, because instead of using dried botanicals as one might in a gin, the fresh ingredients take more time to seep into the liquid.
The solids are removed from the maceration tanks and packed up in heaving canvas bags (which are sold for compost), and the liquid is sent to the copper pot stills for a single distillation. The distillate is then aged in ash-wood vats, which were chosen for their relatively neutral personality. “Ash wood is a white wood that does not release any flavors, colors or aromas. Maraschino is clear, so we don’t need a wood with tannins, but it has a lot of pores that allow the oxygen to pass through and oxidate the distillate,” says Matteo. “You can taste the difference when you sample the fresh distillate and compare to one resting in ash; after four months, all the flavors will have shifted to accomplish the classic maraschino complexity.”
The enigmatic elixir is then sweetened with sugar and water before getting bottled in the iconic green bottles wrapped in straw, which still bear labels that have not changed in centuries. “We have made some improvements over the years, but haven’t made any drastic changes [to the label],” says Matteo. “Maraschino Luxardo is iconic, it’s a bottle that you can recognize from a distance. Many other old liqueurs, like Chartreuse, have never really changed their images after all these years.”
And the character of the liqueur is as memorable as its iconic packaging. “The flavor is intense, thick, and syrupy with a sweetness that is partially offset by the fruit’s tartness. It has a concentrated cherry juice sweetness with black pepper spice,” says Matteo, adding that the distillery currently makes 400,000 bottles of the liqueur a year (and 10,000,000 liters total of Luxardo products across the board). When asked to reflect back on his family’s legacy, Matteo says it all comes back to the fruit. “We are the company that introduced Marasca cherries to the world.” A sweet legacy, indeed.