Ask any bartender worth their shaker which maraschino cherries they use in their cocktails and 9 times out of 10, you’ll hear the brand name “Luxardo”. After 198 years, the family-run, Italian business is still going strong and boasts not only the most respected maraschino cherries in the drinks industry, but also an impressive array of liqueurs and distillates, and a secret, well-guarded book filled with recipes for whiskies, gins and a whole heap more. We were lucky enough to be invited to Padua to learn all about this remarkable family and their products on the ground.
We arrive in the picturesque town of Padua in Northern Italy and are immediately whisked to Piazza dei Signori, where we are greeted by the youngest member of the Luxardo family business, Nicolo. Taking our seats in the square as the sun sets behind the ornate astronomical clock tower – one of the oldest in the world – we are welcomed in true Italian fashion, with aperitivi cocktails from a nearby restaurant, UVA.
As we sip on our bright, bitter-orange-forward White Negroni (Luxardo London Dry Gin, Luxardo Bitter Bianco, Cocchi Americano vermouth), Nicolo gives us a quick history lesson on his family.
Luxardo: A Bit of History
A Worthy Beginning
The Luxardo family can trace their first steps into the drinks industry back to 1821 and their “very young and very short” (as Nicolo puts it) ancestor, Girolamo Luxardo. Hailing from a small village close to Genova, Girolamo used to trade clothes and ropes with the Navy and was a natural salesman. During one of his trips, he ended up in Zara (now Croatia but back then it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and was by all means a very Italian city).
He immediately fell in love with the place and its traditional Marasca cherry liqueur. The cherries were smaller, darker and much more sour than regular cherries and were macerated and turned into cordials and liqueurs by housewives, who then served them to visitors. Girolamo decided to move his family to the city and once there, his wife Maria Canevari started making her own Maraschino liqueur. An incurable entrepreneur, Girolamo saw an opportunity to build a company that produced his wife’s recipe, which was considered far superior in quality to all others around the area, and launched this in 1821.
The couple started production using the “Girolamo Luxardo Recipia”, adding distillation to the production process. Their operation shot up in popularity and garnered the exclusive “Privilege” from the Emperor of Austria. The company grew fast and started producing other liqueurs, such as Sangue Morlacco cherry liqueur (which uses a lot more cherry juice than the Maraschino), Triple Sec, Limoncello, and even a juniper-based distillate (the ancestor of the more modern day gin). By the early 1900s, it had become one of the biggest distilleries in Europe, and one of the first Italian companies to export worldwide (including to Singapore and US). In 1913, the third generation of Luxardos built a new HQ right opposite the port of Zara.
The Destructive Nature of War
WWI came and went, causing issues with production and export but proved nothing the family couldn’t overcome, with the period between WWI and WWII surprisingly being the most successful in its history!
However, WWII was another story entirely and decimated the business. Zara was bombed 57 times in one year and three members of the family were killed. The one remaining member active within the company escaped, along with wives and children, yet what remained of the brand was nationalised by the Communist government, who started creating their own company with the family’s products.
From the Ashes
In 1947, the last surviving brother Giorgio, along with young fifth generation Nicolo III, rebuilt the distillery and business in Torreglia, near Padua, where today’s distillery still stands.
They were able to acquire a few of their original Marasca cherry trees from the University of Florence and, thanks to the similarity of the soil’s PH, start the growing process once more. Seeing as Maraschino needed four years to be produced, they survived off of making other products such as Apricot liqueurs and Triple Sec.
To this day, the company is still one of few family-owned businesses in this industry and certainly one of the oldest. One Luxardo family member sits at top of each strategic line with a total of eight members representing three generations currently in residence. Nicolo, who will be our main contact during the visit, is part of seventh generation along with his sister, Gaia – the first female member to enter the business.
Enlightened and excited for our distillery tour tomorrow, we head to dinner at the Michelin guide Belle Parti before getting a good night’s sleep.
The Luxardo Distillery
The next morning, we drive to the Luxardo HQ, which is nestled amongst the Euganean Hills, 10km outside of Padua. Made up of a collection of unassuming yet pleasantly tiled warehouses, this has been the company’s home for over 50 years and is currently undergoing renovations that will include a new visitor centre, parking complex and drinks terrace.
As we walk into the courtyard where an Italian flag dances gently in the warm breeze, Nicolo tells us that there are two souls here: the heritage and the technological. Products like their Sambuca and Limoncello are made in the fast, modern way, whilst their Maraschino and Morlacco honour the old ways. Whilst this means the heritage products take a long time and a lot of work to create, Nicolo explains that they are committed to maintaining these ways of production, keeping them as true as possible to the original methods: “We are the only producers that make it in the traditional way and it takes four years to process every bottle. Changing this, we believe, will spoil the product.”
As we stand enjoying the sun, Nicolo tells us a tale about cherries. Those used by them are the Luxardo Marasca cherries and the family controls 30,000 trees. What is quite unusual however is that they don’t own the land that the trees are planted on. Instead, they give the farmers the trees for free. They are then in charge of looking after them and, once harvested in late June, Luxardo buy all the product from them at market price, along with some pruned leaves and branches.
We walk through the first space and are confronted by large larch wood foudre vats used to make Luxardo Maraschino. Inside these are placed leaves, branches, pulp, skin, stems and stones, as well as a very small amount of cherry juice. Neutral alcohol is then added and the mixture is left to macerate for two-three years.
G Franklin, Luxardo’s Global Brand Ambassador jumps in to explain the unusual nature of this:
“In terms of maceration, three years is mental. It’s a crazy amount of time! What we’re doing here is making liqueurs. It’s not like with whisky where you’re making the same thing with different expressions of that one thing. When you’re making liqueurs, you’re making completely different flavour and every flavour will come from a different ingredient and every ingredient will need to be treated completely differently. When we’re making our Triple Sec for example, orange peels have so much essential oil – pure flavour – in them. We macerate them for six hours. Six hours versus three years – an insane amount of time! That’s because branches, leaves, stones and so forth contain a lot of flavour but nowhere near as much as peels. So the Luxardo Maraschino one is a real labour of love.”
Nicolo steps in to add that larch is used because it is a dark wood providing good tannic interaction and its porous nature allows for higher levels of oxygenation. When the product inside is ready for the next stage, the liquid is transferred to pot stills for distillation. The solid material is placed into bags which are placed inside the still for further flavour extraction. Distillation produces a crystal clear Maraschino, which is then moved to ashwood finishing vats before being blended and going into the “Big Boys” (huge vats) for six-twelve months to refine at 70% ABV. Once this time has passed, machines are used to decide how much sugar and water to add, before Nicolo’s father and sister add the secret ingredient and transfer the finished product to oak vats that hold it until it is bottled.
Nicolo and G continue our tour of the distillery, showing us everything from the sacks of orange blossom and the peels of sweet orange, bitter orange and mandarin used in the production of the Triple Sec, and a plate of their inimitable cherry jam where 170kg of fruit results in 100g of thick, luxurious jam, to warehouses stacked to the ceiling with pallets of boxed goods, the incredible bottling and labelling machines that perform and oddly satisfying robot ballet and the room where workers hand-cover bottles in the traditional brown paper wrap the brand is known for.
What becomes clear as we wander around the Luxardo HQ is that Nicolo knows everything there is to know about his family’s business and has worked hard to earn his place amongst his elders. Somewhat wonderfully for a globally renowned company, the sense of family spirit is ever-present, with his uncle Piedro telling him off for wearing his belt wrong and general well-meaning banter directed at the youngest member of the business.
We end our tour in the shop where we get the chance to try some of the Luxardo products for ourselves. Read our full tasting notes here.