We recently have the pleasure of being hosted by one of the world’s oldest and most intriguing distilleries, Luxardo, to hear its story of defiance, family and home. Also, booze.
Some say Venice is the most romantic destination in the world. The former capital of a maritime empire certainly features an enchanting combination of contemporary and ancient, quaint and grandiose. Our host, Nicolò Luxardo, appreciates its charm. But he’s quick to point out that Venice has no monopoly on beauty or heritage in these parts.
Less than an hour’s drive away is Padua. The oldest university town in Italy is home to over 100,000 students, as well as bars and local markets that grapple for space in the charming town squares. It’s also the base for a family that has been making a considerable range of liqueurs and spirits, including its signature maraschino liqueur and cherries, for nearly two centuries: Luxardo. Family member and assistant export manager Nicolò was kind enough to show us around the family distillery and tell us the story behind the brand.
In 2021, Luxardo will turn 200 years old, but it’s still family-owned. “We are one of the few family-owned businesses in this industry and one of the oldest in the industry which is still family-owned. There is a family member at the top of each strategic line of the company,” Nicolò explains. “Eight Luxardo family members in total work together today, representing three different generations (one member of the fifth generation, five members of the sixth generation and two members of the seventh generation)”.
The Luxardo brand was founded by Girolamo Luxardo, who came from a small village called Santa Margherita Ligure in the northwestern part of Italy. “He used to trade clothes and ropes, especially with the navy and during one of these trips he ended up in Zadar, which is now Croatia. There he fell in love with the traditional liqueur that was made by the housewives at that time from marasca cherries, which are smaller in size than regular cherries, darker in colour and very, very sour. They are almost impossible to eat raw,” explains Nicolò. “Housewives in those days used to pick these cherries and make a homemade cordial or liqueur which was then given to all the people who were coming over for lunch or for dinner”.
Girolamo settled there with his wife, Maria Canevari, who started producing her own maraschino. “Girolamo, an entrepreneur, saw an opportunity after her maraschino was proclaimed the best you could find in the city by those who dined with them. The key was they added distillation to the creation process of maraschino,” says Nicolò. In 1821 Girolamo and Maria Canevari founded Girolamo Luxardo and it wasn’t long before they started to produce other classic Italian liqueurs, from limoncello, to triple sec and even new inventions such as the Sangue Morlacco. “We also started producing a juniper-based distillate back in 1835, which is essentially an ancestor of the more modern gin,” says Nicolò.
The innovation and quality of drink Luxardo produced made it one of the biggest distilleries in Europe by the early 1900s and one of the first Italian companies to export almost worldwide all of our products. “We began to feature in a lot of old-school classic cocktail books, like Jerry Thomas’ first books. As the bartending culture grew, we grew with it, and part of our success was definitely down to bar culture and the emergence of cocktail bartending,” says global brand ambassador Gareth ‘G’ Franklin. By 1913, the third generation heir Michelangelo Luxardo had built a striking modern distillery on the harbour. “If you still go into Zadar today you can see a very big yellow building. That was ours. The house of the family was on the last two floors and the first two floors were the offices of the company. Production took place behind this building,” says Nicolò.
The First World War inevitably halted progress, but by its end, Luxardo was able to recover and to become even more successful than before. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Dalmatian coast came under Italian rule. “At this time we were making all sorts of things, including gin, brandies, whisky, everything!” says Franklin. “But a lot of these recipes were lost due to the troubles of World War II.”
Troubles might be an understatement. The War was a complete disaster for the family. “Zadar was bombed 57 times in one year and the city was almost completely destroyed, as well as the company. Three members of the family were killed and the rest managed to escape,” explains Nicolò. “From the ashes of our company the Communist Party [the city was now part of Tito’s Yugoslavia] started a new company called The Marasca. Everything had been taken from us. In the beginning, they sold Luxardo Maraschino bottles and for 50 years we have fought them with lawsuits and won them all. But it has been very difficult for us.”
The family could no longer call Zadar home or produce drinks so they relocated in 1947 to Torreglia in the Province of Padua, Italy, led by Giorgio, a fourth-generation Luxardo family member and Nicolò III (our host’s grandfather, who was from the fifth generation). “We started from scratch, from zero, with nothing,” says Nicolò. “The maraschino making process lasts roughly around four years. We could not just open the taps and have maraschino flowing out.”
The Luxardo way was not lost, however. The location of Torreglia was a strategic choice. The PH of the soil was very similar to that of Zadar, so it was particularly suitable for growing marasca cherries. What happened next was remarkable. The family got in touch with Professor Morettini, who worked at the University of Florence. In the 1930s-1940s they had sent some cherry tree samples from Zadar to Professor Morettini, so the family attempted to get some cherry tree plans from him so that they could plant them back again in Torreglia. It worked.
Luxardo has gone from strength to strength since. Today, every single Luxardo bottle is produced in Torreglia and the flagship maraschino is still made in the exact same way as it was made back in 1821. The brand has exported its products to over 87 different countries, with its sambuca proving to be the biggest selling bottling, followed by the Limoncello and then the Amaretto. The Maraschino liqueur, however, is the fastest-growing product in the last ten years, however, and Franklin reveals it is growing far faster than the others.
The marasca cherry is the heart of Luxardo. So much so that the firm cultivates a unique variety. “We’ve been growing these cherries for so long that they actually have their own genus. Our cherries are scientifically called the ‘Luxardo marasca cherry’”, says Franklin. In total there are more than 30,000 trees in the Torreglian hills that produce this type of cherry.
Luxardo does not own all those trees, however. “These plants are planted in soil which is not ours, but back when we started here in Torreglia we found farmers who were willing to cultivate them. We gave them the plants for free and they signed an exclusivity agreement to sell all the existing products at the end of the year to us, but at market price,” says Nicolò. “The farmers are very happy to work with us because they get the plant for free, they know they will sell all the existing product at the end of the season without having to go and find customers and they’ll get paid the market price of the cherries of that year. The only risk that they take is if the plants get ill or if there is a bad season for the fruits.”
“We have two different souls in this company. One is more ancient, with more heritage, and the other one is modern and highly technological. Products like the sambuca and limoncello are made in a high-quality way that’s very fast and very modern. Products like the maraschino and the Sangue Morlacco could be done that way, but we’d rather still make them as they were made back in 1821,” says Nicolò. “We have been in business for almost 200 years because those products were made in the best possible way. We are the only producer of maraschino who still makes it in the traditional way.” Franklin agrees that the process has to be kept true to its roots, “We can do it faster, we have the technology, but we will be sacrificing integrity and taste”.
It can take up to four years to produce a bottle of maraschino liqueur. The marasca cherries are harvested in late June/beginning of July. The pulp, the pits, the juice and the cherry are separated and the tree is also pruned as the leaves and branches are one of the most important ingredients. Inside larch wood vats neutral alcohol is added to this mixture of leaves, branches, pulp, skin, stem, the stones and a little bit of juice and it macerates for two to three years.
Two of those larch wood vats are the original ones installed in 1947. “The older they get, the better they are because in this process the oxygen that comes in and out of these vats changes and matures the product,” says Nicolò. “That’s why we use larch wood, it’s a very porous wood, so this allows this oxidation to happen. We use dark wood as it has tannins inside which interact with the product that is contained inside the barrel.”
From here the liquid is distilled and the solid parts, the leaves, the branches, the pulp, are put inside bags and placed inside the traditional copper pot stills, which are heated with steam. “We only use the heart of the distillation for the maraschino. The heads and tails are separated and then reused in the next distillation,” says Nicolò, who then points to an array of machines around us that are used to make the other recipes for the other products. “The Amaro Abano is infused and is the only product for which they make a complete maceration. For the Bitter Bianco a small infuser is used to make separate infusions of each herb.”
The blending process for the maraschino liqueur takes place in Finnish ash wood butts, complete with pores because oxygen is still required to interact with the product inside. The liqueur rests inside here for roughly six and 12 months. “This is where you get control. The Finnish ash wood butts are smaller and allow us to get more contact between the liquid and the wood. This is the step that allows us to get that consistent flavour and taste,” says Franklin. “The whole process means we don’t make a regular cherry liqueur. What you get at the end is like a cross between a fortified wine and a cherry liqueur. So you get a big rich, bold cherry flavour but this has got a port-like richness to it as well.”
To finish, sugar and water are added in the mixing tanks, then the liqueur is stored in elliptical vats (shaped like this purely for storage reasons, they contain the same amount of liquid but they take away less space) until it is ready to be bottled. While there are mechanical bottling lines, built in 2013 and 2015 on-site, that can process 6000 bottles per hour, for all the technology the maraschino liqueur still has the same distinctive cardboard label produced by hand.
Nicolò finishes our tour by showing us the on-going construction of a whole new visitor centre and talks excitedly of the future. Franklin concurs, “The world of liqueurs is a funny world. It’s by far the biggest category there is. Mainly because liqueurs are all about flavours, so if you can think of a flavour, it has the ability to be a liqueur. But also if you can think of a combination of flavours then they also have abilities to be liqueurs as well. The possibilities are truly endless.”