How Luxardo’s Maraschino Cherries became a cult cocktail garnish

The unctuous, dark and juicy fruit has become the go-to garnish for cocktail lovers. Phoebe Hunt speaks to the Luxardo family about the makings of these historic cherries in a jar

Words by Phoebe Hunt

luxardo original maraschino cherry jar

Everything about Luxardo’s maraschino cherry production is shrouded in secrecy. First, there’s the highly protected variety of marasca cherry trees: acres and acres of them planted around the family estate in northern Italy, cultivated from Croatian sour cherry trees and owned exclusively by Luxardo. Then there’s the distillery itself, still 100-per-cent family-owned, with the eighth generation of Luxardo family members now joining the fold. When I call to arrange a tour of the distillery, it’s Matteo Luxardo himself I speak to, export director for the brand and great, great grandson of founder Girolamo Luxardo. ‘We produce seven million bottles of alcohol every year, but maraschino cherries and their liqueur are still our symbolic product,’ Matteo explains.

Luxardo’s cocktail cherries are a perennial bartender favourite, a bittersweet garnish that teeters between elegance and kitsch. They’re a key element in the Manhattan and the Singapore Sling, plus many an Old Fashioned or Sour; they’re also seen in coke floats, ice-cream sundaes and myriad Daiquiri variations. But they’re also a fascinating product in their own right. Though there are other brands like Amarena Fabbri, and countless synthetic candied cherries (pillar-box red, by comparison), fans are still drawn to the dark colour, luxurious richness, peculiarly toothsome texture and jammy insides of the Luxardo original.

marasca cherries at luxardo factory
(Photo: Elena Valeriote)

The origins of Luxardo Maraschino Cherries

The Luxardo story began two hundred years ago in Zara, the old capital of Dalmatia (now Croatia), a coastal city home to the native marasca cherry tree. A young Girolamo Luxardo moved here in the early 1800s as consul of the Kingdom of Sardinia, along with his wife Maria Canevari. Enchanted by the sour flavour of the red-black local cherries, Canevari started experimenting with making her own cherry liqueur based on a delicacy made by the locals for personal consumption – rosolio maraschino. Spotting a gap in the market, Luxardo opened a distillery in his family’s name in 1821 to mass-produce his wife’s inimitable recipe.

marasca cherry in luxardo estate tree

In 1905, the distillery started making and selling cherries candied in a syrup of their own cherry juice and sugar, thus creating The Original Maraschino Cherries. When the region was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1918, the Luxardo distillery became one of the most important in the country. Despite producing limoncello, gin and sambuca, cherry liqueur and maraschino cherries became Luxardo’s hero products, and the rise of the cocktail in the early 20th century only cemented that status. The cherries took off as a garnish, becoming a staple in every mixologist’s cupboard.

World War II saw the decimation of the Luxardo distillery and cherry orchards. The family was torn apart, and the sole survivor of the fourth generation, Giorgio Luxardo, fled to the Veneto region of northern Italy. Here, he called upon a botanist professor from Florence who had taken cuttings from their rare sour cherry trees a decade earlier, and they restarted the cultivation of marasca cherry trees on Italian soil. ‘We are the only ones in the world cultivating this Luxardo variety,’ Matteo says proudly. ‘We now have 20,000 trees. They have our name because they’re our own variety.’

cherry tree forest at Luxardo estate

What goes into making Luxardo Maraschino Cherries?

Production is headed up by Guido Luxardo, Matteo’s cousin, also a direct descendent of Girolamo. ‘Around 1,200 tonnes of cherries are picked in June at perfect ripeness, distilled on site following a close variation of Maria Canevari’s 200-year-old recipe,’ he explains. Visiting the distillery in summertime while the fruit are being harvested, the distinctive smell is overwhelmingly delicious.

cherries inside luxardo distillery
(photo: Elena Valeriote)

Once picked, the process of candying the sour cherries is once again deeply secretive, with the entire section of the distillery cordoned off to prying eyes. What makes the product so unique, however, is the simplicity of the ingredient list. Unlike the overly sweet, bleached red imitations enhanced with almond flavouring, the Luxardo jar contains no thickening agents or preservatives. The cherries are salt brined, pitted, mysteriously candied, and stored in simple yet iconic glass jars drowned in their syrup.

‘The percentage of marasca cherries in jars and tins is about 50 per cent, and so is the percentage of syrup,’ is all Guido will reveal. ‘Their unique taste comes from the marasca cherry syrup, which is made starting from the same juice used to prepare the infusion for the Sangue Morlacco cherry liqueur.’ The end product is an unctuous, jammy cherry with a faint marzipan-like aftertaste and a distinctive bite to it.

How did the design come about?

To give a sense of the history of Luxardo, we need only look at the dove still emblazoned on liqueur bottles – it’s a carrier dove, which Girolamo used for sending messages right up until he died in the 1860s. As for their glass jar of Maraschino cherries, the look is far simpler. ‘The design for the jar of cherries was one of the first tasks I took on when I started working in the company 24 years ago, in 1999,’ says Matteo. ‘After school, I briefly studied graphic design, so I was always interested in this side of the business. I created the packaging with a blend of two different labels that we had already.’

rows of jars of luxardo products
(Photo: Elena Valeriote)

What’s next for Luxardo?

Staying true to the family legacy is important (when there are eight relatives in the senior management team, it’s hard for it not to be), but Matteo acknowledges the need for change and innovation at the same time. ‘Every year we try to come out with new products, and this is the year of the Antico and the Aperitivo Verde.

‘We’re also making steps in sustainability. The steam from the distillation is transformed back to water and used as water for gardening, for example, and waste products from the distillation are used as compost or given to the farmers as animal fodder. Sixty per cent of our glass is recycled, and the cartons we use come from recycled paper.’

Perhaps Luxardo’s most intriguing product development, Amaretto di Saschira, also incorporates a by-product from the making of their bestsellers. The liqueur is an Amaretto antidote for people with nut allergies, created with apricot, peach, and, of course, cherry pits.