Matteo Luxardo: On crafting the world’s best candied cherries

Luxardo’s Maraschino Cherries have been called the Ferrari of candied cherries—the gold standard by which all other cocktail cherries should be judged. And that’s not an exaggeration. We’d challenge you to find another maraschino cherry with such deep flavor or a candy-like chew.

LUXARDO® Cherries Jubilee

This is why we turned to the 200-year-old, family-run company in Italy when we wanted to make LUXARDO® Cherries Jubilee ice cream. Luxardo’s proprietary sour marasca cherries are candied and steeped in a syrup made of cherry juice and sugar. It’s the perfect pair with our brandied-scented sweet cream.

But enough about us. Let’s talk about Luxardo—a company that doesn’t simply make great cherries and liqueurs, but has a really cool history, too. Founded in 1821, the Luxardo distillery was originally located on the Croatian coast. They made their name with a maraschino cherry liqueur (candied marasca sour cherries didn’t come along until 1905). But during World War II, bombings destroyed the Luxardo distillery, forcing Giorgio Luxardo to flee Croatia. As the legend goes, Giorgio escaped to Italy with one cherry sapling and the recipe for their storied liqueur.

He rebuilt the distillery in the Veneto region of Italy in 1946. Today, Luxardo continues to flourish, run now by the sixth generation of the family. We caught up with a member of the current generation, Matteo Luxardo, to talk Luxardo history, their popularity in the U.S., and how he prefers to enjoy his cherries.

Luxardo has been around—and family owned—for 200 years. Can you share a bit about how the company got started, and how you ended up in Italy?

A citizen from Genova, Girolamo Luxardo was sent to Zara as consular representative of the Kingdom of Sardinia. He moved there with his family in 1817. His wife, Maria Canevari, was especially interested in perfecting a rosolio maraschino, a liqueur produced in Dalmatia since medieval times and often made in convents. Her husband Girolamo founded a distillery in 1821 to produce Maraschino.

In 1913, the third generation, Michelangelo Luxardo and Nicolò I Luxardo, built an extremely modern distillery, one of the largest in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even today people coming into Zara cannot help noticing the imposing structure on the harbor edge. At the end of the first World War, Zara was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy as 85 percent of its population were Italians. The Luxardo company soon became the most important distillery in the country.

The beginning of the second World War in 1940 severely hampered industrial activity. After indiscriminate and repeated Anglo-American bombings in 1943-44, the distillery was almost completely destroyed, as was the city.

In 1947, Giorgio Luxardo had the courage and vision to rebuild the distillery in the Veneto region, our present plant at Torreglia (Padova), together with the young fifth generation Nicolò. And so a new chapter in the ongoing family history was opened.

Now the sixth generation of the family is in charge of the company, and the seventh generation has just started.

Luxardo’s distillery in the Veneto region of Italy.
There’s a sort of mystique around Luxardo cherries. What is it that makes your cherries unlike any others out there?

We were producing them since the beginning as you can see from the above ad dated end of 1800. The jar on the left of the maraschino bottle is of Maraschino Cherries, this is one of the reasons that we can call the actual ones “the original” maraschino cherries. If I have to describe them to someone that has never tried them, I will say that they are crunchy, tasty (they taste like real cherries), syrupy (the syrup is made with marasca cherry juice and sugar), they are 100% natural. After this description, why not have one?

Can you set the scene of your facility and grounds of 30,000 cherry trees in Italy? And can you share a little about your production?

Luxardo is situated at the beginning of a regional park, a beautiful area surrounded by green hills and flat land where we cultivate our 30,000 cherry trees. We managed during the years to give our name to our cherries so the variety is Luxardo Marasca Cherry. With these cherries we produce the Maraschino (a liqueur that comes from the distillation of the cherry with juice and alcohol; it takes four years for the production), Cherry “Sangue Morlacco” (a liqueur obtained by the fermentation of the juice of the Marasca cherries; it takes eight months for the production), Original Maraschino Cherries (candied Marasca Cherries), and Amarascata (Marasca Cherry Jam). Then we produce a whole range of classic Italian liqueurs Sambuca (anise liqueur), amaretto (almond flavored liqueur), Limoncello (lemon liqueurs), and herbal liqueurs like Amaro and Fernet.

What makes cherries grow so well in the Veneto region? Does the volcanic soil have something to do with it?

One of the reasons that my grandfather, Giorgio Luxardo, reopened the company where it is now is for the pH of the volcanic soil. [It’s] excellent for the cultivation of the Luxardo Marasca Cherries variety.

Cocktail authority David Wondrich called the Luxardo brand the “gold-standard.” And it seems any respectable bar finishes drinks with your cherries. What was the tipping point that brought your cherries and liqueurs back in vogue, especially in the U.S.?

As per the cherries, we have to give their success to Henry Preiss who had decided to import them at the beginning in the U.S., but with no great results. The boom was given by our great friend Audrey Saunders from the Pegu Club in NYC, who decided to use them in her drinks and launched them in the market. As per the Maraschino and the other Luxardo liqueurs, that’s due to the mixology wave. Mixologists are not normal bartenders. They are more careful about what they are using as per ingredients in their cocktails. They were, since the beginning, oriented towards the first cocktails and in search of the original ingredients. Luxardo is more than 194 years old, and was used since the beginning as a sweetener in cocktails, so it was considered as an original ingredient.

If you are going to have a Luxardo cherry, what’s your preferred pairing?

Ice cream and cocktails. One Luxardo Cherry in my Martinez and I am happy.

Cocktail recipe

How to make a Martinez

This classic recipe first appeared in 1884 in O.H. Byron’s Modern Bartenders’ Guide. Though versions vary, as do the garnishes, this is one of our favorites:

  • 2 ounces gin (preferably Old Tom style)
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 8½ teaspoon Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 Luxardo Maraschino Cherry for garnish

In a large glass, combine gin, vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, bitters, and ice. Stir to combine. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry and enjoy.