‘No bank today would make a loan to a company with this business model,’ Gareth Franklin offers as a succinct analysis of his embassy. The brand ambassador for Luxardo is explaining the time-consuming processes required to create the company’s classic liqueur. Not counting the time it takes for fruiting trees to become productive, you have a long maceration of cherry leaves, stems, stones, flesh and a token amount of juice, then 2 years’ maturation in wood, followed by distillation and blending, then 2 more years of rest in neutral wood before bottling.
But it seems that today’s banks would be missing out.
Luxardo has been family-owned for 196 years, with family members continuously involved in the day-to-day operations. The last employee of the fifth generation, Franco Luxardo, has recently retired (according to his son, Matteo, the current export director, ‘he’s retired, but he will never retire’). Matteo’s younger cousin, Nicolo, represents generation number seven, as does Gaia, the first female family-member to join the company, in new product development.
Now, I have utmost loyalty to my own family, but I know from experience I cannot work with them. According to Luxardo tradition, however, the logic is simple: you have to take care of the company because the company feeds your family. And it’s been doing so for rather a long time.
In 1821 Girolamo Luxardo is the Sardinian consul to Dalmatia on the east coast of the Adriatic, and has a business making and selling ships’ ropes as well. His wife, Maria Canevari, has noticed that the local nuns spend a fair amount of time making a cherry liqueur the likes of which she’s never tried before. The secret? The local marasca cherries are extraordinarily high in acidity, less so in sugar (rather like the grapes used to make cognac and armagnac). Girolamo and Maria decide the liqueur should really be making more people happy, and with a few commercial tweaks, they start producing their own maraschino at scale.
In drinks terms, Maraschino liqueur is a rosolio, a viscous bitter with distinctly floral aromas and an alcohol content of not more than 30% abv. Each part of Italy has its own ‘typical’ rosolio, from bay leaf flavour to bergamot. However, the liqueur’s origins lie in Moorish Spain, where distillation was streets ahead and al-qirmiz (cochineal) was added for colour.
The Luxardos didn’t stop at Maraschino though. By 1836, they were making a gin; by the late 1800s they were selling to the United States, where the curtain was lifting on the first cocktail era. Today, the company produces an extraordinary range of cocktail ingredients. All of them (excluding the black sambuca, which seems to have been created to sate a UK market) are based on historic Luxardo products. I use ‘based’ loosely, as any company with a history covering national unification and two world wars is apt to lose records.
The latest release, Bitter Bianco, is based on a Luxardo liqueur made before 1939. During the war, Allied bombing campaigns drove the remaining family members from Dalmatia to Padova, where they planted a new marasca cherry orchard in 1947. As a result, the only evidence of the original Bitter Bianco is a bottle label: no recipe, no bottle. Released in the UK this February, it was (re)created with the desire to show off how well an Italian classic can be modernized.
The key to Bitter Bianco’s clean-not-sterile citrus notes is a post-infusion distillation followed by the addition of a separate parcel of absinthe. The resulting flavours include Mediterranean lemon and buttery white chocolate, which is quite miraculous given that neither ingredient goes into the recipe.
Sangue Morlacco should also be on your radar, not least because it was named by Italy’s soldier-poet, Gabriele d’Annunzio. Made from marasca cherry juice fermented to 7% abv then fortified, it’s matured for 1 year before dilution and sweetening. Thanks to the high acidity of the marasca and a mean hand with the sugar blending, it’s fresh and really quite potent. The story goes that the Dalmatia’s Morlacco people of the 1700s shed their blood (sangue) guarding the borders of the Venetian Republic. Dramatic, a touch gruesome and pairs well with any brandy-based cocktail.
I’ll leave you with a Gareth Franklin recipe using Bitter Bianco to get you through the swelter ahead.
- Stew fresh rhubarb, as much as you can find. If you can’t, then watermelon could be an alternative, but don’t stew it, just juice it.
- Strain out the fruit and add some sugar to the juice, to taste.
- Mix with Bitter Bianco to taste.
- Top with soda water.
Written by Sophie Skarbek-Borowska