by Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller
Sasha Petraske introduced us to Luxardo cherries. It was around 2001. We had just returned to Manhattan after a seven-year road trip and found ourselves up to our ears in a burgeoning new cocktail scene.
People occasionally accuse Dale DeGroff of giving himself too much credit for reviving cocktails in the 1980s and early 1990s. We would say he gives himself far too little credit for shaping the globally-influential New York scene in the late 1990s and 2000s. I (Jared) never really got to know Dale when he was tending bar and I was waiting tables in 1990 at the Rainbow Room, though our first encounter was unforgettable.
One afternoon I was walking past the service bar near the kitchen. The service bartender was there. So was the head bartender. As he passed Dale said to me, “Hey you! You wanna see how to flame a twist?”
That was how Dale lured unsuspecting young men and women into sharing his passion for cocktails. Fire. No one can resist fire. Soon there was an orange stripped to pith between us, with a pile of spent wooden matches and blackened twists. Plus, one more person was now fascinated with the bartender’s craft.
But this is a story about Luxardo cherries.
While we were living in Vancouver, BC, our literary agent of the time said about the only intelligent words to us that he ever spoke. He said, “This internet thing, it’s going to be big.” That was 1995. That was where his brilliance ended. He didn’t suggest we invest in Apple or Microsoft. He suggested we get on this new tech by building a website.
I happened to be holding two martinis at that moment on Halloween night, 1995, when Anistatia looked up from the computer and said, “So, what should we do website about?”
Within six months, Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini® had snowballed into a giant site with recipes, history, lore, bar recommendations, a chat forum, and a surprising roster of fans. One of them was a HarperCollins Publishers editor who invited us to turn the content into a book. That book, which rose to become the world’s bestseller on the subject, launched us into drink full time.
Suddenly we found ourselves judging cocktail competitions, writing about spirits and cocktails for Cigar Aficionado, Wine Spectator and countless other publications. We were signed on as tasters helping distiller Kevin Settles hash out his Bardenay Gin formula in Boise, Idaho. We even appeared in the local police academy where they got us drunk so the cadets could learn to administer sobriety tests.
But this is about Luxardo cherries.
By the time we returned to Manhattan, Dale—whose personal library had been an invaluable resource when we were writing Shaken Not Stirred—had gone from acquaintance to friend and we started meeting up for drinks. He was beating a path between new and old bars across Manhattan at this point, leading cocktail tours and becoming friend and mentor to a new generation of bartenders.
One afternoon Dale said we had to meet some talented kid (Dale called anyone in their twenties a kid), a kid who was opening an amazing new bar downtown. That day, the three of us stood outside 134 Eldridge Street. The window had a dusty tailor’s dummy and a sign that read “ALTERATIONS”.
Sasha was tall, rail thin with a mop of long dark hair falling over his face. He was so young, but his seriousness was obvious from the start. He greeted us warmly, then turned immediately to Dale to hash out the measures of his East India Cocktail. To Sasha, it wasn’t quite perfect yet. We all talked through the drinks on his list, but he wasn’t ready for service, so we wandered off to another new bar in the neighbourhood, another spot where Dale intently listened and generously advised. At one point or another a classic cocktail book emerged from his battered leather bag. Another invaluable source for another passionate young bartender.
But back to the cherries.
On our second visit to Milk & Honey, Jared ordered a Manhattan. Normally, he was very specific about this drink but this was a bartender who took cocktails to a higher level. He was too curious to say a word. That curiosity paid off. He eschewed the hideous red cherries in favour of an orange twist.
Here was a small, dark cherry. It was clear there was nothing artificial about this one. It burst with cherry, sweetness and a touch of marzipan. A world apart from the artificial ones, it was the best we had ever tasted.We wanted it to linger on the palate, but it didn’t. However, it had bled a small pool of thick syrup that settled to the divot in the bottom of Jared’s glass. On his last sip, he held the upraised glass to his lips and waited. That thick cherry syrup meandered to the rim. Then patience was rewarded: One more taste of a perfect cherry.
We had a few more rounds, a few more cherries, and asked Sasha about them. He didn’t tell us much at the time.
Next stop with Dale was Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle. The blonde who used to work at Tonic had moved uptown and upscale. Dale loved her drinks and her passion for cocktails. That blonde was Audrey Saunders. Her Manhattans also featured a Luxardo cherry. She was more forthcoming with her source.
The only shop that carried them was Dean & Delucca, an appropriate place to find obscure Italian imports. These were about as obscure as it got. D&D (whom Jared once worked for baking scones and other pastries in its Paramount Hotel branch off Times Square) got an occasional case of these cherries. When they arrived, the race was on to buy a jar before they were gone. That seemed to be the entire East Coast supply—an occasional box. Then Sasha and Audrey upped the ante by purchasing as much as D&D imported the moment they arrived leaving the others to beg or borrow until the next round.
Looking at the pallets of cherries in the Luxardo warehouse marked for shipment to the USA today, it’s hard to imagine two great bartenders and a handful of consumers racing each other to buy those few jars.
There is little we could add to the history of the Luxardo company that isn’t already on Wikipedia. But for those of you who prefer to curl up to a primary or secondary historical source, here’s what we learnt from Matteo Luxardo and his family on a recent visit to the distillery situated in Torreglia near Padua in northern Italy.
Divided into numerous states and duchies since medieval times, Italy has been restructured over and over again. Its borders rarely settled for long along the French side to the west and the Croatian side to the east. One of its great power seats beginning in the 1600s was the Duchy of Savoy which spanned both the French and Italian Piemont region. That holding by 1720 also included the island of Sardinia.
At the height of Napoleon Bonaparte’s power, this duchy was renamed the Kingdom of Italy in 1805 with Napoleon himself crowned as monarch. For this brief moment in history, the Dalmatian city of Zara (now Zadar) on Italy’s eastern borders was also under Italy’s domain. And although the Kingdom of Dalmatia was designated as a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire beginning in 1815, it still maintained friendly relations with the now-renamed Kingdom of Sardinia.
Girolamo Luxardo moved to Zara with his family in 1817 to take his new post as consular representative of the Kingdom of Sardinia. It was here that his wife Maria Canevari first started preserving the bounty of Zara: its Marasca cherry orchards. As any good housewife of the time would do, she developed a rosolio maraschino for her household pantry from this particular variety of sour Morello cherry. Guests and friends relished in this spirit and four years later, Girolamo began commercial production of Liquore Maraschino. His was not the first distillery located in Zara to produce this strong, sweet spirit. But it became the second and most popular of the three Dalmatian distilleries to produce this sought-after digestif which condoned by the Austro-Hungarian emperor as well as Italian and British royalty.
Success continued even after Girolamo’s death at the age of 81 in 1865 when he son Nicolò took the reins of the business, followed in 1913 by Michaelangelo, the third generation to operate the Luxardo distillery. Besides producing its liqueur, the family expanded its interests into preservation of its now vast cherry orchards for baking—and eventually cocktail garnish—as well as preserves and brandy making. The distillery was one of the empire’s largest and most productive. Then came the First World War.
With the Austro-Hungarian Empire at an end by the cessation of the fighting, Zara was again in the hands of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Production continued as Europe recovered from the numerous conflicts that lend to world war and the ensuing battles. Then came the Second World War.
Italy—now united under Mussolini—was an Axis country. As a consequence, the country including Dalmatia was a target for Allied forces. The Luxardo distillery and operations were almost completely destroyed by the Allies.
You would think that the story ended there with the finish of the Second World War. truth is, it only just begun.
It was 1944. The Germans were gone. The new socialists took power and Josip Bros Tito took power in the creation of Yugoslavkia. Zara was in that territory. Italian citizens who had resided in the area including Zara fled the invasion, especially in Dalmatia. A new regime wanted nothing to do with its former Italian compatriots. Amongst the refugees, Nicolò Luxardo and his wife Bianca Ronzoni as well as his brother Pietro were murdered as they attempted to flee. Giorgio managed to escape and set up a temporary operation in Venice before he moved to Torreglia, outside of Padua.
Marasca cherry plantings were exported and survived transplantation in northern Italy. The battles had only begun as Yugoslavian interests attempted to capitalise on the marasca cherry market and maraschino liqueur industry that had been founded and developed by three Italian families.
Throughout most of the late twentieth century, the Luxardo family fought against plagiarism of its brand and its provenance, citing forgery of its unique trademark and its formula instigated by the Yugoslavian government. It never gave up. It fought until its dignity was won and maintained.
Wikipedia does not shed the slightest light on the ethos, the spirit, the values that have made Luxardo such an enduring success story. The approach handed down within the family is to build the company for the next generation rather than seeking to spend the profits on a flashy lifestyle.
After spending a day at Luxardo with the family we can completely understand why they want to keep the business within the family whilst it probably attracts quite a few buy-out offers.
At the end of the day, Luxardo cherries and its extensions—especially its remarkable liqueur—are the unique extension of a family that loves what it does and what it has done for multiple generations: they craft the love of a husband for his wife’s talent that has translated into love for a cherry varietal and what it offers in taste and origination.
What more could you ask from a truly artisanal brand?
And what could the Luxardo family buy with money and find to do in this world that would be more enjoyable than living in Padua, Italy, producing the burgeoning Luxardo range? The secret to happiness in this life is knowing we all have to work, and finding work you can truly enjoy.
So is finding a Luxardo cherry in your Manhattan.