The Weird and Complicated Past Behind Maraschino Cherries

Some 30 miles west of Venice, vast cherry orchards blossom each spring, producing the prized sour Marasca—also known as the Maraschino cherry.
October 12, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
Matteo Luxardo, export director and the face of his family's company.
Luxardo/Hotaling & Co.
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Some 30 miles west of crooning gondoliers navigating the canals of Venice, vast orchards blossom in neat lines each spring, the bittersweet floral scent of cherries as thick as the morning clouds overhead. Here grows the prized sour Marasca cherry, the original Maraschino, unadulterated by dyes and saturated with a flavor as deep as its merlot hue, a fruit that legendary spirits brand Luxardo has perfected to the point that it’s earned naming rights to the specific Marasca variety it produces.

Even if you don’t know it by name, there’s a good chance you’ve ingested Luxardo’s specific strain of Marasca in some form. The distillery recently released a sour cherry gin to the U.S. market, and the Maraschino liqueur—the flagship product, easily recognizable in a green bottle wrapped in hand-plaited straw, just as it has been for nearly 200 years—is irreplaceable in such classic cocktails as the Aviation, Hemingway Daiquiri, and Last Word. And its fame is lasting: Using the same recipe originally released in 1821, Luxardo’s Maraschino Originale liqueur earned a gold medal at the 2019 International Spirits Challenge.

Then there are the whole Maraschino cherries, the original Maraschino cherries, the kind that melt in your mouth after serving proudly on the swizzle stick of a fine Old Fashioned. These aren’t the fluorescent mutations from your childhood, but rather a so-red-it’s-nearly-black pitted fruit with candied skin so delicate it’s almost crisp, soaked in its own syrupy sweet broth. In many circles, it’s the litmus test for a cocktail program—when you order a Manhattan, what sits at the bottom of the glass, anchoring the stemware? A Luxardo cherry, it’s said, can’t be mistaken.

A cocktail with a Maraschino cherry garnish.
Luxardo/Hotaling & Co.

Available in 88 countries, Luxardo is still family-owned and -operated. Now in its seventh generation and just a couple of years shy of its second centennial, the company produces five product lines (spirits, confectioners’ liqueurs, fruit syrups, Maraschino cherries, and jams) and a number of Italy-exclusive items. But Luxardo—both the family and the brand—almost didn’t survive World War II.

It’s a tale woven of chance, fortune, death, and—despite detailed archives—a heap of mystery. “There will always be holes in the story,” says export director Matteo Luxardo. “It’s part legend, like any family story.” Luxardo’s distillery modestly occupies a small campus in Torreglia, Italy. The building resembles a mid-century grade school, complete with playful mustard tones and ruby accents.

Matteo Luxardo, export director and the face of his family’s company.
Luxardo/Hotaling & Co.

By some accounts, monks were the first to produce the Maraschino liqueur that the Luxardo family made famous; by others, it was a pharmacist in the 18th century. Like many spirits in those days, Maraschino was believed to have medicinal properties, and nowhere was that more prevalent perhaps than in its birthplace: Zara, or Zadar as it’s known today.

Long before Zadar won recognition as one of the top places to visit in 2019 for being Croatia’s coolest city—long before Croatia was an independent country at all—the coastal burgh served as Dalmatia’s capital for four centuries and sat under rule of the Venetian Republic for far longer. In the early 19th century, the Kingdom of Sardinia sent a Genoa-born politician by the name of Girolamo Luxardo to Zara. After settling in, Girolamo and his first wife, Maria Canevari, opened a store that sold coral, metal, and fine laces, among other goods. At home, Maria started tinkering with the Marasca-based kitchen-sink digestif commonly found in the region’s households, and it wasn’t long before Girolamo wanted to perfect, bottle, and sell it in the store.

“Zara was already a Maraschino city,” says Matteo. “[Girolamo] didn’t invent anything; he refined the recipe.”

The Luxardo distillery in Padua today.
Luxardo/Hotaling & Co.

In 1821, Luxardo Distilling was officially founded, and Girolamo began selling the Maraschino liqueur, made from all parts of the fruit plus a few leaves and branches from the same tree, which merge with an alcoholic infusion in Larch vats for three years before distilling in copper pot stills then maturing in Ash. It took less than a decade to be recognized regionally for producing a high-quality product and about two to become a staple internationally, with bottles ending up as far away as California by 1845.

Soon, Luxardo was producing multiple spirits and jarring excess Maraschino cherries in their own syrup to sell independently. By the start of the 20th century, third-generation heir Michaelangelo had constructed a handsome, modern building on the harbor, designed to house all Luxardo operations. As Zara changed hands during World War I, becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy, Luxardo became one of the largest and most important distilleries in Europe.

A still at work inside the distillery.
Luxardo/Hotaling & Co.

But everything changed with World War II. Bombs leveled the factory. Members of the Luxardo family based in Zara mysteriously disappeared—kidnapped and never to be seen again or drowned by hostile forces. Only one brother from the generation survived: Giorgio Luxardo, Matteo’s grandfather. He fled, making slow progress, traveling by rowboat under cover of the night sky from Zara to Trieste, Italy—more than 130 miles as the crow flies, but much farther when hugging the coast and its peninsulas.

Eventually, Giorgio made it to Venice, and from there his search began. Though left with nothing, he was determined to see the Luxardo legacy rebuilt from the ashes of the war. He managed to remain in contact with the master distiller, who had fled Zara with the Luxardo recipe book.

He found a location some 30 miles east of Venice in Padua that was far enough removed from a city (thus less likely to be bombed in the event of another war), had ample water (the area is known for its hot springs), and the right pH balance (for optimal flavor). Without Marasca cherries, however, there could be no Maraschino—and without the particular strain cultivated by generations of Luxardos, the original recipe would fall short.

Luxardo Triplum Triple Sec is an orange liqueur made from the distillation of three types of citrus fruits: the dried peels of curaçao, sweet oranges, and mandarins.
Luxardo/Hotaling & Co.

Something nagged at Giorgio though. Whether a tale he’d heard repeated across the factory floor or his own distant memory, it’s unclear, but years and years prior, a professor from the University of Florence had visited the Luxardo orchards in Zara. Could he, perhaps, take a sapling from the trees back with him to study?

It was a stroke of luck in a long series of the kind of strikes that are made lucky only by their tragic context: The university had retained (and maintained) the sapling, and Giorgio walked away with the means to regrow his family’s legacy.

But he had to wait five years before the trees would begin to produce enough fruit to begin making the Maraschino, and another four after that for the liqueur to fully mature. In the meantime, he made triple sec; he made gin; he made whatever he could from that recipe book that didn’t need cherries. And his patience, it paid off.

A jar of Luxardo Maraschino cherries.
Luxardo/Hotaling & Co.

In 1947, Luxardo relaunched in Torreglia, Padua—there’s even a barrel still in use from all those years ago. The family—which includes three generations currently working at Luxardo—has big plans for the second centennial in 2021, including a museum. And Matteo has a few ideas of his own, including a product line they’ve never before dabbled in—just what that is, well, we’ve sworn to let him have the Last Word.

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