Cherry Blossom Hunting with Luxardo

You know what they say? Never work with children, animals or blossom trees.

It was early February when Luxardo offered an invitation to see their Maraschino orchards in full bloom. That’s approximately 22,000 sour cherry trees.  I’m as much a fan of cherry blossom as the next person, so of course I said yes. The lure of having a snoop around Luxardo HQ in Padua, and a wee mooch around Venice while we were at it, helped too. But were the trees going to play ball?

Grand Canal Venice

Fast-forward to April, and it was an early start at Gatwick airport to journey to Padua, an ancient university town about an hour’s drive from Venice airport. Studying here means you’re based in a city where a fair whack of the world’s supply of Sambuca is made. Which seems a shrewd move to me.

We were heading over to sample the more classic side of Luxardo’s spirit and liqueur production though. From grappa to kirsch, brandy, wines, syrups and triple sec, Luxardo makes it all. However, the continued trend for classic cocktails is boosting Maraschino sales globally, and Luxardo had a new product for the UK that they wanted us to try.

Upon reflection, we should have actually got on the shots early. Before boarding we made a stunning effort to break the record for ‘Quickest turnaround from placing order for meal, consuming it and running to the departure gate for last call’. I can’t help but think a shot or two of Luxardo Chilli and Spices could have shaved five eighths of a second off our time.

Two hours later and we were circling Venice airport. High-hopes of spotting gondolas, maybe a famous building or two, some of those red stripy stick things, as we landed over the city were dashed. As it is, the working docks of Venice resemble an industrialized game of crazy golf when viewed from above. The city was being bashful it seemed.

The Last Word in Padua

And so, to Padua, where the irrepressible Matteo Luxardo, export manager and seventh generation merry-maker among the Luxardo family dynasty, was waiting for us. To describe the business as a family enterprise seems somehow to sell it short.

Luxardo is still owned and managed by the founding family. Even more of a feat when you consider the turbulent events following the second world war which forced the family to flee the original distillery in Zara, now part of Croatia, and start again at the current site in Torreglia.

Matteo and his father Franco, export director, have a Morcambe and Wise dynamic. Matteo appears to delight in saying things that might shock his father, while Franco appears fondly amused and feigns surprise at every comment. I can’t believe the surprise is real. Matteo seems well practiced in the art of being outrageous. “I’m nice, my father is charming,” explains Matteo. “It’s a different thing.”

We meet in a Padua restaurant where we outdo ourselves by consuming our bodyweights in pasta and mozzarella, then on to cocktails at the Pelican Caffe where Matteo wastes no time ordering his favourite Maraschino-based cocktails for us. As when your eyes adjust to the dark, it soon becomes clear why Matteo has selected the bar for a digestif.  It’s a veritable shrine to all things Luxardo, from retro packaging to branded glassware.

“This is called the Last Word,” says Matteo, handing me a cocktail of gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and freshly pressed lime juice. “Because after this, you don’t talk.” He’s not kidding. It’s too gin heavy for Matteo who sends it back. Earlier he returned the wine at the restaurant after one sip, declaring it corked. It’s clear that Matteo is exacting. Take note then if you ever find Matteo as a cocktail competition judge, such as Luxardo’s now customary Masters of Maraschino competition.

Lost Cherries

True enough, breakfast the next morning is a quiet affair. After which we take the briskest of all walking tours around the city, following the fast-as-a-whippet Su-Lin Ong (Luxardo / Cellar Trend’s UK PR) from sights such as the Il Santo church and the Palazzo della Ragione. The great hall is said to have the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. But what you really need to know is that it’s home to a morning food market and some of the most drool-inducing cheese shops I have ever laid eyes on.

Hunger had to wait. We headed into the Euganaean Hills to the orchards. Maraschino is what the Luxardo company is built upon. Maraschino Originale is the company’s first and still its most successful product. A booming market for classic cocktails such as the Aviation and the Martinez especially in America and Canada, has led to the planning of 4-5000 new cherry trees to cope with demand.

No blossom, not a single petal

Sadly however, and despite this being the focus of our trip, predictably none of them were blooming. Bad weather and late frosts had delayed the bloom. We’re promised it’s a stunning sight.

But our sadness was short lived. A British flag hung in our honour at the distillery gate was a nice touch. But the real pleasure was to be found in exploring the deceptively small distillery. Luxardo also makes jams, fruit liqueurs and syrups, so a beautifully sweet smell hangs in the air.

We’re walked past larch wood vats, the first stage in Maraschino production. Cherry skins, stones, leaves and twigs are stored in the tannin-rich wood with alcohol for three years. It is then aged in ash, which is tannin free and doesn’t add any colour, for another four years.

The leaf and bark is then put into jute sacks and heated to 86◦C with the liquid. It’s then aged for another six months in ash before sugar and water is added to bring it down to 32% ABV and then aged for another three months in ash. Got that? Good.

It took great concentration and an educational video voiced over by someone Matteo describes as sounding like Homer Simpson, to get that down.

New UK release, Sangue Morlacco

As far as we know, no-one makes it in the way we make it, distilling the entire thing,” says Franco. “Some use purely alcohol essences, or mix part of the spirit bought from someone else and add water and alcohol and dilute it a lot. You can tell. The perfume is not there.”

On to the tasting/ board room (which is always a great combination) and we’re introduced to new UK launch, Cherry Sangue Morlacco. Long available in Italy, Luxardo and Cellar Trends have been waiting for the right moment to take it to UK bars. A cherry trend signalled it was time. The thick, rich gloop is so velvety, with just the right amount of sweetness. I can’t wait to try it in a Singapore Sling.

But that will have to wait. We pack up the bus and head to Venice. Venice tip number one, sample as many variations of the spritz as possible in as many bars as possible. In our just under 24 hours in the city, I think we notched up a respectable five or six. Venice tip number two, if you want to feel like James Bond, splash out on a water taxi to take you to the airport. Jetting across the lagoon with jets landing over your head, as the city fades into the background feels pretty filmic. Especially after a few spritz or two.