America Almost Ruined Cocktail Cherries, But Italy Is Bringing Them Back
The garnish on your Manhattan has a tumultuous history, it turns out.
These days, Luxardo Maraschino Cherries are the gold standard of cocktail cherries. You'll find them resting at the bottom of Manhattans in countless craft cocktail establishments around the world. A far cry from the nostalgic, nuclear-red variety that beam like stoplights from Shirley Temples and sundaes, Luxardo cherries boast all-natural ingredients and a nutty, tart flavor. In other words, they're the perfect cap to a stiff drink, and the U.S. revival of the 114-year-old brand—propelled by rising cocktail standards over the last 15 years—speaks to the way modern bartenders look to the past for quality ingredients.
But Luxardo's 21st-century comeback would have never been possible if 20th-century Americans had gotten their way. Back in 1821, Girolamo Luxardo founded a beverage company not in Italy but in Zadar, Croatia, then known as Zara under the Austrian Empire. The Dalmation Coast was home to the dark, sour Marasca cherry, which locals had long made into the flavorful rosolio maraschino liqueur. After his wife Maria Canevari made her own delicious version of the liqueur, Luxardo established a distillery. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur quickly gained international prominence, buoyed by the nascent cocktail culture in the U.S., and the brand made its way as far west as New Orleans by 1839.
Seizing on another local tradition of preserving fresh cherries in the liqueur, Luxardo began selling cherries preserved in nonalcoholic cherry syrup in 1905, helping pioneer a burgeoning global maraschino cherry market. While the company didn’t export their preserved cherries to the States alongside their liqueur just yet, European cherry traditions did inspire American copycats who created knockoffs preserved in all kinds of chemicals. And so began trouble for maraschino cherries in America. In 1912, the imitations even warranted a ruling by the FDA. Food Inspection Decision 141 recognized the Dalmation Coast as the home of the Marasca cherry variety, traditional maraschino liqueur, and authentic maraschino cherries, labelling American versions as “imitation maraschino cherries.”
Meanwhile, Luxardo’s fortunes soon turned with those of its hometown. At the end of WWI, Zara was absorbed into Italy, eventually making it an intermittent hub for Axis soldiers during WWII. Beginning in 1943, American and Allied forces mercilessly bombed the city for an entire year, earning Zara the nickname “Dresden of the Atlantic.” The Luxardo distillery, along with 80 percent of the city, was destroyed.
“The bombing of Zara was tragic. The city was bombed 57 time in 6 months…it was not a strategic city for the war, and there were 20,000 habitants,” says Matteo Luxardo, a seventh generation family member and export director at the company. “My grandfather and my father were already in Italy. The rest of the family managed to escape by rowing a boat for 36 days. They were rowing during the night and hiding during the day because they feared being spotted by the Partisans [an anti-Axis group supported by the Allies] and getting killed.”
While the Allies were busy bombing the home of the original maraschino cherries, rivals in the U.S. were permanently installing artificial cherries in American food law. The effort to find a new preservative for cherries began nobly enough. According to The Oregonian, back in 1925, Ernest Wiegand of Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) set out to help Oregon farmers preserve their delicate cherry crop. He found calcium salts did the trick and started Oregon down a long road of cherry additives. Wiegand’s protégé Robert Cain later perfected a bleaching process, allowing manufacturers to strip local yellow cherry varieties of their color and dye them bright red. Other additives could mimic the flavor of classic maraschinos too.
Finally, in 1939, a cherry trade association successfully petitioned the FDA to overrule the 1912 decision. In TC-194, issued on March 15, 1940, the FDA accepted the argument that, to the majority of American consumers, maraschino cherries were, “the common or usual name of an article consisting of cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar sirup flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor.” The decision permanently cemented artificially flavored cherries as maraschinos in America for the next 65 years.
After the Luxardo family’s daring escape from Zara, Matteo’s grandfather Giorgio Luxardo hoped to re-establish the business in Italy, tapping professor Alessandro Morettini of the University of Florence for help. Before the war, Morettini had become interested in Marasca cherries, and the Luxardos donated trees for him to take back to Florence. “When my grandfather reopened the company in 1947, he went to Florence to look for professor Morettini. He was not sure [he would] find him but he did,” Matteo explains. “After his visit to Florence, [he] managed to restart the cultivation of the Marasca cherry in Torreglia where the company is now.” Over several years Giorgio selectively bred the ideal cherry, eventually creating a variety called Luxardo Marasca, now grown all over Northeastern Italy.
After slowly rebuilding the European business, in 1997, Giorgio’s son Franco partnered with Preiss Imports to bring the cherries to the U.S., but it wasn’t until 2005 that the brand became aligned with the growing craft cocktail movement. Matteo says Luxardo has American bartenders to thank for reviving interest, especially Franky Marshall, Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders of the famed Pegu Club in New York.
Saunders vividly remembers the first time she tried Luxardo cherries in a London bar in 2004, weeks before opening Pegu Club. During a night out with craft cocktail pioneers Dick Bradsell and Tony Conigliaro, Saunders recalls a tiny punk/metal bar that served an alarming array of alcopops and, surprisingly, a better selection of American whiskeys than many bars in the U.S. at the time. “So we ordered a round of Manhattans, and they came garnished with Luxardo cherries,” Saunders recalls. “The icing on the cake was when I finally took a bite of that Luxardo cherry. I remember my eyes rolling to the back of my head, and thinking, ‘wtf was that?’ I simply had to have them and needed to find a way to get them for Pegu.”
With Pegu Club’s impending opening, Saunders returned home and immediately hunted down Luxardo cherries. High-end grocery store Dean & Deluca, the only New York shop she could find selling the cherries, refused to order extra cases for her. So she cleared out the shelves. “I think I had about 14 jars of cherries in my shopping cart, and went to check out. The girl behind the counter thought I was insane, and when I mentioned that I wanted them for a bar I was opening, she gave me the ‘sure honey’ wink. But at least I had some for the opening,” she says.
The Luxardo cherries were a huge success. A writer from The New York Times mentioned them in a blurb, and other bartenders asked Saunders for information about the brand. “Of course I was happy to fill them in because my goal was to get them out into the universe,” she says. Saunders then reached out to Matteo, who connected her with Preiss to supply Pegu Club permanently. As Saunders and others popularized Luxardo by word of mouth, Matteo says, “The sales...started to grow [by] double digits every year.” The word was out. American drinkers could finally order a Manhattan with a real Italian maraschino cherry.