Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ah, Sweet, Sweet Bitters, in Search of a Better Cocktail

It was an early rise on my day off. Heading across town in the summer morning to meet with Matteo Luxardo and taste through his family's legendary wares.

The Luxardo company has been in existence since 1821 when Girolamo Luxardo moved the family from Genoa to Zara, on the Dalmatian coast to establish a Maraschino distillery, the region being the only habitat for the Marasca cherry. The company became one of the largest liqueur producers in Italy, exporting the Luxardo Maraschino liqueur around the world. After the factory was destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt south of Padua, where they planted a 200 acre cherry orchard. Today the family still owns and manages the company which produces a range of 11 liqueurs plus their famous Marasca cherries, both in syrup and jam.

So why is it so special? 

Because better cocktails demand better ingredients. Period. End of story. Great spirits are the base. Great flavoring agents are the modifiers. The Luxardo products are uniformly precise in flavor definition. Flavors are intense without being overpowering, sweet without being cloying. The intensity of flavor combined with seeming lightness make the Luxardo products such great flavoring agents. I'll just run briefly through my tasting notes.

Limoncello - Made from Sicilian lemons which are large, with thick skins and a thick zest. Bright yellow and transparent. Brilliant lemon zest with a long bright finish. Sweet but never loses the sense of tartness. Filtered to meet market expectations of clarity, but an unfiltered will be available in the near future. Most commonly served straight up from the freezer. Add soda for a refreshing summer cooler. Or it will make a great sno-cone!

Italian Triplum Triple-sec - Wow, this is intense stuff! Initial aromatic attack of bitter orange that becomes richer and sweeter on the floral finish. Made with with bitter oranges, sweet oranges, mandarin oranges  and orange blossoms. For me, this product redefines triple-sec.

Maraschino Liqueur - Clear liqueur with intense, deep, rich essence of cherry. White and milk chocolates come from the depth of the natural flavor of the Marasca cherries. Hints of almond aromatics come from the pits. The product is pure cherry. Fruit comes from the 22,000 trees in the Luxardo orchards in the Euganean Hills near Padua. After fermentation and maturation in larch vats, the juice is distilled in small pot stills and aged for two years in Finnish ash before dilution and bottling. Excellent over fruit and an essential element to a well stocked bar.

Amaretto di Saschira - Light essence of almond with hints of caramel. I'm drinking the macaroons my grandmother used to buy at Henri's Bakery in Atlanta 50 years ago (Until today I always thought it was Henry's!). Made from pure almond paste from Sicilain almonds, aged in larch vats to mature the spirit before bottling. No apricot pits, peach pits or concentrated flavorings. Another product redefined!

Sambuca di Cesari - All Mediterranean countries have their anise based spirit, Sambuca is strictly Italian. An infusion of elderberries (Sambuca nigra) grown near the distillery and green anniseed, the clear liqueur has rich anise flavor and viscous, thick mouthfeel and is not as sweet as one would expect. Elderberries have long been known for their digestive and tonic benefits.

An impressive portfolio of liqueurs. The overarching uniformity of style is noteworthy. All products other than the maraschino and the grappa are infusions which use a distillation of beet sugars as the alcohol base. Matteo says they use the beet product because of the sweetness and neutrality of the spirits.

We also tasted the Luxardo Marasca Cherries themselves which are just unreal. The color of the fruit and the syrup is a deep, dark unctuous red and that's just the way they taste. Simply put, they transform cocktails. Try a Manhattan made with an outstanding rye whiskey, a high quality sweet vermouth and a Luxardo Marasca cherry and you'll be a believer. Or just put one on a chocolate sundae! Become a believer.

And that was the end of the regular meeting. Grappa and Bitters were available for the hardcore.

Grappa Euganea - Made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grown in the Euganean Hills in Veneto. Slightly smoky and nutty aromatics are followed by  a warm and viscous grappa. Does not have the burn and jet-fuel characteristics of most grappa. 

Luxardo Amaro Abano - Amaro means bitter. Abano Amaro is a medium bitter with sweet smoky bitter orange with cinammon, cardomom and long warm finish infused with sweet bitter (yes!) herbs. Very approachable. Traditionally a digestive, a favorite with the new mixologists. 

Luxardo Bitters - A Campari-type aperitif in the Luxardo style. The flavorings come from the infusion of several herbs and spices such as sweet orange, bitter orange, rhubarb, mint, marjoram and thyme. Drink it before dinner to stimulate the appetite. 

Luxardo Fernet - A bracing attack of bitter herbs fused with sweet fruit and eucalyptus sustained by overwhelming aromatics that hang around.

The hardcore group was buzzing with excitement at the conclusion. Most of the products are in stock most of the time at Sigel's. We hope to have the three bitters on the shelf soon.

The morning sun had intensified when we wandered into the parking lot and our next destination was not in question: Drip Coffee for a double shot of the best espresso in Dallas.

Better make that a double-double.

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