Spirited conversation, with cherry on top

“I’ll have an old fashioned with George Dickel, orange and angostura bitters and maraschino liqueur,” she said authoritively.

“With an orange twist and a cherry on top . A Luxardo maraschino, if you have it.”

“Ah, the original,” I said.

If there is anything that makes a good cocktail great it’s a great garnish. And an original maraschino cherry is truly a great garnish.

“Well sort of,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Francesco Drioli actually invented maraschinos 60 years before Luxardo.”

What followed was a long, spirited conversation that focused on the three types of maraschino that most American bars are familiar with: American-made maraschino cherries, traditional maraschino cherries and maraschino liqueur.

American-made maraschinos are the bright red cherry ubiquitous in Shirley Temples and on top of hot fudge sundaes. They can be Rainer or Royal Ann cherries, are usually from Oregon and stripped of color and flavor, pitted and then artificially colored (red dye No. 40), artificially sweetened and flavored with bitter almond extract. Not a great garnish, in fact, not even a great food.

The original maraschino cherry is made from pitted Marasca cherries, a type of sour Morello cherry, blackish in color, traditionally grown along the Dalmatian coast in what is now known as Croatia. It is smaller than the Queen Anne or the Bing, and tarter. Preserved in syrup, it is truly a delightful experience. Deliciously sweet and tart at the same time, and it tastes like a cherry, too.

Maraschino liqueur has also resurfaced in a big way, starring in resurrected classics like the Aviation, the Last Word and the Hemingway daiquiri, as well as in bit roles in drinks like the old fashioned. It is not sickly sweet like kirsch, which is another type of cherry liqueur; in fact, maraschino liqueurs are notable for their dry spicy flavor, reminiscent, ironically, of almonds.

Both of the latter are made by the Luxardo Co.

Croatia and the entire of the Dalmatian coast have been a hotbed of European politics for a long, time. Running a business there certainly could be considered a challenge, to say the least. Enter the Luxardo family, of Genovese descent. Their entry point was the city of Zara, now Zadar, which was captured by the Venetians on their way to the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

In 1821 the Luxardo family began manufacturing a liqueur in Zara made from the local cherries, one of many maraschino liqueurs made in the region. Dalmatian cherries and the liqueur made from them had been popular with European royalty since 1759 when Francesco Drioli, a Venetian merchant had perfected it. But it was the Luxardo family’s recipe that attracted the attention of the Austrian emperor. World Wars I and II eventually drove the Italians out of Zara (and the emperors out of Austria), and the Cold War and its Iron Curtain prevented them from returning. Luxardo moved to Venice and then to Torreglia, Italy,. Reportedly it now owns the largest orchard of Marasca cherry trees in the world, encompassing more than 22,000 trees, all in Italy. The liqueur is still packaged in straw-wrapped bottles, a Venetian convention held over from its illustrious past. Luxardo also makes Sangue Morlacco liqueur, another type of cherry liqueur, and nearly a dozen other products.

Ten years ago finding any Luxardo product outside of Europe would have proved daunting, but these days, with the advent of craft bartending and the interest in classic cocktails, the cherries and liqueur can be found at better liquor stores everywhere as well as in many gourmet supermarkets.

At the end of our discussion my conversational foil got up to leave.

“Come see me some time,” she said, leaving her business card on the bar. A business card for a bar down the street.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Sometimes the most interesting and intimate conversations happen in the middle of a room full of people.

• Survival is often more important than being first.

• Zinfandel is also native to Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. Good luck pronouncing that.

• I think I better start upping my game.