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Cocktail Cherries

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If you have visited your grocery store recently you may have noticed that fresh cherries are in season again. Seeing those dark, ripe cherries ready to burst inside the little plastic bins always makes me think about the same thing: homemade cocktail cherries. You may wonder, what's the point? Can't you just buy a jar of bright red maraschino (mar-a-SHEEN-oh) cherries that last forever? Sure you can, but allow me to explain what you are really getting inside that jar and you might reconsider that purchase. Besides, it's not hard to make your own maraschino (mar-a-SKEEN-oh) cherries for special cocktails. As you noticed, there's a pronunciation difference here, but that's just the beginning.

Understanding the point of making your own cocktail cherries requires a brief walk through the history of this garnish. Originally, cocktails were decorated with marasca cherries, a variety grown in northern Italy known for their decadent flavor and quality. This is the same source used to create Luxardo Maraschino (again, mar-a-SKEEN-oh) liqueur which is made from the cherry pits. Anyway, in order to preserve the famed marasca cherries, they were soaked in the liqueur and as you can guess, became saturated with its delicious flavor.

When Prohibition hit, the alcohol-soaked cherries were off-limits. However, American "innovation" filled the gap. In addition to earning a mispronounced name, the cherries themselves were transformed into the now familiar sundae toppers. Without alcohol to prererve them, a new brining process was devised. There is nothing natural about today's cocktail cherries. Aside from the fleshy "vessel" that was once a Queen Anne or Rainier, the brining purges them of all flavor and color. They are then infused with artificial dyes, artificial flavors and canned in a syrup of preservatives.

Once you realize all that is wrong with today's cocktail cherries, it will help to inspire the home mixologist in you. It doesn't take a genius to figure out how to add Luxardo to a mason jar full of fresh cherries. I always pit my cherries before I stuff them into a small canning jar. Once neatly packed, I cover them with the liqueur. Pitting removes the obvious dental challenge, but also allows the nutty flavor of the maraschino (pronounce the "k" sound) liqueur to enter the fruit and saturate the flesh. Let them soak in the refrigerator for a week or two.

There are other spirits worth trying too. Brandied cherries are nice, as are those soaked in amaretto. I've even done cherries in Crème de Cacao for a nice chocolate twist. In addition to using fresh cherries, you can also get away with frozen. Some have even had success reconstituting dried cherries with brandy or bourbon. With so many possibilities, it's a wonder anyone would want to buy the neon red variety (or green, if you can believe that).

I wouldn't want to write a post about cherries without mentioning one of my favorites: Amarena. These smaller cherries are preserved in amarena syrup, an unusual but delicious flavoring that is simply divine over vanilla ice cream. Granted, they are not preserved in liqueur and they don't really have historical cocktail significance, but they are wonderful as a cocktail garnish just the same, and they are Italian which has to count for something. Amarena cherries are expensive and sometimes hard to find, but once you do, you will continue to keep them around.

Try making your own cocktail cherries. You'll be glad you did. They won't last forever like the artificial variety, but you'll feel better about using fresh ingredients to enhance your drinking experience. Besides, you really need to get a bottle of Luxardo and this is another good reason to do so.

2 comments to Cocktail Cherries

  • chris mcnally

    Thanks for this excellent article. I am having trouble finding Luxardo cherries for my 'Lower Manhattan' cocktail and I was wondering if I should substitute with Amarena. Sounds like I should not, but maybe I'll try it anyway and next year when cherries are in season I can make my own.

  • Chris, I just realized my reply accidentally went onto another post. Well, a month later and I finally noticed! So, here's my reply. Sorry it took so long!

    I absolutely love Amarena cherries and I use them regularly in my Manhattans. In fact, they are my cocktail cherries of choice at the moment.

    Call me ignorant, but what would make yours a “Lower” Manhattan cocktail anyway?

    Since writing this post, I have seen (and tried) a few of other recipes for making what are essentially “candied” cherries in your own syrup. Next time I make some, I’ll be writing more about this method. Check out some of the recipes on the Chanticleer Society wiki page, that includes Robert Hess’s methods with fresh, canned, etc.

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