When fresh cherries are in season, it's time to make a delicious cocktail garnish. I have a strong opinion that you should take advantage of every opportunity to avoid using those glow-in-the-dark cocktail cherries you normally find on store shelves. Don't be fooled by their unnaturally bright red coloring or their artificially preserved snappy texture. They are not fruit—the sad shells of what used to be cherries have been completely purged of real cherry flavor, totally robbed of natural color, only to be resurrected in a sinister soup of chemical syrups and artificial flavors and colors. They are the zombies of the preserved fruit world—Frankenstein's monsters of the cocktail garnish tray. Of course, you can find good cocktail cherries, (I like to use Amarena cherries) but these options can be few and far between. The solution: just make your own.
I used to be a fan making spirit-soaked cocktail cherries, and that's a fine option, but but lately I have found that you can get much better results by putting in a little more effort. Instead of simply dropping fresh cherries into a jar with brandy or your favorite liqueur, I propose making a quick syrup on the stove, simmering your cherries, and then adding your spirits. Using a syrup to start off really makes a difference, as does cooking the cherries just a bit. You also get an opportunity to add some spices to the mix.
1 lb fresh cherries
.5 c sugar
.5 c water
.5 oz lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
2 oz maraschino liqueur
2 oz cognac
2 oz Cherry Heering
Pit cherries leaving the stems on. Save the pits. Add water, sugar, lemon and spices to a pot and bring to a boil. Add cherries and pits. Stir and simmer for seven minutes. Remove from heat and add brandies and liqueur. Allow to cool, then transfer cherries to a clean jar. Strain liquid over cherries to cover. Refrigerate.
Start by pitting your cherries. The last thing you want is a dental bill from one of your guests, so it's a good idea to get a nice pitter. I have broken more than one cherry pitter over the years because most of the ones I have tried have been junk. I have had handles break, pitting plungers come unglued and springs stop working. Then I found the Westmark Cherry Pitter. It's fantastic, and with such a simple, all-metal design, it will probably last a lifetime, It's not fancy, but it gets the job done—proof that the best tool doesn't have to look like a space-age gizmo to get good results. As you pit your cherries, it can help to catch everything in a bowl in the sink. Red cherry juice can fly long distances, staining everything it touches. Don't just let the pits drop into the sink. Save them to help flavor your syrup.
This recipe works for a pound of cherries, but you can reduce it easily. I dropped the quantities by a factor of 2/3 and added only 15 cherries for a small jar. As the cherries simmer, they will take in the syrup and really start to look and smell delicious. Resist the temptation to go longer. You may think they need more time simmering, but this will only soften them. We aren't making a pie filling. We want to preserve their texture as much as possible.
When you reach five to seven minutes, take the cherries off the heat. Add the Cherry Heering, some cognac and Luxardo maraschino liqueur. Stir and let cool. Finally, you could just dump everything into a jar, but you probably have more syrup than you actually need. Pull out your cherries and put them into a jar one by one, avoiding the pits. Strain the syrup over cherries until they are covered and seal the jar and store in the refrigerator. That's it. Done. Chances are that you will have some extra syrup. Don't throw it out! It makes a fantastic cherry soda, or you can use it as substitute in some other cocktail. How about a cherry lemonade or a cherry Collins? You'll certainly be ready with the perfect garnish.