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Cocktail Cherries

Click here for a newer post with a fantastic, easy homemade cocktail cherries recipe!

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.

Cocktail Cherries
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.


EDIT: Since writing this, we have tried other recipes and find that there is a much easier way to make cocktail cherries that last! Click Here for our post about making easy cocktail cherries.

23 comments to Cocktail Cherries

  • Scott

    I have tried a few cocktail cherry recipes over the years, only to be disappointed in the results, now..in the last week, two have shown up that seem worthy of a re-try...yours and the boys over at 12bottle bar (http://12bottlebar.com/2011/07/08/homemade-imitation-maraschino-cherries-and-brandied-cherries/)...i think i got some work to do this weekend...

  • Yes, I definitely want to try David's recipe too. The salt brine process intrigues me. I don't like the waiting part, but "all good things. . ." right? It will be nice to try those when mine are gone!

  • Nice recipe, as always, Randy. Even if our techniques differ, at least we agree on the zombie (good word there) nature of the store-bought kind and the pitter to use -- it's a little workhorse.

    Mine certainly aren't the easiest, but I liked the fact that the recipe seems to be how maraschinos of old may have been made. I tried to find other old recipes, but they don't seem to really exist. Aside from the salt bit, however, ours are very similar. Mine is 2/3 sugar syrup to 1/3 booze -- close to your ratio -- but my booze could certainly be upped.

    I've also just put up some from a DeGroff recipe reported by LUPEC Boston, which has you put the cherries in a jar, pack them in sugar overnight, then fill the jar with booze and leave it sit for a week. We'll see how it goes. I like the sugar cure part, but as sugar doesn't dissolve well in alcohol, I'm a little skeptical about the final result.

    BTW, curse you for getting amarenas.

  • [...] And:  Here’s another great recipe from our friend Adam Elmegirab.  And another from Randy over at Summit Sips. [...]

  • Aww. Don't disrespect the sweet little amarenas :-) (Ew, Rock me Amarenas!). If ever my wife and I decide to mail-order another 7.5 pound tin, I'd be happy to share the love!

  • No disrespect to the cherries at all -- I'm just jealous. Where do you order them from?

  • I know you were only messing with me. I have a friend in Croatia who. . . no, only teasing. Actually we just get them from Amazon. Then, the small Fabbri jars became available at the market about a block from my house, so I am never out of them. They aren't cheap though. For as long as they last (clean spoons) it makes more economic sense to send for the giant cans, but we only did that once.

  • You know, I misread your post. I thought you were using amarenas in your recipe. What kind do you use? I have to think that Michigan montmorencies can be had in the Twin Cities (or are just a weekend trip away).

  • I didn't get the chance to see if maybe someone brought them to the St. Paul Farmers Market this past weekend, but I will stay on the lookout. My sister lives in Michigan, so that's another possibility. I decided to try using Rainier this time, buy I usually just use red.

  • Mary

    I'm so excited. I have been looking for a good cocktail cherry recipe for my bar. One question though: how long are they stay fresh?

  • It depends somewhat on how careful you are getting everything sanitized. If your jar and lid are clean and you always use a clean spoon or pick, they could last months. DavidS above has a recipe where you brine the cherries first. Perhaps he will comment how long his normally last. I would love to have these in a bar where they would get used with more regularity so I could keep making them and they would always be relatively "young".

    Another thought is that I have seen plenty of similar recipes that use frozen cherries. You could take fresh, pit them and freeze them. Later, you could use those as you run out in the off-season. Make only what you will use in a couple month's time.

  • DavidS

    I think preserving the cherries will certainly make them last longer, but I don't have a specific date on how long that might be -- I've always used them up before they went bad.

  • Since you asked how they hold up...

    My proposed two weeks of waiting for my cherries to mature are up, so I thought I'd report back. A day after I made mine, I did the above-mentioned DeGroff recipe, and after two weeks, the bulk of the preserved one (my recipe) are plump and somewhat crisp while the DeGroff are withered and getting mushy.

  • That's all I needed to hear. Picked up another batch of cherries and I'll be trying your method today.

  • Update: I tossed the DeGroff method cherries this past weekend, as they had started to look like prunes. That gives the non-brined cherries about a one month life (kept in the fridge).

  • Randy,
    What type of cherries are you using? They don't look like bing. Thanks!

  • Jason,

    In the photos I used Rainier cherries only because I hadn't tried them yet. In the end, the color was less appealing, but the flavor was right on. However, I later tried the 12 Bottle Bar method of brining the cherries in a weak salt solution instead of cooking them, and this time I used Balaton and Eubank sour cherries which are smaller and have a lot more potency. I had good results, but after three weeks, the salt flavor lingers. I don't really mind that. I had a garnish at Beaker & Flask in Portland that was a cherry on a pick that they actually sprinkled with sea salt, so having a little salt is a good thing!

  • rob

    what about a recipe using alum?

  • [...] do a “Drink of the Week” which is just plain awesome. Anyway, the recipe is on the site HERE, though I’ll also list out what I did. First of all, let’s get into the whole [...]

  • Paul

    Hi Randy ! I have just made cocktail cherries and they look fantastic and taste even better. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful recipies with the rest of us ! I used about 500g of Turkish cherries ( look similar to Bing ) and they were only 8.78 dollars /kg. ( approximately 4.39/ lb ) Like you said I got about 1 cup of syrup mixed with cognac, maraschino and cherry heering left over, and would hate to toss it. When you make the cherry coke, do you use regular coke, or cherry coke- which I guess would make it cherry cherry coke.
    Any other cocktails where it would fit ?

  • Paul

    Thank you ! Sounds great. Will try some tonight. I will also try the Cherry Collins you suggested.

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