For anyone interested in craft cocktails, the cherry garnish will come up again and again, and it's important to find alternatives to the glowing red artificial flavored ones that are still very common in bars (and ice cream parlors). We have featured homemade cocktail cherries several times over the years when cherries are in season, but we always run into the same problems. Over time, our homemade cherries tend to lose their color and texture. Shelf life is a matter of tolerance.
We've tried a lot of different techniques. Most of them are fantastic at first, but over time they always lose their appeal. We wrote up a delicious spiced version that involves cooking the cherries in syrup. These are great for a few weeks. We also tried just soaking pitted cherries in cognac and maraschino liqueur, or amaretto, or even creme de cacao. These seem fine at the beginning, but the boozy flavors dominate and eventually, the cherries turn gray and mushy. The science behind preserving cherries has been explored, but pH testing and avoiding the effects of acidity imbalance is beyond our abilities. Our previous best was also the most interesting—made using sour cherries we picked ourselves in Wisconsin, then soaked in a brine solution before canning in a cherry syrup—a technique we picked up from 12 Bottle Bar. We've even considered using Robert Hess's method of rehydrating dried cherries in brandy, an idea that probably works well but sacrifices the shape of the cherry. Still, none of these methods are as simple or delicious as what we are about to share.
It starts with Amarena cherries. Actually, these little gems are almost perfect as they come, soaking in their own syrup for a flavor that is out of this world. If you haven't had the pleasure of Amarena cherries over ice cream you are missing one of life's great pleasures. But, as a cocktail cherry, using Amarena's by themselves isn't quite what we are after. Others may disagree, but we feel that the syrup is just too thick for a garnish and that the potent flavor these cherries bring can be distracting. We love the idea of plain Amarena cherries in a drink, but it's a little embarrassing when the best part of a cocktail creation is the garnish. We also love the idea of brandied cherries. If only we could combine the best of both:
Easy Brandied Cocktail Cherries
Using a slotted spoon, separate the cherries from their syrup and fill a small jar with just the fruit. Pour some syrup back over the cherries slowly, allowing it to settle and fill halfway up the jar. Add brandy to fill the remaining space. Seal the jar and turn it over and over to mix the brandy with the syrup. Allow to soak several days before using.
It's that simple. By cutting the syrup 50:50 with brandy, you get a nice balance of flavor. The syrup thins with the alcohol and the Amarena flavor isn't quite so overwhelming. You also get a brandied flavor that is just what we are after. How easy was that? No cooking, no stirring, no pitting fresh fruit. You don't have to make this a seasonal project either, as Amarena cherries are canned from Italy.You can usually find Amarena cherries in upscale grocery stores and specialty markets. However, they are often sold in small jars that tend to be very expensive. We buy them in bulk online in a huge can. At first glance, a can this big seems ridiculous, but think about it. If you spoon out enough to fill a small jar for cocktails, the rest will fit in two mason jars which are much easier to store. If you are worried about spoilage which is unlikely, you could even use ziplock bags and freeze them in their own syrup and thaw when needed. This way, you get the economic benefit of buying them in bulk, using only what you need for cocktails, and the rest can be savored over desserts or saved for when you run out of cocktail garnish. How long this version will last is a question, but so far, we aren't seeing any negative effects. Time will tell, but this is the most promising method we have tried and certainly the most delicious.