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Easy Brandied Cocktail Cherries

Amarena CherriesFor 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 Amarenas 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
Amarena 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.

A sprinkle of sea salt over the cherries gives this Margarita riff just the right flavor

A sprinkle of sea salt over the cherries gives this Margarita riff just the right flavor

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.

17 comments to Easy Brandied Cocktail Cherries

  • It has been more than a couple of months since we first made these and posted about it. By now, traditional cocktail cherries would have started to show signs of degradation. These, however, are looking great and still taste delicious!

  • MAtt

    I was able to find Morello cherries from Germany at Trader Joe's. They look very similar, and come unpreserved in a light syrup of water and sugar. Do you think these cherries would yield a similar result?

    • Possibly. I love the distinct flavor of Amarena syrup so I can't say yours would be the same, but they could be better for all I know. Give it a try!

  • Tom

    I've had Amarena Cherry Ice Cream in France and Italy. It is my very favorite. Plus the ice cream is different over there, as is gelato in Italy. I am going to try to make my own. I bought some frozen dark cherries, I'm going to put them in a jar with 1/2 rum and 1/2 Cherry Liqueur. Then, after a few days, I'm going to try Giada Laurentis' Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream recipe which doesn't require an ice cream maker and throw the cheeries in there. Can't wait !

  • Rosalie

    Couple questions...
    1. How long do they need to soak in the 50:50 before use?
    2. I'm using these in old fashioned's. Will the brandy change the flavor too much? Was gonna soak in bourbon.

    • Good questions! First, amarena cherries are great cocktail cherries on their own, so theses are good immediately after mixing. Turn the jar upside down a few times to mix the syrup with the brandy and they can be used right away. Over time, the brandy will infuse into the fruit and they will be even better. That probably takes a few days. As for the flavor, I use these all the time in drinks made with other base spirits and they don't change the drink at all. The brandy flavor is subtle which is what I was after. I've done fresh cherries in brandy before and they can be good, but the spirit is intense and somewhat shocking. Not here. The amarena syrup stretches the brandy. It's there, but doesn't dominate, and the amarena flavor too is balanced. Bourbon would be good too though, if you wanted to use that instead.

      Since I have been doing this for a couple of years now, I don't see any problems over time. The cherries don't change texture even after a year or more. They don't turn bad. I just refilled my small jar two weeks ago with more cherries and brandy. I see no reason to try any other methods from now on.

  • Beverly

    Randy, thank you for this post. It's proving to be incredibly helpful in planning brandied cherries as gifts for 60+ people.
    I too have a couple of questions...
    1) Do you recommend the brand linked in the online bulk suggestion (Roland Amarena) or is it worth it to "splurge" for Amarena Fabbri?
    2) What size jar are you using and roughly how many jars does the 6lb, 13oz can of cherries yield for you? (For example, pint or 1/2 pint mason jars?)
    Many thanks!

    • Beverly,

      The Roland cherries are essentially identical in quality, flavor, texture to the Fabbri. So, I guess I recommend them because they are less expensive and you get the same thing. If you are buying a lot, definitely compare prices. I seem to recall Fabbri selling a big jar that is actually a ceramic crock. I don't have one, but a crock might be cool to have. I would probably just buy the cheapest option.

      As for volume conversion, Its going to be trial and error to get an exact answer. The cherries keep for a very long time, so I decided on the big can because I knew I would eventually want to make more, but I didn't use the entire can at once. I added cherries to an 8 ounce jar, and the rest of the can went into two quart jars. So, that's roughly equivalent to filling 9 eight ounce jars. I don't remember if the leftovers actually filled the two quarts or not. It might have been more syrup than cherries in the second jar. In any case, you won't get MORE than 9 eight ounce jars. Sorry, I wish I had more volume details.

  • Beverly

    Randy, Thank you very much. No reason for an apology needed; the information is indeed helpful! I appreciate the details and the time.
    Cheers, Beverly

  • Rick

    I know quite a bit has been written here with different comparisons but I've just been purchasing the large dried cherries at Trader Joes and filling a mason jar with them and Five Star Armenian Brandy. Let them sit over a week and they fully plump back up- they do have a alcohol "headiness" to them but their consistency is wonderful, almost like taking a bit of steak. They're wonderful. I played around with sulphured and unsulphured but most of those are too small, I really enjoy the larger ones you can get at Trader Joes or Safeway Kitchens brand.

    • Rick, That method is the one Robert Hess recommends. I should try it, but I never liked the way they look when he pulls them out of the jar on his videos. Have you been able to verify how long they last? My method here using 50:50 brandy and amarena syrup has been shelf-stable for more than a year. Do you have any photos of the plump results you could share?

  • Rick

    No pictures, sorry. I used them all in my Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Last Words. They lasted over a year without any degradation that I could see. I'm posting again because I HAVE been using the Amarena cherries I found at Whole Foods. I pour off some of the syrup as you suggest (I save it for ice cream topping) and then again, refill with the Armenian Brandy and BAM!

    • It is a fantastic and simple recipe. Like you, I have gone more than a year with a batch with no adverse effects. I love cherries done this way. The syrup can also be used to make cherry soda!

  • Reggie

    What brand of brandy do you use?

    Thank you.

  • Stephen Ringer

    When you say they are “shelf stable” do you mean they do not need to be refrigerated?
    Does the sugar and alcohol keep them preserved?
    I want to give them as gifts but need to know if I need to tell them if they should refrigerate them.

    Thanks for your help

    • Yeah that’s exactly what I am saying. I have not refrigerated my cherries using this method and they are great even more than a year into using them. If you are careful to keep them clean, use a pick or a clean spoon to pull them out, you can even add more cherries like a refill and just keep going, maybe indefinitely.

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