The Ultimate Guide to Cocktail Cherries

Cocktail cherries on a small skewer
Photo by Tom Arena

From Manhattans to boozy milkshakes, many drinks are made more enticing by the addition of a simple preserved cherry garnish.

Cocktail cherries vary widely by type of cherry used, how it’s preserved and whether it’s spiked with brandy or other spirits. All these things play into building the iconic cocktail cherry.

Italy’s Famous Cocktail Cherries

The first question: sweet or sour cherries? Either can be used, but bright-hued sour, or tart, cherries like the Morello and Montmorency varieties are the traditional choice. They tend to be smaller than sweet varieties, and their flavor holds up against the sugar syrups used typically to preserve cocktail cherries.

Sour cherries also have history on their side. They flourish in Italy, where cocktail cherries were first perfected.

Notably, Italy’s Luxardo uses marasca cherries, a Morello variety that gives its name to the maraschino cherry. Luxardo was founded in what’s now Croatia in 1821, where dense, dark cherries grew well, writes Amy Stewart, in her book The Drunken Botanist.

The plant also was used to make maraschino liqueur. After World War II, the lone surviving member of the Luxardo family decamped to Italy, cuttings from the cherry trees in tow. Italian producers Fabbri and Toschi used Amarena cherries, another sour variety.

Three brandied cherries on a gold fork
Photo by Tom Arena

America’s “Maraschino” cherries

Many Americans favor large, sweet cherries like the Royal Ann and Rainier varieties, which grow well in the Pacific Northwest. While Italy’s original maraschino cherries were preserved in alcohol, Prohibition ensured that American versions would not.

“America’s temperance movement, working with soda manufacturers, campaigned against the evils of European cherries soaked in liquor,” writes Stewart. That popularized the neon-pink Maraschino cherries suitable for Shirley Temples, and not much else.

To make these, producers “developed a brining process that involved bleaching [the cherries] in sulfur dioxide, which removed all the color, but also could turn them to mush,” writes Stewart.

Calcium carbonate was used to harden them, coal tar dyed them an eye-popping bright red, and benzaldehyde, the chemical extract of a stone fruit, added flavor. The end result was packed in sugar syrup.

“This product, whatever it was, could not be called a maraschino cherry,” says Stewart. The Board of Food and Drug Inspection (an early version of the FDA) ruled in 1912 that only marasca cherries preserved in maraschino could be labeled “maraschino cherries.”

a wooden basket filled with sour cherries
Sour Cherries/Getty

How Cherries Ended Up in Your Cocktail

In the late 19th century, the first Golden Age of cocktails, bartenders embraced “the art of the garnish,” says Dave Wondrich in his book, Imbibe! However, crowning glories made from fresh fruit would fall by the wayside, “replaced by an assortment of pickled or macerated items that could linger behind the bar for a while without going off.”

That included preserved cherries. “In the 1890s, a maraschino cherry was nothing more than a sour cherry that had been macerated in maraschino liqueur,” writes Wondrich.

Today, most cocktail cherries are preserved in sugar syrup, though many add alcohol to lengthen shelf life and add complementary, boozy flavor.

Brandied cherries rely on a measure of brandy to help their preservation. Some French distilleries make griottines, which are usually Morello cherries macerated in unaged fruit brandy, either eau de vie or kirsch, a clear brandy distilled from cherries.

Other French brands also soak the cherries in fruit liqueur. A growing number of distilleries and commercial producers now sell cocktail cherries soaked in spirits that range from brandy and whiskey to moonshine. Of course, some bartenders make their own bespoke cocktail cherries.

The technique: The Nomad in New York City makes a version that starts with fresh sweet cherries bathed in what’s essentially a spiced simple syrup and topped with a bit of brandy.

The following version is nonalcoholic. It uses a grenadine-like syrup made with cherry juice and sugar to soak a base of jarred cherries.

Whichever cherries you choose, be sure they’re washed and pitted. Set aside any bruised or damaged fruit.

Cocktail Cherries

From How To Cocktail: Recipes and Techniques for Building the Best Drinks by America’s Test Kitchen

This is a straightforward, cost-effective version of luxurious cocktail cherries. While Trader Joe’s Dark Morello Cherries in Light Syrup were used here, canned cherries can be substituted. After draining, their weight should be 12 ounces.

Ingredients
  • 8 ounces unsweetened 100% cherry juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 (24.7-ounce) jar pitted dark Morello cherries in light syrup, drained
Directions

In medium saucepan, bring cherry juice to simmer over medium-high heat. Cook until juice has reduced to 4 ounces, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, then whisk in sugar until dissolved.

Put 1-pint glass jar in bowl. Run under hot water until heated through, 1–2 minutes. Shake dry.

Using slotted spoon, pack cherries gently into hot jar. Using funnel and ladle, pour hot syrup over cherries to cover. Let jar cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours before serving. Refrigerated, cherries will keep for up to 2 months. Makes about 2 cups.

Published on July 6, 2020