A Shirley Temple. Cheap ice cream sundaes. Illustrating your oral dexterity with knotted stems. These are really the only uses we can think of for that old jar of technicolor red maraschino cherries sitting forgotten somewhere in your fridge. If you're looking for a cherry for a cocktail, you'll need for forego those flavorless (or at least lacking actual cherry flavor) cherries and branch out to something a little more refined.
Originating in Italy, maraschino cherries were made with marasca cherries that had been steeped and preserved in liqueur. Their popularity grew among European aristocrats who used them in desserts and cocktails. Eventually they made their way over here to the states, but the crackdown of Prohibition led to new recipes sans booze. It was in the late 1920's when an Oregon State University professor spent 6 years developing a method to preserve his home state's cash crop (pre-pot days obviously) that what we know as the maraschino cherry today came to be. They're 'bleached' of their color - and flavor - by soaking in brine of calcium salts. They're then soaked in a sugary syrup before artificial colors, flavors and preservatives are added.
These days consumers are wising up to alternatives and looking for 'real' cherries for their cocktails. We've picked a couple of our favorite options here. While significantly more expensive than the red ones, we think they are well worth the expense. NOTE: You can also opt to make your own by soaking fresh pitted cherries in maraschino liqueur and sugar for a few weeks in the fridge (recipe below).
Though pretty damn expensive (anywhere from about $18-30/jar), Luxardo Maraschino Cherries are pretty much the Cadillac of cocktail cherries. They're very firm in texture and have a deep brown color. Imported from Italy, these are as close to the classic you'll find - cooked down in a mixture of liqueur and sugar. They're then packed in that thick syrup, which is equally as delicious as the cherries themselves. The flavor is complex cherry flavor, almost jam-like. Your Manhattan never had it so good as with one of these. One note - you will not need or want to refrigerate these, but be sure you're using a clean skewer or pick to get them from the jar. And try using the syrup in your cocktails too - the sweet complexity adds a lot to whiskey, bourbon, gin and even moonshine cocktails.
Made from Italian Amarena cherries and cooked in a sugar syrup in copper pots, these are lacking the classic touch of maraschino liqueur yet are about half the price of Luxardo cherries. Filthy Black Cherries are packed in a syrup is not quite as thick but still delicious. They have a slightly softer texture than their Italian counterparts (which may be a good thing) and the color is more burgundy than brown. Still quite a step up from the red things, these fall a little below Luxardo in our review. As the brighter color would infer, they are not quite as rich or jam-like as Luxardo cherries. But like the Luxardo cherries, these should not be refrigerated. But we do suggest you stash them somehwere out of sight so you don't eat the whole damn jar in one sitting please. Not that we did that or anything.
Homemade Cocktail Cherries
1 pound cherries, washed and pitted
1 750 ml bottle Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
4 T sugar
Toss the cherries with sugar and loosely pack into jars. Fill with liqueur, seal and refrigerate for 2-3 weeks, shaking them every day or two.