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Quite a number of drinks call for a cocktail cherry garnish. Not just Manhattans and old-fashioneds, but also piña coladas, whiskey sours, and even the noble Shirley Temple. While many of us grew up with the almost-neon red maraschino version, there are a number of other options available today.
For those who are ready to elevate their bar game or just experiment a bit, you can make your own cocktail cherries. The process takes a bit of patience and a cherry pitter, but the results will give you a sense of deep satisfaction and your drinks an extremely personal touch.
And for those who are not the DIY type...here are the best cocktail cherries. Get ready to expand your garnish game.
Luxardo Original Maraschino Cherries
Luxardo is the gold standard for cocktail cherries—the one against which all others are judged. The brand takes the fruit from 30,000 proprietary marasca cherry trees on the Euganean Hills in the Veneto region of Italy and candies them directly after harvesting, which results in a beautiful, dark, all-natural color and flavor.
The Luxardo texture is meaty and the fruit is soaked in rich syrup that makes a perfect subtle sweetener for an old-fashioned. While they are certainly a bit pricier than the brightly colored ones we grew up with, these cherries work in nearly every cocktail and are well worth the money.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. Premium Cocktail Cherries
These Balaton cherries from Traverse City Whiskey Co. are grown and jarred in northern Michigan. After a leisurely bath in the company’s whiskey gives the fruit notes of smoke and char, they're slow-cooked in large copper pots. The finished result has an all-natural dark color and is packed in syrup. They will last two years on the shelf and are certified kosher.
Fabbri Amarena Cherries in Syrup
For those who like their cherries on the tarter side, try Fabbri Amarena Cherries. From the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, the fruit is wild, and underneath the sweet cherry-juice-bolstered syrup in which they're candied lies a pleasant bitterness to help balance a cocktail that's already waltzing on the sweeter side, like a pina colada. They're smaller, lighter, and less toothy than Luxardo, but still pack plenty of flavor.
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Cherries
While these cherries are not produced by the iconic bourbon maker, they are flavored with Woodford Reserve to provide extra depth to any drink. Bourbon Barrel Foods' fruit is hand-harvested in Oregon and jarred with the stem on in Kentucky. The dark and supple syrup makes a nice drizzle atop a whiskey sour after the fruit sinks to the bottom.
New York City's Darron Foy, head bartender at The Flatiron Room, prefers a cocktail cherry featuring a lighter syrup. He doesn't like it too thick, as it "changes the 'feel' of the cocktail,” he says. “Manhattans are an alcohol-forward sipping cocktail and the thickness of the syrup can change that.” For a pina colada, Foy recommends sticking to a darker cherry to offset the sweetness of the cocktail.
Distilleries Peureux Griottines Brandy Soaked Cherries
These beauties are French morello cherries jarred in boozy 30-proof syrup. The fruit macerates in liqueur for six months and is finished in cherry brandy. While the syrup is less sweet, the flavor is a bit more intense thanks to the additional booze, which makes these cherries a good choice for buttressing sweeter drinks. They're on the pricier side, but Griottines are a great way to breathe new life into an old-fashioned.
Tillen Farms Bada Bing Cherries
For those who like the stem on their cocktail fruit, Bada Bing Cherries from Tilden Farms are a solid addition to any home bar. Typically larger than maraschinos, Bing cherries are sharply sweet and flavorful. These are non-GMO certified, and the sweetness is nice and balanced.
Peninsula Premium Cocktail Cherries
These American-grown and made beauts hail from the northwest coast of Michigan's Lower Peninsula (thus the name) region; the state that produces 70 percent of the cherries for the United States. There, the sandy soil and Lake Michigan make the perfect climate for cherry cultivation. They use a blend of three varieties of their cherries - Napoleon, Emperor Francis, and Gold - to produce these cocktail cherries with a unique, nuanced seasonal flavor. The 2019 SIP Awards recipient, Peninsula Premium Cocktail Cherries will become your favorite for everything from cocktails to desserts.
What to Look for When Buying Cocktail Cherries
The ingredients used to make cocktail cherries vary from one manufacturer to the next. It's important to read the ingredient list on any jar of cherries to know what's in them, especially if you have food sensitivities or allergies. Beyond the actual cherries, some use very few ingredients, including sugar and cherry juice or syrup. Others may add natural or artificial ingredients for color or flavor. Citric acid is a common ingredient; it's both a natural preservative and flavor enhancer.
Cocktail cherries are packed in syrup, and this may include alcohol. Some cherries are soaked in alcohol—often brandy, whiskey, or cherry liqueur—during processing, which may not carry through to the finished cherries or syrup. There are also cocktail cherries made without any alcohol. The ingredient list should indicate if alcohol was used to make the cherries, though the alcohol content is generally negligible. If the syrup contains a measurable amount of alcohol, the label should include a statement of alcohol by volume (ABV).
Stems and Pits
Depending on how you like to garnish your cocktails, you may want to look for cocktail cherries that include the stems. Quite often, cocktail cherries are pitted and stemmed, and these can be skewered for neat-looking garnishes. A few companies keep the stems on the cherries, so they look more like a fresh cherry (though they're often pitted as well). Drop these into your drink or remove the stem before skewering. If you eat them, be aware that even pitted cherries may still have bits of the pit.
What is the shelf life of cocktail cherries?
The shelf life and storage options of cocktail cherries depend on how they are made. For the most part, an open jar will keep well for several months and some up to eight months or longer. Many cocktail cherries do not need to be refrigerated but instead can be kept in a cool place out of direct sunlight. This is generally true if refrigeration causes the syrup to crystallize. However, some manufacturers do recommend keeping open jars in the fridge. Whenever you get a new jar, look on the label for an expiration date and the best way to store the cherries.
Are cocktail cherries and maraschino cherries the same thing?
Maraschino cherries have two different meanings. There are the traditional Italian-style maraschinos (such as Luxardo) that are soaked in liquor, and there are the modern maraschinos that are an unnatural color of red. The latter is "bleached" in a calcium salt brine, then poached in syrup and injected with red dye. These candied maraschinos popularly adorned drinks and ice cream treats for much of the 20th century. As consumers became aware of just how artificial these cherries are, demand increased for a more natural alternative. In response, more companies started to make cherries without artificial ingredients, often labeled as cocktail cherries.
What cherry variety is used to make cocktail cherries?
Many cherry varieties are used to make cocktail cherries. Sour cherries are more common than sweet cherries because the syrup balances the flavor. The original maraschino cherries from Luxardo are sour marasca cherries (thus the "maraschino" name). Amarena cherries are another small Italian variety with a bitter taste that is also used for cocktail cherries, and some manufacturers prefer morello cherries. Bing cherries are among the few sweet cherries and are preferred for their larger size.
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Nicholas McClelland is a fanatic for whiskeys from all over the world, gaga for golf, a passionate gearhead, and a slightly obsessive parent. Before he started covering fun things like booze, sports, and style, he was an award-winning picture editor and photojournalist.