The cocktail cherry is a ubiquitous garnish. From the Manhattan and old fashioned to the piña colada and even the non-alcoholic Shirley Temple, countless drink recipes call for one, or five. You can find a jar of plasticky candy-colored maraschino cherries in most any supermarket, but there are lots of other options available today that taste much better. Using distinctive fruit varieties and careful production techniques, these cocktail cherries have complex flavor that'll make your drinks taste better and are worth enjoying solo, too.
With a veritable orchard available, we combed through the options to pick out the best cocktail cherries. Here they are.
Fabbri Amarena Cherries in Syrup
Amarena cherries are sweet and tart, a bit smaller than other varieties but packed with flavor. Fabbri uses wild-growing amarenas from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy in its incredible cocktail cherries, which might not be as famous as the Luxardos below but have an even more intense and complex flavor. They're plenty sweet, of course, but with a nice acidity behind them and a pleasant slight bitterness to help balance any cocktail you put them in. The fruits themselves are light-textured, soft, and intense, great in anything from a Manhattan to a piña colada. (Plus, three or four on a spoon are a great midnight snack.)
If you enjoy these cherries, keep an eye out as well for Fragola Fabbri, Italian strawberries candied in a similar manner by the same brand.
Price at time of publish: $27
Jar size: 21 ounces | Origin: Italy
Best Overall, Runner-Up
Luxardo Original Maraschino Cherries
Luxardo is the gold standard for cherries in craft-cocktail bars: If you're ordering an $18 Manhattan, one of these will almost definitely be in it. The brand takes its fruit from 30,000 proprietary marasca cherry trees on the Euganean Hills in the Veneto region of Italy (which is just north of Fabbri's Emilia-Romagna). The cherries are candied 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, or a perfect topping for ice cream. While they are certainly a bit pricier than the neon-colored ones you may have grown up with, these cherries work in nearly any cocktail and are well worth the money.
Price at time of publish: $25
Jar size: 14.1 ounces | Origin: Italy
Traverse City Whiskey Co. Premium Cocktail Cherries
Traverse City is known as the "cherry capital of the world." It hosts the National Cherry Festival every summer, and the surrounding region of northern Michigan grows a large percentage of the nation's cherries. So it only makes sense that a whiskey distillery in the city would candy its own cherries! After a leisurely bath in the house whiskey gives the fruits notes of smoke and char, they're slow-cooked in large copper pots until soft and chewy. The cherry varietal the distillery uses is balaton, a sour cherry originally from Hungary that's very tart and deeply colored.
Price at time of publish: $20
Jar size: 21.2 ounces | Origin: Michigan
Tillen Farms Bada Bing Cherries
The large, sweet, ruby-red Bing cherry is grown throughout the Pacific Northwest and one of the most common types that we enjoy raw. While other cocktail cherries are made from sour varieties, Bada Bing uses Oregon-grown Bings for a cocktail cherry that's intensely sweet. These cherries pair especially well with bourbon and other types of whiskey in cocktails, but they're also great for cooking: Try chopping some up to put into baked goods like fruitcake.
Price at time of publish: $14
Jar size: 13.5 ounces | Origin: Oregon
Distilleries Peureux Griottines Cherries
Many of the cherries on this list are preserved with both sugar and alcohol, but these beauties come jarred in an extra-boozy 30-proof syrup. The cherries used are morellos, which are quite tart and bitter when fresh, but they macerate in liqueur for six months and are finished in cherry brandy to balance the flavor. While the syrup with the Peureux Griottines is less sweet, its boozy flavor is intense, 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.
Price at time of publish: $40
Jar size: 22 ounces | Origin: France
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Cherries
Bourbon can only be aged in brand-new oak barrels, and people all over the world repurpose used bourbon barrels to age everything from Scotch whisky to soy sauce. Made in Kentucky from Oregon-grown cherries, these treats get a soak in Woodford Reserve Bourbon, get candied in syrup, and then spend time in a former bourbon barrel to gain complexity. These cherries come with the stems still attached, which makes for a slightly more elegant garnish. Plus, the dark and supple syrup makes a nice drizzle atop a whiskey sour after the fruit sinks to the bottom.
Price at time of publish: $23
Jar size: 13.5 ounces | Origin: Kentucky
Filthy Food Red Maraschino Cherries
Cheap maraschino cherries might taste (and bounce) like candied basketballs, but their glowing red color absolutely does make for an eye-catching garnish. Filthy manages to strike a nice balance between artificial and artisanal with these cherries, using quality fruits that actually taste like cherry and a little bit of chemical coloring to nail that neon hue. These are an excellent choice for a Mai Tai, Frozen Piña Colada or other indulgent rum cocktails that need screaming bright color.
Price at time of publish: $13
Jar size: 9 ounces | Origin: Florida
Fabbri Amarena Cherries take the top spot in our rankings for their craveable taste both in drinks and by the spoonful. Luxardo Maraschino Cherries have a different texture and flavor but are almost as delicious, complex, and worth their high price.
What to Look for When Buying Cocktail Cherries
All cocktail cherries are preserved fruits, but the ingredients used to make them can vary from entirely natural to very, very artificial, depending on the manufacturer. Some brands use simply cherries, sugar, and alcohol. The glowing-red maraschino cherries everybody's familiar with are made by bleaching fresh cherries with calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide, and then sweetening and dyeing them with artificial colors and flavors. This makes them very consistent in flavor and color but not very complex in taste. Some all-natural brands use beet juice for color and extra cherry juice for flavor. Citric acid is another common ingredient; it's both a natural preservative and flavor enhancer. If you have food allergies, make sure to read the ingredients list to confirm there's nothing problematic in your cherries.
There are two main types of cherries: sweet and sour. As the name suggests, sweet cherries are sweeter and tend to be the types of cherries we eat raw. Sour cherries are, well, more sour, but also smaller, more bitter and generally more complex and intense in flavor. They're most often eaten cooked, or preserved as cocktail cherries. Beneath the distinction between sweet and sour, there are dozens of different varieties of cherry, each with its own unique characteristics. The marasca cherry is one of the more famous sour varieties for cocktail cherries—it's where the name "maraschino" comes from and is the base of many Italian brands. (However, "maraschino cherries" today can be made from any variety of fruit.)
What is the shelf life of cocktail cherries?
Before you open the jar, cocktail cherries have a basically unlimited shelf life—the whole point of making a cocktail cherry is to preserve the fresh fruit! Even after the seal is broken, an open jar will keep for many months. Most cocktail cherries do not need to be refrigerated and should be kept in a cool place out of direct sunlight. But always check the label, as some brands recommend storing in the fridge. If you do refrigerate cocktail cherries, the sugar in the syrup may start to crystallize and create clumps. This isn't aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn't mean the cherries have gone bad. You can heat the jar gently in simmering water or the microwave to re-dissolve the crystals, much like you would to fix crystallized honey.
Are cocktail cherries and maraschino cherries the same thing?
Sort of. A cocktail cherry is any cherry that's been preserved and is meant to be used as a cocktail garnish. Originally, maraschino referred to a specific type of cocktail cherry, made from Italian marasca cherries preserved in cherry brandy and liqueur. (The Luxardo brand is an example of this traditional style.) However, in modern times, any preserved cherries can be labeled "maraschino cherries." In the U.S. there aren't any legal rules and regulations about what the term means.
What cherry variety is used to make cocktail cherries?
Many different cherry varieties are used to make cocktail cherries. Sour cherries are more common than sweet cherries because of their more intense flavor, but there's a range out there. The "maraschino" name comes from the sour marasca cherry, which is common in Italy, Croatia and the rest of southeastern Europe. Amarena cherries are another small Italian variety with a bitter taste that's popular, while Morellos are also sour but larger in size. Bing cherries are among the few sweet varieties used as high-quality cocktail cherries and are preferred for their large size. The artificially preserved bright-red maraschinos most commonly start with sweet cherries as well, such as Ranier and Royal Ann.
Do cocktail cherries contain alcohol?
Some cocktail cherries use brandy, cherry liqueur, whiskey, or other types of alcohol as a preservative. However, the amount of alcohol in the finished product is negligible—you'd have to be 21 to buy the cherries otherwise. Other brands use only sugar and other preservatives and don't contain any alcohol at all. You can always check the ingredients list to be sure.
Can you make your own cocktail cherries?
Absolutely! But it's going to take a while. To start with, you'll need a pile of fresh cherries, a cherry pitter, and some patience. Then you put the pitted cherries in a jar with sugar and alcohol, and wait—anywhere from weeks to months, depending on the recipe and your taste. You can start with our recipes for simple DIY maraschino cherries or spiced brandied cherries, but the options for personalization are endless.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Nicholas McClelland, who wrote this roundup, 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.
Jason Horn is a commerce writer for The Spruce Eats and updated this roundup. He's been writing about food and drinks for almost 20 years and has VERY strong cocktail-cherry opinions. (Ride or die for Fabbri.)