The Truth About Maraschino Cherries

The Popular Cocktail Garnish Is Less Natural Than You May Think

Tequila sunrise cocktail
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The maraschino cherry is one of the most popular cocktail garnishes, but are those bright red fruits the best for your drinks? The truth is that many of today's store-bought maraschinos are injected with artificial ingredients and they are not very good to eat. It may look like a cherry, but it certainly doesn't taste like one.

There is hope for the cherry lover, though. Whether you’re dressing up your drinks or ice cream sundaes, it's very easy to make your own maraschinos from fresh cherries and there are a few ways to do so.

The Beginnings of the Maraschino Cherry

The maraschino cherries we know and use today are not a variety of cherry. Instead, they receive their name from the manufacturing process used to preserve them.

Originally, maraschino cherries were marasca cherries (originated in Croatia) preserved in Italy's maraschino liqueur, which is distilled from the same cherry. Over the years, the cherries caught the attention of mostly aristocratic Europeans as a tasty little treat. The cherries made their way to America and around Prohibition, a controversy arose; with the ban of alcohol, so went these liquor-soaked cherries.

Transforming the Maraschino Cherry

The modern maraschino cherry was a product of that era. It is the creation of an Oregon State University professor by the name of Ernest H. Wiegand who spent six years in the 1920s and 30's developing the brilliant red fruit. 

The goal was to help cherry farmers preserve their Royal (or Queen) Anne cherries in an alcohol-free way that could compete in the growing maraschino market.

Wiegand devised a process of soaking the fruit in a brine with calcium salts. This groundbreaking technique led to today's methods and notoriety for Oregon as a leader in advances of the "cherry," including the rainbow of maraschinos available today.

How a Maraschino Cherry Is Made

The modern maraschino cherry is soaked in a salt brine or—even worse—a solution of calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide.

This bleaches the cherries, removing their natural color and flavoring. They are then pitted and soaked in a sweetener (typically high fructose corn syrup) for about a month. The final step of dipping the fruits in artificial coloring (that lovely Red #4) gives the modern maraschino its overly brilliant red color (or any other color desired).

The FDA's definition of a maraschino cherry describes this artificial process: "The term 'Maraschino Cherries' is regarded as the common or usual name of an article consisting of cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar syrup flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor."

That is actually a rather broad definition. If you’ve browsed the canned cherry options at the store, you know that the “similar flavor” can have nothing to do with the real cherry. It’s not difficult to find cherries flavored with everything from lemon and lime to passion fruit and blueberries. It’s a rainbow of imitation cherries that merely resembles the real deal because the stems are (sometimes) intact.

The syrup these cherries are packed in only adds to their demise. It is disturbingly sweet and that inundates the mutilated cherries even more as they stew inside the jar for months on end.

The resulting cherries are too sweet, even for ice cream sundaes and flirty martinis, and they’ll only infuse those treats with their less than desirable qualities. If we take great care with every other ingredient, it is only right that we step up the quality of the garnish, but what can you do?

The "Back to Nature" Maraschino Cherry

The realization for many consumers that their jar of maraschino cherries is put through a process that leaves them about as far from natural as possible has led to an interest in "real" maraschino cherries. The organic and natural foods market has fueled this and you can find "natural maraschino cherries" in more and more locations. The labels will clearly state that they have "no artificial coloring," "no preservatives," or "no red dye."

In the U.S., the cherry season lasts through much of the summer.

This is your opportunity to make the best cherry garnishes of the year, and that includes using fresh cherries for your drinks and desserts. Preserving those fresh cherries for later use is also incredibly easy. Anyone can make their own maraschino cherries at home and even though they do take time, it is well worth the effort.

Maraschino Cherries as a Cocktail Garnish

From Manhattans to piña coladas, maraschino cherries are one of the most popular garnishes for cocktails. That little red ball adds a finishing touch with just a splash of class that can dress up almost any drink, no matter the flavor.

If you are looking for a garnish with a true cherry flavor, standard maraschinos are not the way to go. Instead, use a fresh cherry or go with one of the "natural" maraschinos. These are best for making "flags" with an orange, pineapple, or any other slice of fruit.

Tip: The "boat" is another popular fruit garnish that relies on the cherry.

Also, the different colored maraschino cherries (e.g., blue and green) are fun, though the flavor can be a little off from what you may expect. This is especially apparent with green maraschinos, which can be minty at times.

Unless the cocktail calls for it specifically, always serve a cherry with the stem intact so the drinker can easily pop it in their mouth if they choose. The modern maraschino is more candy than cherry and while it does not add much flavor to a drink, drinkers often enjoy the sweet treat at the end of their cocktail.

Maraschino liqueur-preserved maraschino cherries are still commercially available. They are limited in availability and have a price that matches. This is an inhibitor for many bartenders, which is why you’ll still see many bars serving those cheaper maraschinos. If you spot the fakes at your favorite hot spot, it’s perfectly fine to politely ask them to hold the cherry.