Homemade Maraschino Cherries

Class up your cocktail hour with some garden-to-table tipsy cherries.

A search for the perfect cocktail ends at the bottom of the glass with a DIY maraschino cherry.

A search for the perfect cocktail ends at the bottom of the glass with a DIY maraschino cherry.

A search for the perfect cocktail ends at the bottom of the glass with a DIY maraschino cherry.

A search for the perfect cocktail ends at the bottom of the glass with a DIY maraschino cherry.

My friend Kendall is a perfection seeker.  A Chicago resident, he called me a few weeks ago from Mystic, CT, his last stop on a driving tour of the Eastern seaboard in search of the perfect pizza. But he wasn’t calling about pizza that day. Kendall had Manhattans on his mind.

The Manhattan, a cocktail of Canadian whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters garnished with a maraschino cherry, has been around since the 1870s and remain a standard of mixology to this day. “I’m getting close, I think,” Kendall said optimistically of his quest for the perfect cocktail. “It always comes down to the cherry.”

I knew exactly what he meant. 

Maraschino cherries first appeared a few hundred years ago along the coast of what is now known as Croatia. There grew a sour cherry called the marasca. Those cherries were pickled in seawater and then soaked in a liqueur derived from the same cherries called “maraschino.” The drunken cherry's popularity grew, and by the 1800s, confectioners in Europe were imitating the coveted treat, dying locally grown cherries bright red, soaking them in liqueur and marketing them as “maraschino cherries.”

Eventually, the booze-soaked cherry reached the United States and it was all downhill from there. Hugely popular in the U.S. by the turn of the 20th century, the maraschino cherry was used in confections and as a notable garnish for drinks. To keep up with demand, imported cherries were replaced with American grown cherries, which were (and still are) fortified with calcium to firm up the texture. A few years later, the alcohol was removed to placate a growing temperance movement. And so was born the waxy, cloyingly sweet “maraschino cherry” we know today.

Which brings us back to Kendall’s perfect Manhattan. Once the history of its garnish is revealed, it’s easy to see why the modern maraschino wasn’t working for him. When cherry season is well underway, we’re ready to recapture some of the magic of those first maraschino cherries. Although sour cherries would be ideal, their season is short and sour cherries can be tough to find. Sweet cherries like Bing or Rainier are readily available throughout the summer and fit the bill quite nicely.

Soaked in a solution of simple syrup and maraschino liqueur, homemade maraschino cherries can be ready to go in just a few days, although the longer they soak, the deeper that sweet and tart boozy bite becomes. The cherry at the bottom of the glass isn’t just pretty anymore. That little bite of cherry becomes a part of the drink we didn’t know was missing, but now we can’t do without. Homemade maraschino cherries are also awfully good on ice cream, but don’t let the kids catch you. This one is for grown-ups only.

I haven’t heard back from Kendall yet, but I am certain he’ll be thrilled with his improved Manhattan. Turns out he’s in India right now, perhaps seeking out the perfect samosas.

Homemade Maraschino Cherries

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup maraschino liqueur
  • 4 cups sweet cherries, stemmed and pitted

Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil 3 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, vanilla extract and maraschino liqueur.

Fill a lidded quart jar with cherries.

Pour syrup over cherries and allow to cool.

Cap jar with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate.

Maraschino cherries will be ready to use in 3 days, but will improve over time when kept refrigerated.

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