Just What You Needed: Homemade Maraschino Cherries

You'll never revert to “imitation” again.

Bringing the words artisan and house-made to bar menus is part of a trend that bartenders are calling “pre-Prohibition.” They’re referring to the time before moonshine, when brown liquors, cordials and vermouths, and herb-based spirits like gin ruled. Stacked up against the new artisan cordials, house-made bitters, and candied orange peel some bars are touting, old standbys like Rose’s lime juice just don’t cut it anymore—and thank Bacchus for that. One more bar ingredient in dire need of a post factum makeover: the maraschino cherry.

The original maraschino cherries were tiny, super-sour wild marasca cherries from the eastern shores of the Adriatic. The cherries were pickled in sea water and preserved in maraschino, a local cordial made from the same fruit. In the 19th century, maraschino cherries were such a rich person’s delicacy that our Food and Drug Administration started protecting the moniker in 1914, requiring all pretenders to employ the word “imitation” on labels.

During Prohibition, Americans had to improvise on the maraschino cherry and lose the booze. The neon-red thingies that we Americans equate with hot-fudge sundaes and kiddie cocktails are domestic cherries (usually Queen Anne) dyed and packed in almond-flavored sugar syrup. By the 1940s, the Day-Glo variety had infiltrated the American palate to the point that the FDA actually changed its definition of a maraschino cherry to include this humiliated, flavorless fruitard.

This recipe, a nod to the traditional, comes from a little old Greek baba who owned a bar where I once worked. So old-fashioned, this lady was ahead of her time. I’d rather skip the garnish than let anything else touch my Manhattan.

3 tablespoons sea salt

2 pounds pitted sweet cherries, Rainier preferred

4 cups sugar

2 limes, juiced

1 cup dark cherries, mashed

1-plus cup maraschino liqueur or brandy

1 teaspoon bitter almond extract (optional)

Brine cherries by bringing 6 cups of water to a boil and adding 3 tablespoons of sea salt; use a salt with no additives to ensure glossy-looking fruit (table salt can have all kinds of things in it). Remove brine from heat. Halve and pit the cherries, adding them as you go to the still-warm liquid, then let the cherries sit in liquid overnight, at least, in the fridge.

Once the cherries are brined, bring the sugar, lime juice, and 3 cups of water to a simmer in a saucepan. Add the mashed cherries for a deeper, natural color (however, the cherries look pretty cool and slightly alien without it). Let this mixture reduce by a third, then cool. Drain the cherries and rinse them of brine. In a large, airtight jar, add the sugar mixture and the drained cherries. Top with at least a cup of Maraska maraschino liqueur, available at many downtown liquor stores, or substitute a spirit like bourbon or brandy. Because the cherries are preserved in alcohol, a snap-shut glass jar with a rubber gasket works just fine. They will easily keep in your refrigerator for a few months.

So, to bartenders improving on your cocktails, upgrade the accessories while you’re at it. Don’t sour my old-fashioned with an inferior garnish. Pretty please, can I have my bourbon with a house-made organic cherry on top?