An Unscientific Taste Test of Maraschino Cherries

published Oct 1, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Orbiting just beyond the spirits, vermouths, liqueurs, and bitters that make up the 9-Bottle Bar solar system are a handful of important bar extras — items such as eggs, simple syrup, and grenadine — that bolster your home bar’s drink-making potential but which aren’t quite so essential to have around that they to warrant a place on the main roster.

With our monthlong look at maraschino liqueur coming to a close, now is a great time to cover another Pluto of the liquor cabinet: the maraschino cherry.

Why Maraschino Cherries Are So Important

Why is it recommended to have a jar of maraschino cherries around? At their best, these little ruby-red gems can be a splendidly welcome garnish — nay, a flavor enhancer, in fact — in boozy whiskey cocktails like the Manhattan and the Red Hook. Plus, once dunked, a maraschino cherry quickly soaks up the goodness of its surroundings; by the time the last swig’s been swug, that cherry at the bottom of your glass is like a cocktail-laced dessert, recounting a drink’s flavor between dulcet, juicy, luxurious air quotes.

The Challenge of a Good Cherry

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? But commercial maraschino cherries are, for the most part, not to be trusted. The brands that seem to have a foothold in supermarkets and liquor stores — state laws vary on which businesses are permitted to sell them — are likely to be stuck in a treacly, industrialized past. (As this recent New York Times Magazine article attests, Americans have been eating chemically treated maraschino cherries since the turn of the 20th century.)

Strangely, even though the current renaissance in cocktails has ushered in a wave of outstanding new spirits — to the point where practically every mom-and-pop liquor store carries at least a few cool and interesting bottles — there remain more (and more readily available) misses than hits when it comes to maraschino cherries. Such is what I rediscovered recently, after testing what I thought were “gourmet” brands.

Luxardo: The Gold Standard

I say “re”-discovered because several years back, I was turned on to Luxardo Maraschino Cherries — The Original, as their label claims. Ever since, these rich, ink-dark, Italian-made treasures have been my gold standard. So I’d been admittedly out of the market for maraschinos as of late.

Browsing the shelves anew, I found that a couple of hum-drum brands still seem to dominate the grocery store and deli market here in my home turf of New York City…they didn’t look very appetizing. I ultimately came across two that looked promising. How did they stack up against Luxardo?

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Testing Cherries: My Results

Sable & Rosenfeld Tipsy Cherries

The label suggests that these cherries are whiskey-soaked — and, in fact, whiskey is the very last ingredient on the list, below corn syrup and several preservatives. But you wouldn’t know it by tasting them. First, the aroma off the jar is heady, syrupy-sweet, and medicinal, like a hundred Shirley Temples. The fruits display that telltale snap and crunch we have come to associate with maraschino cherries, but the flesh of the fruit is rather mealy. The taste is dully sweet, with a finish that is slightly astringent.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Pitted Cherries

No vague suggestions of booze immersions on the label of these Washington state-made maraschino cherries, but we are told that they’re gluten-free and not made with any red dye — a trait that seems evident in the less intense, insistent red of the fruit in comparison to the Sable & Rosenfelds. (They’re also not sweetened with corn syrup.) Those dietary bona fides don’t necessarily add up to great taste, though. The aroma is not quite as pungent as the Tipsy Cherries’, although the cough syrup element seems more pronounced. Again, the fruit is a more natural hue. The skin is softer — less snap to the crunch— but the flesh was more pleasant.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Luxardo Maraschino Cherries

Among its distinguishing traits, a jar of Luxardo cherries has a syrup that is far more viscous and opaque than the other two. The color: a red that border on black. The skin: more forgiving, like a hard candy that you’ve been nursing awhile and that’s ready to bite into. In the texture there is still a connection back to the fruit itself. The tradeoff, it seems, is that the cherries themselves aren’t as plump and perfectly shaped as their peers. (They also don’t retain their stems.) The flavor: complex, with spices mingling with baked stone fruit and hints of vanilla and wood. These are tastes that truly complement a good cocktail.

What remains a mystery is why the good stuff still can be so difficult to find. In my recon for this post, I hardly ever came across Luxardos. Why haven’t they supplanted other brands? Nevertheless, they are totally worth seeking out.

Do you have another brand you like that you can recommend?