So a guy walks into a bar, and orders a Manhattan. Or was it an Old Fashioned? Maybe a Shirley Temple? Ah, whatever, you get the point–a drink with a cocktail cherry (or two) in it. Dad jokes aside, think back to the last time you ordered a whiskey cocktail at a bar or restaurant. You probably chose the whiskey going into the glass, and even the method of mixing–but did you choose the garnish? Not likely. We have no issues asking for a particular type of whiskey or having it poured into specific glassware, but these crafted libations are more than the sum of their parts aren’t they? The experience of having a delicious drink created just the way you like can really make for a special night out, and I wanted to look deeper into what is, in my opinion, an often-overlooked component to a cocktail. I realize that going into this level of detail is likely delving deeper into the bourbon geek realm than most people care for; however, it’s always struck me as an interesting rabbit hole, so why not take a microscope to it? Let’s have a look!
As a bourbon drinker, I love the array of cherry flavors that are often present in my glass–but it goes further than that. I love cherry notes in bourbon, black cherry seltzer, and I’m even lucky enough to have a Mother-in-law who makes me a sour cherry pie at Christmas time (and it’s damn good). Picking up that dark fruit and mild sweetness really sets off a drink for me, and cocktails that play off that flavor profile always fall in line with my palate. This has made me wonder if it really matters which chunk of fruit sits in the bottom of my glass, and it has also piqued my interest as to which cherries are the best in a cocktail–if there truly is a difference.
Wondering more about the red spheres idling peacefully in the bottom of my glass had me digging into the story of these miniature flavor bombs. The category of cocktail cherries is largely dominated by the Maraschino cherry. Without taking too much time on a lecture of cherry history, it’s worth mentioning that Maraschino cherries have actually lead a really interesting life so to speak. Starting off as a liqueur made from the Marasca cherry plant (and it’s fruit) and turning into a method of preserving the cherries themselves, and finally becoming a hot item within cocktail culture, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before there’s a Netflix documentary on the Maraschino cherry–or is there already?
A little history…
Maraschino cherries gained popularity in the United States prior to prohibition through cocktail culture, and the allure of a luxurious experience. When the United States decided ‘down with the booze’, this also impacted the cocktail fruit, as they were (at that time) still preserved in liquor. Outlawing liquor meant: you guessed it–outlawing maraschino cherries! Who would have guessed a garnish would become a controlled substance? During this time a professor from Oregon State University–Ernest H. Wiegand–developed a modern method of creating Maraschino cherries that didn’t use alcohol. Fast-forward to modern times and we have the classic American version of this Italian recipe in the form of bright red cherries that rest atop ice cream sundaes and in cocktails nationwide.
cocktail cherry syrup on plates
So are all cocktail cherries made equal? To quote Walter Sobchak: “Hardly, Dude.”. There are different styles of cocktail cherries out there today ranging from [nearly] neon red options under names ranging from mild to pretty damn wild. The options stretch across a large price range from expensive high brow options with ornate labels and packaging, to store brand generic label options for just a few bucks. These things have been driving me to do a full-on comparison across the range of cocktail cherries available. Does the cherry in a drink make a difference at all, and if it does, what exactly is the influence a small piece of fruit has on a cocktail?
Food Fight Rules:
The format for this breakdown will be fairly straightforward. I have six different brands (and a few styles) of cocktail cherries that I will use to do a side-by-side comparison to rate each cherry’s flavor (based upon the fruit and it’s syrup), as well as the texture of the cherry, and appearance of the cherry on a scale of one to ten (for a total of thirty points). Then I will make one batched cocktail (Manhattan – rye, sweet vermouth, aromatic bitters stirred with ice for thirty seconds) and pour about one ounce into six different glasses–each glass will contain a different cocktail cherry to complete the drink. Finally, I will rate the cherry’s impact on the cocktail on the same one to ten scale, which will give each cherry a possible max score of forty points. Hopefully we’ll see if there’s an ultimate small stone fruit to drop into our concoctions. Let’s dig in!
In looking for candidates for the test I wanted to try and cover a broad enough range of the offerings out there, while remaining in the realm of more traditional cocktail cherries; in short, I didn’t want to use any of the whiskey branded cherries (good as they may taste) due to the risk of bias. By all means, if you start a comparison of your own, we’d love to hear which cherries place best for you–including cherries with brand affiliations.
Our “Food Fight” lineup (in no particular order):
Luxardo Maraschino Cherries
Trader Joe’s Morello Cherries
Peninsula Premium Cocktail Cherries
Filthy brand cherries
Trader Joe’s Amarena Cherries
Merry Maraschino Cherries (Stonewall Kitchen)
Note: Each cherry was placed into a glencairn glass because we’re a whiskey website…and to be honest it was the only vessel we could think of that would work for this.
Round One – Appearance
Luxardo – Small fruit. Glossy and dark. Very glossy actually. The syrup is thicker but also has a fairly natural color in the glass. Fruit itself actually looks very nice. 8
Peninsula – Very deep and dark. Color is more purple than red. The thick syrup looks very rich and glossy. 8
Morello – A smaller fruit that looks very much like a cherry pie filling candidate, but does look a little ragged. Color falls between the “classic” and high-end offering. 6
Filthy Brand – Noticeable large, and battle-scarred cherry. Somewhat translucent and bright screamin’ red. Syrup is thin and neon looking. 5
Amarena – Dark, rich, and glossy. The syrup has a very natural looking color. Stem lends to the natural aesthetic. 9
Merry Maraschino – Slightly translucent fruit. Pale stem. Looks like a combination of a classic maraschino and a high-end option. Syrup is light and fairly thin. 6
Round Two – Flavor (a cherry and about a bar spoon of it’s syrup)
Luxardo – On the sweeter side, but not cloying. There’s sweet in the syrup and sweet in the fruit, mixed with a nice natural cherry flavor that stands out. 9
Peninsula – Noticeably more of a sweet syrupy flavor than a cherry flavor in this one. It smells great and carries a fruity nose, but there’s more syrup than fruit in the flavor. 6
Morello – Nice. More of a tart cherry, but has a very natural cherry flavor. More fruity than sweet. Thin syrup doesn’t detract from the fruit. 6
Filthy Brand – Not very sweet or flavorful. While this would certainly stand out in a glass, it’s more of a looker than an eater…if that’s a thing. 4
Amarena – Very sweet but a mild amount of cherry flavor in the fruit. 6
Merry Maraschino – This cherry held a lot of syrup (burst when I bit into it). Lightly sweet, mild cherry flavor, but there’s a noticeable artificial note that’s just not working for me. 4
Round Three – Texture
Luxardo – Very nice. The fruit is small, but it’s held together well and is a little toothy, in a pleasing way. Skin has some snap to it and the fruit is very good. 9
Peninsula – The skin is intact and holds the fruit nicely. The fruit is firm and holds up to what I guess would be “normal” chewing…as opposed to…abnormal chewing? You know what I mean. Enjoyable. 9
Morello – Quite squishy. Almost impossible to discern the difference between skin and fruit. Reminds me of a frozen cherry that has been thawed. 3
Filthy Brand – This cherry was held together by the skin of the fruit but not by much. It also was quite soft and fell apart after a single bite. 3
Amarena – Cherry skin has some texture, the fruit inside is nice. Not too firm. Enjoyable enough I’d put this on a dessert or snack. 7
Merry Maraschino – Skin was thin but held the fruit together. Fruit was fairly soft, but still held. 5
Round Four – Impact in a cocktail (Manhattan)
Luxardo – Softens the cocktail very slightly, brings a little more complexity to the nose, and adds a touch of color. 8
Peninsula – Slightly noticeable on the nose (if you go looking for it) and adds a richer color to the glass. 8
Morello – Negligible impact on the cocktail, and these look a little sad in the glass somehow. 5
Filthy Brand – Really changes the aesthetic of the cocktail…two of these is too much fruit! The bright red does impact the overall look of the Manhattan a way that is not insignificant. 5
Amarena – Rounds out the cocktail and adds a lightly sweet touch that’s very nice. 9
Merry Maraschino – Seemed to thin the drink slightly and didn’t add much, if anything, in terms of flavor. The mild color nearly blends into the glass. 4
Trader Joe’s Amarena Cherries 28
Trader Joe’s Morello Cherries 20
Merry Maraschino 19
Filthy Brand 17
Well, by the numbers, the winner is clearly Luxardo. Then again, I took the time to twist up a nice spicy Wild Turkey 101 Rye Manhattan, and pour it over a selection of great cherries…so I feel like it’s a John/Luxardo combination when it comes to who really won here.
Looking through the price range and overall scores provides us an interesting angle to consider: the most expensive option was our overall winner for sure, but Peninsula cherries and Amarena cherries (from Trader Joe’s) are both very good contenders for a noticeably lower price. If you’re looking for a quality option to keep in your home bar, either one would certainly provide an upscale cocktail experience for you and your guests. Or you can really up your game and splurge for the high end cherries that are damn-near-guaranteed to impress. Your call!
What’s your favorite cocktail cherry? Let us know on Instagram or Twitter, or join us in Discord to chat about it. Cheers!
I got into bourbon for the flavor and experiences associated with it. As I found more bourbon I enjoyed, the need to dive deeper into the history, brands, and technical side of things converted me into a total bourbon geek.