The Truth About Maraschino Cherries

A 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? The truth is that many of today's store-bought maraschinos are injected with artificial ingredients and they are not very good to eat.

There is hope for the cherry lover, though! It's very easy to make your own maraschinos from fresh cherries and there are a few ways to do so.

The Beginning of the Maraschino Cherry

The maraschino cherries we know and use today in our drinks and on our desserts are not a variety of cherry but named so due to the manufacturing process used to preserve them.

Originally, maraschino cherries were marasca cherries (originated in Croatia) preserved in Italy's maraschino liqueurs, 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

It was one Oregon State University professor by the name of Ernest H. Wiegand who spent six years in the 1920's and 30's developing the modern maraschino cherry. Wiegand's goal was to aid cherry farmers in preserving their Queen Anne cherries in an alcohol-free way and compete in the growing maraschino market.

He devised a process of soaking the fruit in a brine with calcium salts that worked perfectly. This groundbreaking technique led to today's techniques and notoriety of Oregon as a leader in advances of the "cherry," including the blue, green, and other colored maraschinos.

How a Maraschino Cherry Is Made

The modern maraschino cherry is soaked in a salt brine to remove its natural color and flavoring. They are then pitted and soaked in a sweetener for around a month. The final step of dipping the fruits in artificial coloring gives the modern maraschino its overly brilliant red color (or any other color desired).

The FDA's definition of a maraschino cherry denotes 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."

Read Maraschino & Cocktail Cherries at Art of the Drink for more technical details.

The Back to "Nature" Maraschino Cherry

The realization for many consumers that their jars of maraschino cherries are 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 locations. These labels will clearly state that they have "no artificial coloring," "no preservatives," or "no red dye."

Also, anyone can make their own maraschino cherries. They do take time but are worth the effort.

Maraschino Cherries As a Garnish

From Manhattans to Pina Coladas, maraschino cherries are one of the most popular garnishes for cocktails. They are easy to add to the drink and that little red ball adds a finishing touch with just a splash of class that can dress up most drinks, 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 another fresh cherry or go with one of the "natural" maraschinos. These are best for making "flags" with an orange, pineapple, or another slice of fruit.

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

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

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, due to its artificial sweeteners and coloring agents, 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 makes it an inhibitor for many bartenders.