Kevin has developed a strong interest in Manhattan cocktails. He has read many recipes and tried many. He has looked into the qualities of various bourbons and rye whiskeys. The one thing he has settled on is the maraschino cherry that is an obligate part of any authentic Manhattan. He quickly dismissed the fluorescent red cherries that were available in my refrigerator and adopted the burgundy-colored cherries that are favored in most of the restaurants and bars in town. I will admit that they are delicious. They are also expensive. A small jar at the local Whole Foods competitor is $24. The cheaper fluorescent variety is not available at that store; at a more traditional grocery store a much larger bottle of the old standby is around $6.
The story of the two maraschino cherries is very interesting. Going back to the eighteenth century, Croatia on the Dalmatian Coast preserved its small, sour marasca cherries in alcohol for later consumption. Eventually that led to the development of a liqueur called maraschino which enjoyed wild popularity around the world. In the United States, Prohibition was established so that both the liqueur and the cherries preserved in the liqueur were banned. Meanwhile, an enthusiastic chemist in Ohio set out to develop a method to preserve cherries. No alcohol was involved, but a lengthy chemical process that involved bleaching of the cherries, multiple preservatives, and FD&C red dyes (now FD&C red dye 40) produced the familiar bright red cherry that as a child I loved on top of banana splits and in punch bowls. (I made myself sick as a ten-year-old, fishing out the maraschino cherries from the punch at my uncle’s wedding)
Until recently, we had no choice but the bright red synthetic maraschino cherry, but the real thing has made a comeback. The limitation in the resurgence is, of course, the cost. Being the tightwad that I am, I was unwilling to spend $24 for a little jar of real maraschino cherries. I decided that I would make my own rather than shelling out the money to Luxardo, which has become the (almost) monopoly of maraschino cherries and maraschino liqueur. So far my investment has included $30 for a bottle of Maraska maraschino liqueur from Zadar, Croatia (the original site of the whole maraschino industry), $8 for a pound and a half of Bing cherries (marascas are not readily available unless you visit Croatia), several dollars for sugar, cinnamon sticks, spices, etc., and my free labor. It is clear that I have made a strong statement about the economies of DIY over the high prices of the authentic stuff.
The good news is that making your own maraschino cherries is easy. The bad news is that they don’t taste the same as the real thing. The really good news is that they still taste mighty good, and you have well over a half bottle of liqueur left to enjoy on its own. You definitely need a cherry pitter, but a small one works just fine. The only thing else that is required is a little patience.
- 2 pounds fresh Bing cherries, rinsed, stems removed, and pitted
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 large strip lemon peel without white
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup maraschino liqueur
- Pit the cherries and set aside.
- In a pan large enough to hold the cherries in a single layer, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Add the cinnamon, lemon peel, and vanilla.
- Add the cherries to the boiling mixture and continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the liqueur. Turn off the heat, and allow to cool.
- When the cherries are completely cool, transfer to clean jar(s) (You will have enough cherries for about 1 pint) and cover with the cooking liquid.
- When the jars are completely cooled, move them to the refrigerator and let them continue to macerate for at least two days.
- Well covered and refrigerated, the cherries should last for at least a month’s worth of Manhattans (or Old Fashioneds).