Editor’s Note: This is a guest post collaboration with Steve Shuler from the Little Rock Foodcast. Steve took the lead in the writing and I tagged along with some of my own thoughts. Thanks to Steve for partnering up on this fun and fascinating project looking at cocktail cherries!
The coinciding of the digital age with the renaissance of classic cocktail recipes has naturally led to a rise in the number of home bartenders mixing excellent drinks made with high-quality ingredients. One of those cocktails is the Old Fashioned, a timeless mixture of whiskey, bitters, and the traditional Maraschino cherry. But in recent years, much attention has been drawn to the fact that these neon-bright red morsels might not be the best option. The most common brands of Maraschino cherries are created by first bleaching the cherries in calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide. If that doesn’t sound terrifying enough, these chemically altered bites are then soaked in high fructose corn syrup and Red 40 dye to give them their trademark, unnatural coloring. Maraschino cherries used to get their color from Red 4, but the FDA banned that food coloring in 1976. Still, many food scientists have said that no red food dye can be proven completely safe, despite having FDA approval.
It’s unfortunate, because the cherry is an integral part of a good Old Fashioned. The best cherries serve two functions: enhancing the flavor of the cocktail, while also absorbing enough flavor to be a delectable finishing snack at the end of the drink. Needless to say, the typical Maraschino cherry won’t fulfill either of these purposes very well. But fear not, there are two very good options for the amateur cocktailian to try: buying a high quality brand of cherries, or making your own. In this blog post, my gracious host Joel DiPippa and I experiment with six brands of cherries that are all better than the nuclear red sugar bombs we’ve been eating for decades. None of these cherries has high fructose corn syrup or artificial coloring. Next week, we’ll take a look at some recipes for making these cherries on your own.
For this tasting experiment, we sampled the cherries in two different ways. We first ate the cherries straight out of the jar and recorded our notes. We then soaked the cherries in a rye Old Fashioned bath for about 45 minutes and tried them again, tasting both the changes in the cocktail and the cherry. Our individual tasting notes are separated below.
Imported from Italy, Amarena Toschi is a brand of sour cherries soaked in a simple syrup of sugar and fruit juice. The coloring is provided by grape skin extract. These do not have alcohol in them and should be stored in a cool place after opening.
Steve: Amarena Toschi cherries deliver on their sour premise with a pleasant tartness. Unfortunately, the sugar was the dominant flavor here for me, and I found the sweetness and sourness tended to fight a little rather than complement. After a couple of cherries, the effect was cloying, and I started to taste something resembling Luden’s cough drops. The cherries are pretty weak in texture.
Joel: The best way to describe this one for me was like the very best of Grandma’s Cherry Pie. The sugar flavor was definitely on the front but the sharp tang of the sour cherry did pull the taste through to the back of the throat as you ate it. It was a rich wine red with a supple skin that was fun to actually eat.
IN THE COCKTAIL
Steve: The Old Fashioned develops more of the cherry’s sour notes, which is a nice change. But that lasts for such a brief moment, as the sugar takes over. The rye tries fighting the sugary rush but fails. For me, this was really not a pleasant finish to the drink. The cocktail itself changed very little; I really think these cherries would be worth buying if the sour flavors soaked into the drink. They don’t. While Amarena Toschi is still better than the (very low) standard, it’s still not that good.
Joel – I agree with Steve on this. The cherry was almost too sweet when in the drink. It didn’t accentuate the whisky’s sweetness and instead left a peculiar flavor, like a Hostess Fruit Pie after marrying with the drink.
Jack Rudy Bourbon Cocktail Cherries
You’ll first notice that these cherries still have their stems on, something that makes it easier to fetch the fruit from the jar. True to their name, these cherries come in a mixture of bourbon, sugar, water, and fruit concentrate. Once opened, Jack Rudy cherries should be refrigerated. A note for you Little Rock readers: these cherries can now be found at Eggshells Kitchen Company in the Heights.
Steve: The bourbon is unmistakable, yet subdued enough to allow other flavors to develop. I thought these cherries tasted the freshest of the six brands we tried, with subtle apple and blueberry flavors present. There isn’t a lot of spice here. The finish is deep, complex, and enjoyable. These were some of the largest cherries we tried, with a firm bite and pleasant texture.
Joel: The size of these cherries was the first thing I noticed as well as the subdued color. Eating them had a definite taste of real fruit with vanilla and oak complementing the cherry itself. The sweetness was pleasant, and the bourbon flavors you get from everything other than the oak seemed to come through in the background and more pronounced in the lulls of the other flavors.
IN THE COCKTAIL
Steve: I found the Old Fashioned notably mellowed under the influence of the cherries. The cherry itself got a lot of flavor from the drink, and the result was a very boozy fruit. Indeed, an enterprising cook could serve these Old Fashioned-soaked cherries as an adult dessert. The cherry had developed some additional spice from the rye, but the fresh cherry flavor was still easy to detect. These cherries are excellent on their own or in a drink (and now that I think of it, what a way to top an ice cream sundae).
Joel: The color imparted on the drink was apparent after sitting there. It definitely gave the drink a distinctive cherry flavor while mellowing the edges of the whisky. The rye helped bring forward spiciness, vanilla, and what I thought was orange peel. As I jotted down in my tasting notes, “This is why you put cherries in an Old Fashioned!” I considered these my favorite overall because it had great “raw” flavor, great additions to the drink, and great to munch after the drink was done.
Luxardo Gourmet Maraschino Cherries
Every bartender we spoke with ahead of this post mentioned Luxardo as the gold standard in cocktail cherries. Luxardo’s name is deservedly famous; the company has done wonderful work in creating infused liquors and amaros. These Italian cherries, the darkest by far of the six brands we tried, are soaked in a sweet Marasca syrup. Despite the name brand, there is no liquor in these cherries. Luxardo cherries should not be refrigerated after opening. You can find Luxardo at many liquor stores, including Colonial Wine & Spirits[LINK] in Little Rock.
Steve: I found some extraordinary depth to these cherries. The fruit flavor seemed almost concentrated, though the label assured me it was not. It’s almost like tasting a very rich fruit punch. I picked up sweetness here too, but it wasn’t overpowering. The most interesting flavors came in the spice notes, including clove, vanilla and maybe a hint of cracked black pepper. The cherries aren’t very crisp, but still have some texture to them.
Joel: These are a black cherry bomb in your mouth, both literally and figuratively. The cherries are deep and rich red color bordering on inky black while the flavor is sweet and tart at the same time leaving me thinking of plums. The spices like cloves and vanilla lend an interesting flavor and bring a very adult dessert to mind. The finish is heavy and tangy leaving you with the feeling of a gastronomical experience.
IN THE COCKTAIL
Steve: The Old Fashioned definitely changed for the better under the influence of this cherry. The color became noticeably darker, and the drink itself took on a velvety texture. I noticed that my palette felt almost coated with the drink this time, which led to more lingering flavors. The acidity in the cherry seemed to step up, as I tasted some pineapple notes that weren’t there previously. That rich punch flavor was now mellower, as the cherry gave up a lot of its essence to the cocktail. Luxardo cherries have a reputation for a reason. While it wasn’t my favorite brand, it was still a very good addition to the cocktail.
Joel: While there was a slight darkening of the drink, the cherries didn’t really tame the whisky. The spice came through loud and clear even enhancing the bitter components. The cherry itself had clearly given up its flavor, but the sweetness remained behind with a decadent and rich feel not unlike a cherry popsicle. These are truly excellent, but I don’t rank them as my favorite because they were not as much fun to eat after the drink.
Mess Hall Cocktail Cherries
Chicago-based Mess Hall soaks Michigan cherries in a blend of Demerara sugar, bourbon, water and cherry juice to create its product. The use of Demerara is indeed unique. The cherries were some of the smallest we tried; you should probably use 2-3 in a cocktail to get the best effect. Note that the jar in this picture is a sample jar; the actual purchased product is 9.5 ounces. These cherries must be refrigerated after opening. Mess Hall cherries are only available online in the Little Rock market.
Steve: Mess Hall proudly includes spices on its ingredient list, but it’s not necessary. I found the spice notes profound, with vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove marrying to a wonderful effect. Undoubtedly the spiciest cherries we tried, the cherry itself tasted somewhat preserved with only a little freshness present. Still, the spice and the bourbon created a nice balance and a deep finish. The texture was somewhat soft.
Joel: These were amazingly cherry flavored with the combination of sweet and tart you expect. The nutmeg and clove spices were very forward and the combination made me think of raisins. The size and texture made me think more about a flambe topping or a clafoutis except for the bourbon coming out as you chew.
IN THE COCKTAIL
Steve: The cherry mellowed the cocktail significantly, making for a very smooth draw. The bourbon came through for me in the drink, adding another pleasant layer to the experience. The cherry itself kept its spice, but cinnamon and nutmeg now became the most obvious notes. The Old Fashioned flavor was apparent as well, along with some notes of grape and raisin. I thought this was a very strong finish to the cocktail. Mess Hall cherries remind me of the holiday season in a familiar, homey way.
Joel: The drink got surprisingly little cherry flavor imparted from the coak. I found it in the mellowed edges of the drink but not coming out as a distinct component itself. The cherries upon eating had the sour and tart components accentuated. I called them “rich, joyful packets of tart, sweet, and spicy flavor.” These were my favorite cherry to eat after the Old Fashioned soak.
Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Cherries
Tillen Farms out of Washington state actually produces two varieties of cocktail cherries: Merry Maraschino and Bada Bing. Both are made with sugar and fruit/vegetable concentrate, and must be refrigerated after opening. We appreciated that the stems were left on these cherries. There is no alcohol in this product. Tillen Farms cherries are easily found on Amazon and other online shopping locations.
Steve: These cherries tasted big, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. I found them immensely sweet and saccharine on the finish. While there is some good cherry flavor here, the sugar relegated it into the background. Probably my favorite texture out of any of these cherries, the fruit was firm and snappy to the bite. Sadly, I found very little complexity present.
Joel: This reminded me of cherry juice or fruit punch. I very much thought of candy while eating this cherry and not always in the best of ways. This was the closest to the “classic” cocktail cherry flavor in the set we tried.
IN THE COCKTAIL
Steve: How is it possible that these cherries could sit in the Old Fashioned for 45 minutes and have virtually no impact? If anything, the drink got a little sweeter, but that’s it. I thought the cherry itself developed an unpleasant, slightly metallic bitterness, but other than that, it was still sweet, sweet, sweet. To me, Tillen Farms cherries are basically pointless when it comes to cocktail making. Perhaps as a topping for a child’s ice cream? Eh.
Joel: Minimal impact on the drink or on the cherry from the Old Fashioned soak. The cherry was a little mellowed, but it still didn’t quite taste like a real cherry. For me, using high quality ingredients ought to have more character and distinctiveness, so I agree with Steve that these don’t seem useful for my cocktail experiences.
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Cherries
It should come as no surprise that a Kentucky distillery would include bourbon in its cherries. This is another cherry soaked in water, sugar, bourbon, and fruit/vegetable concentrate. Woodford Reserve also leaves the stems on its cherries. Once open, it must be refrigerated. Woodford Reserve can be found on Amazon and other online retailers.
Steve: I thought these cherries had the most prominent bourbon flavor we tasted. Woodford Reserve has managed to emphasize the oak and vanilla notes to great success. The fresh cherry flavor was also apparent, as were notes of melon, dates and light clove, but this is a bourbon cherry through and through. The sweetness was reserved, something I greatly appreciated. The texture was firm enough.
Joel: The bourbon flavor was quite clear. The same combination of vanilla, oak, and whisky brought out the cherry sweetness but also lent a depth or richness to the cherry. There was not much liquid accompanying these cherries, but the flesh was a good texture.
IN THE COCKTAIL
Steve: My goodness, the bourbon has fortified the cocktail immensely! The extra layers of flavor made the drink more complex and compelling. The cherry itself picked up quite a bit of the rye, and even though there were some new bitter notes, the overall effect was still delicious. I detected anise-like notes on the finish, like a bite of black licorice. Woodford Reserve cherries are a wonderful accompaniment to cocktails and make for a good treat right out of the jar.
Joel: There was alchemy afoot here. The alcohols interplayed well and the spice was played up in the cocktail. I tasted pepper and gentian root like flavors while the sweetness was masked creating a remarkably complex drink. As a cherry itself, though, it had given its all to the drink. It held on to a little bit of sweetness and spice but it was a shadow of itself. It was a nice palate cleansing cherry after the drink.
In the end, the bourbon cherries proved the most successful of the six we tried. That wasn’t surprising, but we were disappointed in the way the “sober” cherries relied heavily on sugar to the detriment of the overall product. Luxardo is the only non-alcoholic brand we can recommend based on this taste test. We agreed that Mess Hall cherries were the best we ate from the jar, Woodford Reserve and Luxardo had the best effect on the cocktail, and Jack Rudy probably provided the best overall experience. All of them are a massive upgrade over the bright red Maraschino, which we recommend avoiding.
NEXT WEEK: Create your own cocktail cherries at home.