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Homemade "Imitation" Maraschino Cherries and Brandied Cherries

Since I went out of my way to insist upon imitation maraschino cherries in our Rye Rogers drink, I figured that I better make amends by offering up my secret Homemade “Imitation” Maraschino Cherries recipe.  But, wait, that’s not all!  Because I’m feeling generous (or maybe because it’s easy), I’m throwing in Brandied Cherries at no extra cost!  How’s that for savings?

The reason for all of this silliness is that it’s National Cherry Festival time in Traverse City, Michigan.  I covered some of the history of the festival back in our Cherry Blossom post, so rather than tread over the same ground again, I’ll quickly catch you up on the major points:  a) the Cherry Festival is in Michigan; b) Michigan is primarily known for its sour cherries; c) there are two main types of sour cherries, the montmorencies you’ll find in Michigan and the morellos you’ll find along the Adriatic (and thereabouts).   To cocktail nerds and foodies, the morellos that make real Maraschino and Amarena cherries are treasured items.  Not only are they light-years better than the ersatz red orbs you’ll find at the supermarket, they have the mystique of coming from remote parts of the world.

When I first started making my own cocktail cherries a few years back, I figured it would be easy enough to find good sour cherries locally.  “Wrong” doesn’t begin to capture how wrong I was.  Even though the nearby Leona Valley Grower’s Association advertises montmorencies right on its homepage, I have yet to find a grower that actually produces them.  I’ve tried calling orchards in Michigan, and none of them will ship fresh cherries half-way across the country.  I’ve bribed family and friends to bring some back when they’ve visited the area.  Alas, I still have yet to lay my hands on any proper sour cherries, which of course, hasn’t stopped me from making my own “maraschinos” with whatever beautifully dark sweet cherries happen to be laying around.  This is why my recipe is called “imitation” maraschino cherries – although the end result serves the same purpose, nary a marasca has gone into them.  Also, because the syrup is fire engine red – exactly like the kind from the grocery store.

Real Maraschino Cherries, at least the ones from the Luxardo company, are nothing like the sundae imposters we all know from childhood.  I’ve covered the whole sordid history of how proper “marasca cherries preserved in maraschino” were edged out by the soda fountain favorites.  Popular wisdom is that Prohibition brought about their ultimate demise, but even earlier, their fate was looking grim.  A 1907 bulletin from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture reveals that “very few of the cherries labeled and sold as ‘Maraschino Cherries’ have any claim upon the name under which they are sold, for they contain not a trace of Maraschino brandy.”  If you’ve read anything about modern imitation maraschino cherries (if you enjoy eating them, don’t ever read about them), you’ll at least find solace in the fact that our version, unlike those of the early 1900s, isn’t preserved in sulfurous acid or benzoic acid nor colored with coal-tar dyes (still in use today).  Yummy, huh?

No, real Maraschino Cherries are morello cherries native to the Adriatic region (primarily Croatia, Italy, and Greece) preserved in Maraschino liqueur, which is also made from the fruit. Typically, the fruit was brined in seawater and then stored in liqueur-based syrup.  The Luxardo cherries you can buy today are exactly that.  Amarena cherries, such as the Fabbri brand favored by Scott Beattie and foodies everywhere, are essentially the same thing without the booze.

Modern manufacturing of imitation cherries follows pretty much the same process as the real deal but replaces all the good natural ingredients with chemicals and additives.  The cherries are brined, but they are brined to the point of stripping out all flavor and color.  Then, rather than being recolored with natural juice, red dye is used.  In the place of natural flavors come artificial ones.  And, where there was once alcohol and other natural preservatives, there’s Sulfur Dioxide.  And last, but certainly not least, is the fact that sweet cherries are used instead of sour ones – most likely because Michigan already has plenty of markets for its produce.

What we’re going to do here is take an old school recipe and create something between real Maraschinos and the imitation ones.  Don’t worry, however, the two places where we’ll steer close to the cheesy cherries are in the use of sweet cherries (note, if you can get sour cherries, for goodness sake, use them instead) and in our fire engine red syrup (trust me on this one).  With this recipe, you’ll easily be able to make both cherries flavored with Maraschino liqueur as well as brandied cherries (or anything else) – the only difference is in which alcohol you decide to add to the liquid.  Now, the recipe:

Maraschino or Brandied Cherries
2 lbs of Fresh Cherries
3 Tbsp All-Natural Sea Salt
6 Cups of Water
4.5 Cups of Cherry Syrup (see below)

Wash the cherries, remove the stems, and pit them.
Bring the water to a boil, then add the salt.
Let boil for a couple of minutes, stirring to dissolve the salt.
Remove the salt water from heat and add the cherries.  If they aren’t completely covered, stir them occasionally.
Once cooled, place the brining cherries in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, thoroughly rinse as much of the brine from the cherries as possible.
Place the cherries in a clean container and cover with the cherry syrup.
Store in the fridge for at least two weeks.  They are ready when all the salt flavor is gone.

Cherry Syrup
2 cups Water
1 cup Cherry Juice (needs 1 lb cherries)
3 cups Sugar
Juice 2 Limes
1 Tablet Vitamin C, crushed
1.5 cups Maraschino Liqueur or Brandy

To make the cherry juice, wash approximately 1 pound of cherries and remove the stems.  The pits can remain.
Add the cherries, a small amount of water and the crushed Vitamin C tablet to a blender.
Blend until completely liquefied.
Strain through a fine mesh sieve to separate the solids from the juice.

To complete the syrup, dissolve the 3 cups of sugar in the 2 cups of water over medium-high heat.
Add the 1 cup of cherry juice and lime juice and simmer the mixture until reduced to 3 cups.
As necessary, continue to remove any scum from the top of the mixture as it simmers.
Cool the mixture overnight, then stir in the alcohol.

This recipe is based on one from Maggie Dutton at Seattle Weekly, who got it from “a little old Greek baba who owned a bar where I once worked. So old-fashioned, this lady was ahead of her time.”    Let’s take a look at why it works so well:

Brining the cherries accomplishes a few things.  It preserves them, which is important if you want the fruit to stick around for awhile, and these will.  More than that, it also plumps up the cherries by pulling more water into them (see here for how brining works), which in and of itself may not sound like a good thing – until you consider that this water volume will later be exchanged with brandied syrup.  And even though it does leach some color out of the cherries, that color is returned with the water, giving the fruit a more uniform palette.  Finally, using a good quality, all-natural sea salt (I used La Baleine) will provide a nice sheen to the fruit.

Now, where most people insist that you can’t have bright red cherry syrup without food dye, I say, “Ha!” because I stumbled upon this brilliant technique from Shelley Wiseman at, which adds a Vitamin C tablet to the mix to prevent oxidization.  That’s all it takes to get 100% real cherry juice to maintain that vibrant color.  By using juice instead of crushed cherries in my syrups, I’ve veered a bit away from Dutton’s recipe, but I prefer the results.  The cherries retain their cheery radiance without ever looking artificial.  The darkness of your syrup will, of course, depend upon the darkness of the sugar you use; I use an organic evaporated cane juice sugar, which is a very pale golden color.  And, of course, you should feel free to add whatever alcohol you want – or leave it out altogether – and adjust to your taste.  My ratio here produces a nice balance between the sweetness and booze.

Cherry red syrup

Key to making these is letting the cherries soak in the syrup for a couple of weeks.  Sure, it’s not the quickest process, but it allows for the remaining salt to leach out of the fruit and the syrup to sneak in.  As for the salt itself, the quantity here is low enough that when everything reaches equilibrium, it only enhances the other flavors.  Of course, store the cherries in the fridge.  Even though they have three layers of preservatives on them (salt, sugar, and alcohol), it’s just the smart thing to do.  If they start to turn cloudy, moldy, or smell, throw them out – but that should be a long time after making them, provided you were working with ripe fruit and every piece was thoroughly washed.  The cherries will also keep longer if you remove them with a clean spoon and not your fingers, because we know where those have been.

If you happen to live in or around an area that grows sour cherries, go get them right now.  If that area is northern Michigan, also be sure to stop by the National Cherry Festival.  If, on the other hand, you only have access to sweet cherries, don’t fret, this recipe works equally well with them – in fact, you should experiment with different cherries, sugars, and spirits until you find your own secret recipe.  Also be sure to make a batch without booze for the kids.  As much as our childhoods were shaped by those little imitation balls of goo, it would be nice to have the next generation’s memories be of making real Maraschino Cherries at home, because that’s how they’re supposed to be made – even if they are “Imitation”.

A Tip:  If you have extra syrup left over after filling your jar(s) – use it in drinks!  It’s delicious.

And:  Here’s another great recipe from our friend Adam Elmegirab.  And another from Randy over at Summit Sips.

And More:  Darcy O’Neil, bartender and chemist, has just posted this very scientific and intriguing method.