History Lesson: The Maraschino Cherry

maraschino cherryThe maraschino cherry is the cocktail world’s essential non-essential.

For more than a century it’s served as the exclamation point in a drink, the beacon at the bottom of the glass, the treat for those who’ve successfully tippled their tot. (Drinkers who deploy cocktail picks to prematurely harpoon cherries invariably have other personality defects and should be avoided.) Drinkers have been trained to expect cherries in certain cocktails; deliver a Manhattan without a cherry and recipients respond as if they’ve just been delivered a coupe of Kaopectate.

The maraschino cherry looks simple and sweet as a farm maid, but it has a rich and complicated history that can be neatly summed up as follows: Farm. Laboratory. Farm.

The original maraschino arose because cherries are both needy and fussy. Once picked, they’re eager to bruise and deliquesce, making it hard for them to travel distances to market. Enterprising orchardists found they could preserve cherries by bathing them in spirit that itself was distilled from cherry fruit, pits, leaves and stems. In Germany this was called kirschwasser; in Italy, maraschino, which can trace its name to the Latin word for bitter, “amarus.” (It’s also linked via the sour marasca cherry.)

The maraschino cherry crossed the Atlantic and started appearing in food and drink in the late 19th century. The boozy fruit went into custards and sauces and preened atop sundaes. Cherries went all-in with salads, in which, according to one writer, “the magic of the maraschino cherry flavor” could elevate a simple plate of greens to something on the cusp of fine dining.

And they went into cocktails. Adult potions, of course, had a long dalliance with fruit. For decades, cobblers had been veritable fresh fruit cups that held the potential for hangovers. “Ornament with grapes, oranges, pineapples, berries, etc.,” instructed bartending legend Harry Johnson in 1888, when describing how to make a Sherry Cobbler.

Maraschino cherries came in tins or jars, and were thus easier to store than fresh fruit, winning the hearts of beleaguered bartenders. By 1906 The New York Times was reporting that “the cherry in the seductive beverage is commonly looked upon as an added temptation for the one who imbibes,” and even suggested, in the manner of the time, that for women it might be the “prime reason for partaking of the liquid.”

Maraschino cherries swiftly developed a reputation as being unnatural and unwholesome, in large part because imitators flooded the market with ill-made knock-offs. These were colored red with a by-product of coal tar, heavily sweetened, and often artificially flavored. “It is a tasteless, indigestible thing,” groused one writer in 1911, “toughened and reduced to the semblance of a formless, gummy lump by long imprisonment in a bottle.” He went on to call it an “abomination” and believed that once its “utter unfitness has been manifested, we trust that it will disappear.”

It didn’t, of course. Americans have a high tolerance for unfitness. Two federal decrees essentially redefined it, however, in the first two decades of the 20th century. First was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which led to a definition of maraschinos as cherries “bottled in maraschino liquor, and not in a compound of benzaldehyde, oil of almonds and glucose.”

Soon after came another sweeping decree—Prohibition—after which cherries could no longer be preserved in alcohol, lest customers suffer from their intoxicating effect. So an enterprising scientist at Oregon State University, the birthplace of the modern maraschino, found a way to preserve domestic cherries in non-alcoholic sugar syrup. This he did first by brining them in solution containing calcium salts, which turned them white but avoided the mushiness of regular brining; they could then be colored and flavored. (Green and blue cherries enjoyed their own brief manias, although bright red has always dominated.)

Cherries remained popular in fruit cups and confectionary throughout Prohibition; by the time the bells of Repeal rang, maraschino cherries had morphed into something wholly unnatural, with only the cellulose structure of the cherry providing any sort of link to its arboreal past. In 1940 an industry committee charged with defining maraschino cherries acknowledged that consumers wanted their cherries dyed red, sugared and flavored with the oil of bitter almonds. The FDA agreed. By 1975 an association of maraschino producers admitted that “there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ maraschino cherry.”

Whereupon maraschinos entered their midcentury golden era, expanding their domain in food and drink. A 1947 Betty Crocker Maraschino Cake recipe called for exactly 16 maraschino cherries, cut into eighths. They were also muddled with abandon in Old Fashioneds and set adrift in Whiskey Sours.

With the rise of craft cocktails starting in the 1990s, a new generation of bartenders were struck a heretical thought: maybe serving something the color of a lip gloss favored by 14-year-olds wasn’t a best practice. And they began to search through history for what came first.

This led intrepid explorers to Luxardo cherries, made by the Luxardo family since around 1905, growing their own fruit and bottling them in a syrup of beet sugar and cherry juice. (The Luxardos began with maraschino liqueur in 1820 on the Dalmation coast in modern-day Croatia, but relocated after World War II to Italy’s Veneto region). Their cherries looked and tasted like a long-lost past—they were a dusky maroon rather than fire-engine red, and with an earthy taste tempered by a nutty sweetness. (Luxardo credits Pegu Club founder Audrey Saunders, who would regularly wipe out the Dean & Delucca allotment, for triggering their newfound popularity in the United States soon after they re-appeared in 2005.)
Luxardo and other well-made preserved cherries are now easily obtained, and the Luxardo family recently planted another 5,000 cherry trees to keep pace with demand. They’ve become standard in cocktails, and the too-bright red cherries now serve as an alarm rather than a beacon.

A writer in 1913 noted that in cocktails the cherries are “useful, ornamental and desirable for their flavor’s sake.” “Maraschino cherries are never amiss,” he added. “Not too many of them, of course, but just enough liven up the glass.”

It’s advice every bit as timeless as a preserved cherry.