What Exactly Is a Maraschino Cherry?
They resemble a cherry, but their color doesn’t occur in nature. How did these popular cocktail garnishes come to be?
The maraschino cherry is the star atop the cocktail Christmas tree. It’s an exclamation point on a beautiful mixed drink, a prize at the bottom of your aperitif, the goody when you’ve gulped down your glass.
For more than a century, drinkers have come to expect the cerise cutie stirred into their Manhattans, skewered onto tiny swords for daiquiris, or plopped atop their Tequila Sunrise. For as dainty and darling as the drink garnishes may be, however, the modern maraschino cherry is more science than nature. In fact, you might could call it a fruity Frankenstein.
Maraschino cherries were born out of necessity. European orchardists needed a way to preserve their precious marasca cherry harvests, which were prone to mush and rot as soon as they were plucked from the limbs of the trees. In the 18th century, cherry growers began bathing their crop in maraschino liqueur, which is made from the cherry’s fruit, pits, leaves, and stems. This helped the fruit last longer and also made it a treat that could transport easily.
By the late 19th century, the preserved cherries found their way to the U.S., where they were used in some hoity-toity foods of the day, like ice cream sundaes, custards, even salads. Soon, however, enterprising bartenders discovered the secret of the preserved cherry and began using them as a way to garnish glasses without having to stock as much fresh fruit.
As happens with popular things often, from handbags to cocktail garnishes, imposter maraschino cherries started popping up. Many, unfortunately, were not made with above-the-board ingredients; some were even toxic.
Congress jumped into action to clarify what exactly could be called a maraschino cherry. In 1906, Illinois Republican James Robert Mann stood in front of the Congress with jars of imposter maraschino cherries displayed in front of him. The Congress was debating the Pure Food and Drug Act, and ill-made maraschino cherries, it seems, provided a point of obvious illustration.
Mann argued that these jars and tins of cherries were cheats, bleached and colored red again with dye derived from industrial waste. Many fakes were making their way to the market, so the Congress adopted that only cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur could use the name.
“This decision further described maraschino as a liqueur or cordial prepared by process of fermentation and distillation from the marasca cherry, a small variety of the European wild cherry indigenous to the Dalmatian Mountains,” the FDA said of the early 20th century issuance.
Of course, Prohibition put pressure on maraschino lovers to find ways to keep their tasty tidbits sans alcohol, which is where Oregon State University (OSU), birthplace of the modern-day maraschino cherry, comes into the story.
In the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1800s, growers had discovered that their climate was ideal for producing cherries. A boom of orchards popped up in the decades after the discovery. At OSU (then called Oregon Agricultural College), Ernest Wiegand was charged with finding a way to preserve the precious produce without a drop of liquor.
His answer: calcium salts. A quick brine in a mixture of the salts helps the fruit retain the snappy (some say squeaky) texture; liquor made the skin supple but sometimes mushy. However, the salts bleached the fruit of its ruby-red hue, so Wiegand redyed the fruit the brilliant red we associate with the garnish today. (Once bleached, the fruit can be dyed any color, so green, blue, even yellow cherries aren’t unheard of.) Finally, the cherries are preserved and flavored with extracts in a sugary syrup.
Thanks to Wiegand, the popular ornamental fruit stuck around during Prohibition. By 1940, the FDA declared that this process was indeed the only way maraschino cherries could be made in the U.S., declaring the term “maraschino cherries” had come to mean “cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor.”
The golden years for these fruity creations followed the repeal of Prohibition, and by the 1950s, the technicolor toppers were popping up on everything from Jell-O molds to baked hams. Dishes, like Cherry Chip Cakes, were created for the sole purpose of showcasing these sweets.
Maraschino cherries remained dominant until the 1990s when craft cocktail makers began sniffing out more natural options for the garnishes. That led them back to the original maraschinos, the ones bathed in liqueur, which were still produced in small batches in Europe and elsewhere.
Today, a wide variety of well-made preserved cherries are available for purchase if the brilliant red blob at the bottom of your glass is just too fabricated for your tastes. Luxardo cherries are a delicious substitute. Tillen Farms makes several all-natural preserved options. You can even make your own if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.