Homemade Cocktail Cherries
The best reason for making cocktail cherries is this:
Everybody hates maraschino cherries. They are ridiculously colored, flavorless and waxy. They invoke fear. The kind of fear that leads people to believe they are soaked in formaldehyde. S
ome people that their mere presence in a drink produces cancer in lab rats. Garnishing a cocktail with one of these lipstick colored atrocities immediately makes it less instagrammable.
Imagine a dark rich cherry soaked in a decadent brandy liqueur resting on the side of your drink. If that makes you happy, these brandied cherries will make you ecstatic.
How to Make Brandied Cherries.
Seriously. I get a little giddy just thinking about homemade cocktail cherries. Done right they are far better than anything else you can buy.
- Great Cocktail Cherries are Hard to Find. When you find them, they are expensive.
- You are making cocktail cherries. These are yours. You control the flavor profile. Make them fit your cocktail.
- People love these. They will disappear if you don’t keep them under lock and key.
If you are looking for the perfect cherries for cocktails look no further. People have a lot of questions about ‘homemade maraschino cherries’ so I am going to start with some background and hints and tips. This is our brandied cherry recipe.
Last summer I had six weeks to kill…
A liquor license was delayed. It seemed like the perfect time for making cocktail cherries. So, I started calling farmers around the Saanich Peninsula to see what I could round up.
I found a nice family farm off Oldfield Road and they told me they could get me a hundred pounds of cherries. Nice dark morello cherries. Smallish, firm and packed with flavor. Perfect for making morello cherries in brandy.
Of course, the weather was cool and the cherries were delayed a few weeks. I took the time to test and perfect my recipe using grocery store cherries. Several batches later, I made every mistake in the book.
One jar got a vigorous secondary fermentation going. The lid popped off and fizzy cherry juice exploded all over the place. Another batch was so boozy that eating the cherries was just just like taking a shot.
When the cherries did show up I quickly realized how much I had underestimated the work involved in making 100 pounds of the these things. Not to mention that we just got word that the liquor license was coming through. We had less than a week to get the cherries washed, pitted, cooked and into a vat.
For three hot days we did nothing but pit cherries in a race against the clock. Not only did we have to get them done before the grand opening, they were quickly becoming overripe. Cramped hands. Cramped shoulders. Enough cherry juice to make a Dexter episode look benign.
This is What I Learned
- The cherries make all the difference
- A little spice goes a long way
- You need to get the alcohol content right.
- If you are making brandied cherries in large batches be prepared.
Getting the Alcohol Right
- Type of Alcohol
- Maraschino – Maraschino liqueur is the namesake spirit of the cherries. It is made from marasca cherries. Marasca cherries are a variety of sour cherries. They are related to morello cherries.
- Bourbon – Bourbon is another popular choice of spirit for preserving cherries.
- Eau de Vie – eau de vie is distilled from fruit or wine. It is what brandy is called before it is aged. Eau de vie is my favorite choice for making cocktail cherries. Eau de vie comes in many forms. Pisco, grappa, schnapps, palinka are all eaux de vie.
- Enough to Preserve
- 20% ABV should be enough alcohol to kill the majority of the most dangerous bacteria.
- The trick is to properly calculate how much alcohol you need
Find the total absolute alcohol you need in ml. Absolute alcohol is defined as ethyl alcohol that is less than one percent water by weight. In other words, it is a spirit that is at least 99% ABV. In the real world you aren’t going to get your hands on anything with a proof that high. So we do some math and adjust. The formula is simple math, but it’s easy to get it wrong. Be careful when you are working this out.
You start by figuring out the total amount of alcohol you need to get to 20%ABV.
- Multiply total finished volume (including cherries) by 20%. So a 1l jar of cherries is 1000ml. Twenty percent of 1000 ml is 200 ml of absolute alcohol. So you’ll need 200 ml of absolute alcohol for 1 liter of cherries.
- To figure out how much total liquor you need to add you divide the 200 ml by the ABV of the spirit you are using. In other words, if you are using bourbon at 40% you divide 0.4 by 200 ml which gives you 500 ml.
- 40% / 200 ml = 500 ml
- Now you know that if you starting with a 40% ABV spirit you need 500 ml of spirit for every liter of cherries you plan to make. That means you have 500 ml left for cherries, juice, syrup and anything else you may want to add.
Maraschino at 32% = 625 ml spirit. Bourbon at 40% = 500ml per liter. Eau de vie or brandy at 50% = 400 ml. In other words the majority of the volume in your 1 liter jar is spirit. Which is fine as long as you don’t want to add anything else. If all you want to do is to soak morello cherries in brandy you don’t have many other considerations. If you want to make something more like a syrup you will have to take that into account.
Getting the Right Cherries
Pick your cherries for color, texture, and flavor. Making cocktail cherries with large sweet cherries will mean they lose color and get mushy. Dark sour cherries work particularly well. The smaller size, intense flavor and firmer texture works really means they will stay firm dark and flavorful.
- Sour Cherries – Morello cherries are the perfect cherries for cocktail. Marasca cherries are a variety of morello. Marascaa aren’t grown in North America, but you will find several others varieties of morello cherries. Amarelle is another lighter colored sour cherry variety with good flavor. Ask for montmorency cherries if you can’t find morellos..
- Sweet Cherries will work if that is what you have on hand. They have considerably more water in the than the smaller sour cherry varieties. That means they will lose some color, flavor and texture.
- Dried Cherries – dried sour cherries are a good choice if you can’t find fresh sour cherries. They are already preserved so they will retain their color and texture well. The drying process alters the flavor, but you may be okay with that.
Getting the Flavor Right
- Spices – I use combination of vanilla bean, cinnamon, sarsaparilla, star anise and black peppercorns. Baking spices obviously work well with cherries. If you want you can try something more adventurous like long peppers.
- Stay somewhat restrained on the flavor. If you are using these in cocktails you want them to work well in variety of situations. I go for something distinctive, but not definitive. I want to taste cherry primarily, not star anise or cinnamon.
Getting the Color Right
- The most important step is choosing a good dark or black cherry to begin with. Lighter red cherries will lose quite a bit of color.
- You can mitigate some of the color loss by adding cherry juice, hibiscus, or cherry and hibiscus tea to the mix. Cherry juice is nice because it also adds more cherry flavor. Unfortunately it also makes your cocktail cherries more expensive to make.
Getting the Texture Right
- Again start with smaller sour cherries.
- You can leave the pits in if you want. This will help the cherries maintain their shape and texture. Not to mention the time and trouble you will save yourself.
- The other thing I have found that really makes a difference in simmering the cherries for a few minutes.
How Long Do You Have to Wait?
This is really the most difficult part of the process.
- When I am making cocktail cherries I try to let the cherries rest for about 3 weeks. Make enough to try them as you go. The flavors will continue to change, but you may decide they are ready sooner.
- After a few days you will get a good idea of how your cherries are developing. At first they will taste very hot and boozy. That will dissipate over time.
- In three or four weeks you might find they are ready to go. If you are making cocktail cherries for your own personal use it doesn’t really matter. If you are making cocktail cherries to serve at a bar or sell commercially you probably want to let them mellow out a little bit.
Making Cocktail Cherries
- 2 pound pitted sour cherries
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup cherry juice
- 4 oz eau de vie or bourbon 40% ABV
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- 1 star anise pod
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 1/2 tsp cardamom optional
- 1/2 tsp sarsaparilla optional
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns optional
- Wash and pit cherries and place in a clean quart size canning jar.
- Scrape vanilla bean and put scrapings into the jay with the cherries.
- Put the cherry juice, sugar, eau de vie or bourbon, and remaining spices in a saucepan.
- Gently simmer the cherry syrup until the sugar is dissolved.
- Strain out the solids and pour the warm syrup into the jar with the cherries.
- Let the jar cool. Seal everything and store it in the fridge.