The garnish of choice for a Manhattan is a Maraschino cherry. That word probably brings images of bright red, extremely sweet fruits floating up in your consciousness. But, like many things in the cocktail world, it hasn’t always been that way. Maraschino (pronounced Mara-skee-no) cherries were originally produced by macerating Marasca in Maraschino liqueur. Introduced to the US in the late 1800’s these cherries were lightly sour and bright red in color. They were a favorite among diners in fine restaurants. Once good old prohibition rolled around though, things had to change. Clearly you can’t have cherries macerated in liqueur when liqueur is now illegal. Enter the Maraschino (pronounced Mara-shee-no) cherry as we know it today.
First developed by Ernest H. Wiegand, Maraschino cherries now days are cherries that have been dyed red (or any other color), flavored with almond oil and packed in a sugar syrup. Needless to say the flavor of these cherries differs from the original quite substantially. Alas, the classic Maraschino cherry isn’t widely available in the US. There is however a substitute that is supposed to be very good, Amarena Fabbri Wild Cherries [Referer Link]. These are Italian Amarena cherries that are pitted and macerated in a sweet syrup. So the good news is, they’re not nearly as processed as the Maraschino cherries you find on store shelves here, but they still aren’t really the real deal.
Another option, which is my preferred method, is to make your own macerated cherries. In my case I took dried bing cherries and soaked them in cognac. The resulting cherries are wonderfully chewy (a good thing) and very deeply cherry flavored. They’re a great garnish for a Manhattan or to just nibble on. If you’re looking for some more reading there is a nice discussion on eGullet on how to make your own Maraschino-like cherries. There is also a nice thread on Chowhound about Brandied Cherries that is an interesting read.