In the league of frivolous items, the cocktail cherry must rank pretty high. But this little bit of fruity punctuation is a detail that mixologists take extremely seriously. The gold standard is generally deemed to be maraschino cherries made by Luxardo, a company that operates out of the cherry groves of Torreglia in north-east Italy. Luxardo makes a variety of spirits and liqueurs, including a famous Maraschino liqueur. But its cherries are alcohol-free. Made by steeping sour marasca cherries in a thick sugar syrup, they’re small, glossy and black, with a nice bit of sharpness and an almond-y hint of cherry stone. Some find them too sticky, but I love them and put them in, and on, everything: whisky cocktails, cakes, yoghurt, ice cream. A teaspoon or two of the syrup is also great in a Manhattan.
A couple of other good brands in this vein are Fabbri Amarena Cherries (instantly recognisable from the blue-and-white opaline jar) and the maraschino cherries from Hotel Starlino, which have a syrupiness similar to Luxardo but a slightly more confected taste. A more boozy option would be the cocktail cherries by Jack Rudy Cocktail Co, which come swimming in bourbon.
At New York’s trendy NoMad bar they use the Griottines by French producer Grandes Distilleries Peureux, which are steeped in cherry eaux-de-vie. “We like them better for stirred cocktails because they mix better without adding too much sugar,” says Sydell Group bar director Leo Robitschek. When cherries are in season the NoMad team often makes its own recipe, steeping sour cherries in brandy and spiced syrup. Robitschek says he hopes to do something similar using local produce when NoMad opens in London in December.
Making your own cherries is not as easy as it sounds – they can be surprisingly stubborn about taking up the juice. One of my favourite bartender-drinks writers, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, recommends starting with a jar of Italian maraschino cherries, draining them of their syrup and then rebottling them with a mix of cognac, amaretto and maraschino liqueur. You can find the recipe in his primer The Bar Book.
Cameron Attfield, current holder of Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year, bartending’s top award, prefers to garnish his Negronis with fresh cherries that have been steeped in espresso (he uses Harrods Knightsbridge Roast). “The acidity and subtly dark fruit flavours pair deliciously with the bitter chocolate hints that come through from the coffee,” he says. “Very simple yet very effective.”
The bartenders at Singapore’s coolest cocktail joint Operation Dagger garnish their lychee martinis with ersatz cocktail cherries made out of dragon-fruit-juice-steeped longan fruits. For stronger-flavoured aperitifs such as the Umeboshi cocktail – a blend of umeshu plum liqueur, shiso and bitter orange – they use sweet-and-sour umeboshi plums (thewasabicompany.co.uk) in place of cocktail cherries.
Most bartenders I know wouldn’t be seen dead using the glacé variety. And once you know how these neon blobs are made – a process that involves preserving the fruit in brine, bleaching it with calcium chloride then steeping it in sugar syrup and dye – it’s easy to see why.
There are some distinguished exceptions, though: Brian Silva, the Bostonian who presides over the bar at London’s oldest restaurant, Rules, is a staunch defender. “I like them because they don’t have flavours that bastardise the drink,” he says. “It’s classic. And I like classic.” He favours the cartoonish cherries by Opies (tesco.com), which come complete with their stem.
Opies cherries also litter the drinks list at the delightfully kitsch new Café BAO in Kings Cross. “When creating this restaurant we drew a lot of inspiration from the retro-ness of Japanese kissatens, where drinks are often styled on western culture, as seen through an Asian lens – a type of cuisine known as Yoshoku,” explains BAO co-founder and food art director Erchen Chang. “Picture the kind of drinks you’d imagine in a 1970s cocktail recipe book: shiny red cherries, vibrant colours and playful foams.”
Cherries power-clash their way across recipes such as the Melon Float – a lime-green twist on an ice cream float made with Japanese Toki whisky, Midori melon liqueur and BAO Horlicks ice cream – and the Mocha Bubble Tea, an iced mocha served with brown sugar tapioca pearls and a purple taro foam. Even the oolong-infused house gin martini is not above a cocktail cherry or two.
And it’s delightful to see – a welcome burst of colour in dark times.
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