When you’re discerning about whisky, bitters, and other cocktail ingredients, the last thing you want to do is ruin a Manhattan by adding an overly sweet, Day-Glo red maraschino cherry. High-fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring and flavoring have no place in a well-crafted drink.
Many premium cocktail cherries, like Luxardo, can be bought off the shelf at a significant price. But there’s no need to spend an arm and a leg on a great garnish. Making your own cherries is about as easy as making preserves, says Gates Otsuji, a bartender and co-founder of cocktail mixer company Swig + Swallow. “Doing it yourself offers unparalleled control over quality and flavor, giving you the opportunity to tailor the cherries to your own tastes,” he adds.
Follow these tips and step-by-step instructions for delicious homemade cocktail cherries
Have the Right Tools
Mason jars and lids with sealable rubber gaskets are essential, as are a cherry pitter, a bowl for the cherries, food-safe gloves (unless you want curiously stained fingers for days), and a steam cabinet or a very large pot and jar tongs. You’ll also need ample space to cool the jars after sterilization.
Pick the Perfect Cherries
“When you’re looking for the right cherries, consider their usage in the final presentation,” Otsuji says, noting that smaller cherries tend to look better in cocktails. He prefers to use sour cherries, rather than the more common sweet variety, as their tartness contrasts with the sugar required to preserve them. Naturally, you’ll want to remove any damaged cherries from your batch, as well as overripe ones, which may fall apart during the cooking process.
Don’t Shy Away From Sugar
“Sugar-free is all the rage these days, and many people are opting to use honey, maple syrup, agave, etc, as a substitute, but I prefer superfine granulated white sugar,” Otsuji says. “It dissolves quickly and it’s a blank canvas.” Experimenting with other sweeteners is possible, but it can be tricky to achieve a balanced flavor. You may also want to add citric acid powder—an important component for hot-fill canning, which requires a pH level of 4.5 or less to ensure that the fruit and syrup are properly preserved.
What About the Alcohol?
Spirits with a higher sugar content tend to work better to preserve and extract flavor from the cherries. “Choose the flavors you’re trying to convey first,” Otsuji says. “Then select the spirits that make those flavors seem bigger and better.” For example, if you want cherries that have a hint of cacao, a brandy with strong vanilla notes would work well. Consider the type of cocktail you’ll use the cherries in most often. If you drink Manhattans, cherries soaked in whisky or mezcal are best, according to Otsuji. Use brandy for cherries that garnish sours, and rum for cherry garnishes on flamed cocktails.
Add More Flavor
Adding spices, coffee beans, or citrus peels can create a unique flavor profile, but it may not turn out as you expect. “Pick flavors that enhance the cherry flavor but don’t dominate,” Otsuji says. Coffee beans, cacao nibs, cinnamon, and various tree barks will result in less complex cherry flavor, while brighter elements like citrus peel, raspberry, or apple will add a touch of acid to offset viscosity and chewiness. Oil-bearing ingredients, like almonds or coconut, can lend a sense of roundness.
How to Make Cocktail Cherries
- Ball mason jars with two-piece lids (either 6 16-oz. jars or 12 8-oz. jars)
- Large pot (for sterilizing & cooking)
- Jar tongs
- Drying rack
- 2 containers (for pitting)
- Large clear plastic bag (for pitting)
- Cherry pitter
- Small pan (for toasting spices)
- Wooden spoon (for stirring)
- Slotted spoon (for filling)
- Small ladle (for filling)
- Cheesecloth and twine (optional)
- Wide-mouth jar funnel (optional)
- 6 ⅔ pounds cherries
- 7 ½ cups superfine white sugar
- 1 ½ tablespoons citric acid powder
- 24 oz.water
- 5 ½ cups.spirits such as whisky, mezcal, brandy, rum, etc.
- Spices, citrus peel, and other add-ins (optional)
1. Sterilize Your Jars
You can do this up to 24 hours in advance, working in batches. Fill a large, deep pot with enough hot water to cover the jars. Bring the water to a simmer. Fill the first set of jars with hot water and use a pair of tongs to submerge them, base down, in the pot. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove to a drying rack, emptying the water from each jar. Repeat until you have sterilized all the jars. For the lids, it’s important not to damage the rubber gaskets. Dip them into the boiling water for a few minutes, then remove to the drying rack. (For more details, follow these steps from the USDA.)
2. Pit the Cherries
Put on food-safe gloves and wash the cherries, discarding any damaged or overripe fruit and removing stems as you go. Rinse and drain the cherries, and put them into a container. Set a trashcan nearby. Tie on an apron, or place the cherries and a second empty container inside a clear plastic bag on a table in front of you. Keeping your hands and the cherries inside the plastic bag, use a pitter to remove the pits from the cherries, dropping the cherries into the second container and the pits into the trashcan. (The plastic bag and gloves will contain splashes of cherry juice that squirt from the pitter.) When you’ve processed all the fruit, change your gloves and remove the container with the cherries. Clean your work area right away to minimize staining from the cherry juice.
3. Prep the Cherries
Lightly dust the cherries with superfine white sugar and citric acid powder. Toss to coat the fruit evenly. The cherries will begin to macerate in the sugar and release some juices. If you’re using any fresh or wet ingredients (such as citrus peel, ginger, or lychee) mix them in at this time.
4. Optional: Make a Spice Bundle
If you plan to add any dry spices, place them in a dry pan over medium heat and toast until aromatized. Transfer the spices into the center of a piece of cheesecloth. Gather the edges of the cheesecloth into a loose bundle and tie it off securely with twine.
5. Cook the Cherries
Place the sugared cherries into a large pot, using a scraper to transfer any juices. Add superfine white sugar and water, and place the pot over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Drop in the spice bundle (if using) and stir occasionally. Keep an eye on the mixture and do not let it get above a simmer. If it boils, the fruit will start to break down, and you’ll end up with cherry preserves.
6. Add the Alcohol
While the pot is warming, put on food-safe gloves and set up the jars and lids. When the mixture starts to bubble, adjust the heat to hold the liquid at a low simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat, and stir in your chosen spirits.
7. Fill the Jars
You can use a wide-mouth jar funnel or go free-hand, but work quickly. Use a slotted spoon to fill the jars with cherries up to about ½ inch from the top (Ball brand jars have a fill line); don’t overfill. Once all the cherries are in the jars, use a ladle to top up with syrup. If you have leftover syrup, don’t throw it out—it will keep in jars as well. “It’s delicious, and you can use it for a number of dessert applications or boozy milkshakes,” Otsuji says.
8. Add the Lids
Tap the bottom of each jar firmly against the work surface to dislodge any air bubbles, and place the metal lids on the jars. Make sure that the rubber gaskets are secured by lightly screwing on the metal rings—but don’t screw the rings on too tightly just yet.
9. Let the Jars Cool
Here’s where magic happens. Cold air takes up less space than heated air, so as the air inside the jar cools down, it sucks the metal lid tightly to the jar, creating a seal between the rubber gasket and the rim of the jar. You’ll hear a soft popping sound as each lid secures itself. When the lids are secure, tighten the metal rings.
It’ll take six to eight weeks for the cherries to finish macerating in the alcohol and for the flavors to deepen. Store at room temp or slightly cool, away from direct sunlight. The cherries will keep for up to a year. Once a jar is opened, refrigerate and use within 10 days.