The cocktail cherry is quite simply one of the most misunderstood ingredients in drinks.
We’ve all been there. You walk into a slightly questionable bar and order an old fashioned. They then instantly whip out the orange slices and neon maraschino cherries and proceed to muddle with vigor.
Not only is this not a good way to make an old fashioned, but their cherry usage is all wrong.
I’m just going to come out and say it: There is never an acceptable time to use the common, artificial maraschino cherries in a drink. There’s always a better option.
Today we’re going to look at everything cocktail cherries. After reading this, you’ll know which cherries to buy, when to use them, the differences between each, and how to make cherries elevate your drink rather than detract from them.
What is a Cocktail Cherry?
As its simplest, a cocktail cherry is a cherry used as a garnish in cocktails.
There are two main camps of cocktail cherries: the neon red “Maraschino” cherries you buy at any old supermarket, and what I’ll call “craft” cocktail cherries, which are less common, often more expensive, and taste infinitely better.
Cocktail Cherries: Not All the Same
Chances are, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a cocktail cherry are the aforementioned bright red maraschino cherries.
I don’t want to belabor the point, but what we’ve come to accept as the traditional cocktail cherry is really just a combination of chemicals and sugar syrup used to dye the cherries their neon red color.
Not only are they not good for you, but there are so many better options for your drinks.
You’ll find that cocktail cherries can be found by many different names: brandied cherries, amarena cherries, and in some cases still maraschino cherries (but, more often than not, those are the traditional bright red variety.)
Fortunately over the last decade or two, we’ve seen a resurgence of “craft” cocktail cherries made with natural ingredients (and not bleached, might I add). These cocktail cherries are not only unique and flavorful, but they can truly enhance your cocktail’s flavor and appearance.
I still remember the first manhattan I ordered that had a brandied cherry floating in it. After one bite, I immediately asked the bartender “What is this??” It was that good.
Types of Cocktail Cherries: Explained
Still a little confused as to the differences between all of these cherries? Thought so.
Here are some of the most common terms you should know:
- Maraschino Cherry – The overly sweet, bright red cherry you’re used to seeing on ice cream sundaes and in poorly made old fashioneds.
- Luxardo Maraschino Cherry – Luxardo brand cherries use a natural process where they soak marasca cherries in marasca cherry syrup. The flavor is much more complex than common maraschino cherries and is the most well known high-end “cocktail cherry.”
- Amarena Cherry – This is a specific type of cherry commonly used to make craft cocktail cherries. On their own, these are relatively tart cherries. The flavor, however, can become sweeter depending on how brands bottle them in syrup. Regardless, you can usually bet if you see cherries marketed as “Amarena cherries,” they’ll probably be good in your cocktails.
- Brandied Cherry – These are cherries that have been soaked in brandy, sugar, and water to create a uniquely flavored cocktail cherry. You’ll often see Amarena or Luxardo cherries referred to as brandied cherries, but technically that would be incorrect as those usually aren’t soaked in alcohol.
- Cocktail Cherry – This is a very broad term used to describe any syrup- or alcohol-soaked cherry to be used in cocktails. Any of the cherries above could accurately be called a cocktail cherry. But as you’ll see in this post, not all cocktail cherries are created equal.
Why Should You Use Brandied Cherries in Your Cocktail?
A drink with a proper cherry is one of those small indicators that shows that your bartender probably knows what they’re doing.
When it comes to cherries for modern cocktails, a brandied cherry can serve two purposes:
- It can enhance the look of a drink.
- It can complement the flavor of a drink.
And oftentimes, it will do both.
While a neon cherry might recall memories of childhood ice cream sundays, a brandied cherry on a beautiful cocktail pick served over your manhattan elevates the drink.
Not only does the slight sweetness compliment the whiskey, but the darker color of the cherry looks wonderful with stirred drinks.
For certain drinks, you can even use a little bit of the syrup the cherries are soaked in to help enhance the flavor of a drink. Using half an ounce in a manhattan, for instance, can add a nice subtle cherry sweetness to the drink.
Side note: If you make drinks with garnishes on a regular basis, do yourself a favor and buy some cocktail picks. They’re reusable and look so much more elegant than a toothpick.
Best Cherries for Cocktails: A Cherry for Every Budget
Now the all-important question: Which cherries are the best for cocktails?
We’ve established the difference between the traditional cocktail cherry and the brandied cocktail cherry, but that still begs the question: Which should you buy?
Unfortunately, this isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
There’s no one brand or style of brandied cherries that works for drinks; in fact, you’ll find numerous brands of these cherries that are all slightly different from one another.
A general rule of thumb is that anything labeled as an “Amarena cherry” is probably going to be a safe bet to buy to elevate your cocktail.
But even within that parameter, there are differences. Some are soaked in alcohol while others are just in flavored syrup.
Prices can be all over the map as well, so how do you know that you’re getting the good stuff? Fortunately, we’ve got you covered. Below are five of our favorite brandied cocktail cherries.
Depending on where you buy them, the cost per jar (and per cherry) can vary wildly. I did my best to create this number based on current Amazon prices and expected number of cherries per jar.
1) Luxardo Maraschino Cherries (Approx $18 for 14oz jar)
Luxardo Maraschino Cherries are essentially the Ferrari of cherries. You’ll find them in many of the world’s best bars, they are still made in Italy by soaking the cherries in marasca cherry syrup, and the process is all-natural. They’re expensive but are the gold standard of cocktail cherries.
Cost Per Cherry: Approx: $0.45
2) Amarena Fabbri Wild Amarena Cherries (Approx $15 for 8oz jar)
Amarena Fabbri is another well known brand of cocktail cherry. They come in a distinctive (and beautiful) blue and white jar and are actually often more expensive than the Luxardo cherries. These use sweeter cherries than some of the other brands, so if you prefer that style of cherry, this is a great one to go with.
Cost Per Cherry: Approx $0.60
Member Quote: Kyli Lepper “[I like] Amarena Fabbri Wild Cherries in Syrup. They taste like sweet and tangy cherries.”
3) Amarena Toschii (Approx $16 for 18oz jar)
Amarena Toschii has similar packaging to the Fabbri mentioned above but in a red-and-white jar. The major difference between these is the fact that Amarena Toschii cherries use a more tart cherry. All cocktail cherries have an inherent sweetness due to being soaked in syrup, so these slightly more tart variations can provide a nice balance.
Cost Per Cherry: $0.32
4) Trader Joe’s Pitted Amarena Cherries ($4 for 16oz jar)
Moving towards the budget side of things, Trader Joe’s sells their own version of Amarena cherries on a seasonal basis. They’re much more affordable than other brands and work perfectly for cocktails at home. So if you see them, don’t hesitate to pick up a jar!
Cost per Cherry: $0.13
Member Quote: Lisa MacDonald Cook “[I like] Trader Joe’s.”
5) Bada Bing Cherries (Approx $10 for 14oz Jar)
Bada Bing is one of the favorites from members of the Craft Cocktail Club Facebook group. Despite not being marketed as “Amarena cherries,” members loved that they were affordable, and many remarked that they even liked them better than the original Luxardo cherries. High praise for a product that can often be found for a fraction of the price.
Cost Per Cherry: $0.40
Member Quote: Tami Yock Richardt “I like Bada Bing better than Luxardo. The juice is perfect to mix into an old fashioned, too.”
How to Make Your Own Brandied Cherries
Finally, for the more adventurous home bartender, you can make your own brandied cherries!
It’s actually a very simple process using nothing more than brandy, sugar, and cherries.
Fortunately, Julia & Chris collaborated with another cocktail cherry producer to create an in-depth guide on how to make your own brandied cherries for easy reference.
How Do You Use Cocktail Cherries?
There are so many different drinks that can be enhanced by a quality cocktail cherry. What are your favorite drinks to use brandied cherries in? Did I miss your favorite brand? Share your thoughts in the Craft Cocktail Club or leave a comment below!