The Ultimate DIY Cocktail Cherry Guide
Making your own boozy preserved cherries is easier than it sounds, and there are so many ways to do it.
To paraphrase Neil Diamond: They got the way to move you. They got the way to groove you. But they don’t stay long, mamas. You gotta preserve those cherries, oh baby!
In years past I’ve shared some tips and recipes for cocktail cherries, but glancing at them again, I see they could use some serious updates and new variations. For one thing, I’ve been a tad snobby about the kind of fresh cherry you can keep, sticking to the sour variety, since all the purists swear by them because they hold up so well when cooked. But it’s also in part, because their growing season, if one can even call it a “season”, can be so short, they’re often more prized for their sheer rarity. However, with the first signs of ruby red, sweet cherries in the Northeast (bings are already in peak season in the Pacific Northwest), I’ve been playing around with different varieties and discovered they make fantastically great cocktail cherries too. In fact, <looks to either side and back>, come a little closer so I can share a secret: you can even use good quality frozen ones all year round if need be.
It sounds (and might also look) like a lot of work, but it only takes about an hour, not counting the magical effects of time on the finished batch. It’s fun to play around with different base spirits for preserving. I’ve had a tendency to reach for brown spirits like bourbon, brandy or dark rum, but there’s no reason not to try it with vodka, gin, white rum, pisco, unaged whiskey, shochu or even grappa. You can also mix things up by subbing ¼ of the ratio with an amaro or going for that classic, full cherry blast with Luxardo Maraschino liqueur in the mix or as a standalone base ingredient.
Sterilize those jars!
As for what to store the cherries in, find a clean, tight-sealing jar. If you’re re-using a jar, make sure it’s been fully cleaned and there are no lingering food odors or this will definitely affect the flavor of your cherries. You can store the cherries in a standard 16 oz canning jar, or divvy them up into smaller jars (best for gifting or keeping behind an active bar). Sterilize the jars, seals and lids before use by boiling them in water for 10 minutes in a pot (a.k.a. Bain Marie) and filling them immediately, handling with tongs until the jars are cooled (or keep them in the hot water till use). Place them on a towel or couple of stacked paper towels when filling. Filled and sealed jars can be kept unrefrigerated as long as the seal is intact, but refrigerate once opened.
To pit or not to pit?
Some swear the cherries taste better if the pits are left inside. For instance, bar owner Toby Cecchini, who makes his own cocktail cherries for Long Island Bar and The Rockwell Place in Brooklyn, leaves the pits in. I must say, those are some damn fine-tasting cherries, despite the fuss of the necessary bartender warning to eat around the pit and then figuring out how to gracefully dispose of it as the drink is finished. Other people, me included, prefer to remove the pits with a pitter (best $10 you’ll ever spend and it works for olives too). The fruit sometimes doesn’t look as pretty, but one can eat them whole in a carefree manner and they can also be put to another use, like baking into a pie, crisp or brownies or as an ice cream topping, or on an open faced creamy cheese sandwich. One of these days I’m going to try making pan roasted duck breast with them. I’ll report back.
Keep in mind that sour cherries will require more syrup in the recipe than sweet ones. I’ve made modifications for each below. Once you get going, you’ll see this is really an easy thing to do and so worth it in the end. They’re one of life’s great joys to have on hand later in the year when fresh cherries are once again scarce.
That is, unless you already ate them all. And I wouldn’t blame you.
Basic prep instructions:
Each recipe has the same base instructions.
Sterilize the jar(s) per above instructions and leave in hot water till use. Wash and de-stem about 1 lb. of cherries either sweet or sour for each 16 oz jar. Pit them if you want. Heat 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water on low in a small saucepan until the sugar dissolves and will coat the back of a spoon. In a larger saucepan, add cherries and as much syrup as needed to sweeten the cherries according to below recipes, stir to coat, simmer for a few minutes and immediately turn off heat. Add the booze. Stir to coat cherries. Allow to cool. Add cherries and all liquid to jar and seal, making sure cherries are covered by liquid (add a little more booze if too many look like they’re bobbing for air). Preserved cherries can be stored for months, even a year and change, in the fridge or unopened in a cool, dry space. The longer they are stored before first use, the better. The cherries can be used next day, theoretically, but are at their best months later.
Jared and Anistatia’s Luxardo Cherries
It doesn’t get any more classic than this recipe! Drinks historians Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller (a.k.a. Mixellany) use black cherries for their preparation, but other sweet varieties will work well here if you can’t find them. If only we all had access to those divine Italian marascas they use at Luxardo!
Brown and Miller recommend adding a bit of the preserved liquid to drinks when using the cherries, and they aren’t wrong.
1 lb. fresh, sweet cherries
½ cup of syrup
squeeze of lemon
1 cup Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
Gin, (Obviously these two use Sipsmith, but other dry or London Dry gins will work well here)
While preparing the cherries in syrup, squeeze the lemon in to the pot. Add the Luxardo. Add the cherries to a jar, but leave enough liquid to add a layer of gin over the top. Seal. Let time do its magic for at least a couple of months.
1 lb. fresh, pre-prepped cherries
Use ⅓ cup of the syrup if using sweet cherries, ½ cup if sour
1 cup white or dark rum of choice
Bar spoon of good vanilla extract or one whole vanilla bean, split
Follow standard recipe. If using extract, add it with the rum at the end. If using the bean (highly recommended), add it to the jar after filling with cherries.
Amanda’s Classic Rye and Amaro
This has been my go-to for years and appears in my book New York Cocktails.
1 lb. fresh, pre-prepped cherries
⅓ cup syrup for sweet cherries (probably best here, even though the book recipe calls for sours), ½ cup for sour
¾ cup rye whiskey
a couple of scrapes of grated nutmeg
1 inch piece orange peel (also a variation from the book. You live and learn.)
Add the spices and citrus to sugar and water when preparing the syrup. Strain out before proceeding to next steps.
Bourbon or Tennessee Whiskey Cherries
These taste like an edible Manhattan!
1 lb. fresh, pre-prepped cherries
Use ½ cup syrup for sours, 1/3 cup for sweet
¼ cup cherry, black currant liqueur or red Pineau des Charentes (I’ve also tried this as a happy accident with the same measurement of Spanish brandy instead of the liqueur and it turned out insanely good)
1 inch piece orange peel
Add the peel to the syrup when preparing and strain out before proceeding to next steps. If there isn’t enough liquid in the jar when adding the cherries, add more of the whiskey to top.
If you have it and want to use it, go for a VS or similar quality cognac (such as Courvoisier) or armagnac. Otherwise, use an American brandy such as E & J VSOP (silver medal, 2019 NYISC), Copper & Kings American craft or Christian Bros. Sacred Bond. Or for a richer flavor, try it with an aged Spanish brandy such as Cardenal Mendoza or Lustau Solera Reserva. Want a lighter flavor with some slightly floral aromatics? Try it with a good value pisco, such as Caravedo Quebranta.
1 lb fresh, pre-prepped sweet cherries
½ cup of the syrup
1 cup grape brandy of choice
2 bar spoons good quality vanilla extract or one vanilla pod, split in half
If using the vanilla pod, add it to the syrup while preparing and strain out before proceeding to next steps. If using extract, stir it into the mixture at the end.
Shochu or Vodka Cherries
For the shochu, try a clear rice or barley style. The new Iichiko Saiten, though a bit higher proof than most shochus on the market, would be an excellent canvas for this recipe. For the vodka, just stay away from any flavored ones!
1 lb. fresh, pre-prepped sweet cherries
½ cup of the syrup
½ cup vodka or shochu of choice
½ cup cherry liqueur or good cherry brandy
grated zest of one lemon
2 bar spoons vanilla extract or vanilla pod, split
Prepare syrup with the lemon and vanilla pod if using, then strain. Proceed to next steps. If using extract instead of the pod, stir into mixture at the end.