Maraschino cherries don't get much respect. In 1911, the New York Times, while calling for the banishment of the cocktail, singled out the humble cocktail cherry for special opprobrium that's so deliciously-written I should really quote it at length:
Few persons who have been reasonably well-bred, and choose their edibles and drinkables with some regard for hygienic laws, know much, if anything, about the cocktail cherry. It is a tasteless, indigestible thing, originally, to be sure, a fruit of the cherry tree, but toughened and reduced to the semblance of a formless, gummy lump by long imprisonment in a bottle filled with so-called maraschino. The liquor known as maraschino, when authentic, has its merits, and though we may shun it we are not disposed to condemn it, for it is derived from the most luscious cherries. But the so-called maraschino of commerce has been found, on analysis, to contain benzaldehyde, glucose (Glucose? Hardly horrible. -- Ed.), and other objectionable ingredients, and this is the liquid in which the cocktail cherry of commerce has been preserved. The information comes none too soon. The cocktail cherry should be suppressed. . .the cocktail cherry is an abomination of comparatively recent origin, and now that its utter unfitfulness has been manifested, we trust that it will disappear.
Fast-forward almost ninety-six years, and the Times' opinion hasn't changed much:
. . .those vinyl-textured, frighteningly neon and once potentially carcinogenic (remember red dye No. 2?) orbs.
But can you blame them, really? Commercial Maraschino cherries aren't made from hand-picked Maraska cherries marinated in Maraschino liqueur. As ace bartender Toby Cecchini pointed out in a Times article from 2005, real Maraschino cherries have a long and noble history dating back to the 16th century, a far cry from today's "cloying paragon of artificiality" that "is the culinary equivalent of an embalmed corpse."
Canned Luxardo Maraska cherries, as served by the Pegu Club and others, are awesome (read co-author Chuck Taggart's encomium) but really expensive. I'd been making my own ersatz Maraschino cherries by getting jars of canned sour cherries in syrup at my local European-imports store, and replacing the sugar syrup with Maraschino liqueur. Good, but not great.
So I was pleased to run across this recipe for homemade Maraschino cherries in the Times, and dashed down to the farmer's market at the earliest opportunity. After a little bit of searching (and crossing my fingers, as the sour-cherry season is really brief), I was the proud owner of two quarts of fresh organic New York State sour cherries:
After removing the smushed ones and the stems and stray leaves and pits (and tasting a few -- fresh sour cherries are pretty much all tartness and acid bite), I had a little more than three pints of cherries. I heated up the Maraschino liqueur, poured it over the cherries, jarred them, and tucked them into the refrigerator.
Three days later, I tasted them. Still tart, but the liqueur has really brought out the cherry flavor. They're firmer than the canned ones (since they haven't been cooked) and the sweet-nutty taste of the liqueur only enhances them. They're heady and wonderful, and one of them looked good and tasted even better at the bottom of my nicely spicy Manhattan last night. (Sazerac rye, Vya vermouth, Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter bitters.) Oddly enough, I don't have a picture of that one, as the cocktail didn't quite make it to the photo shoot....
This was very easy -- maybe five minutes' work after pitting all the cherries -- and produced great results. As Anita puts it, "there’s really no excuse for choosing a zombie cherry."