By Jason O'Bryan / Photos by Sara Norris
Believe it or not, maraschino cherries used to be edible.
Now, they're packed with high fructose corn syrup and almond flavoring, and it's hard to tell whether these fluorescent pink garnishes came from a tree or were molded in a factory like so many gummy bears.
With their teeth-staining red dye #40 and litany of unpronounceable chemical ingredients, they are precisely the sort of artificial additive the recent cocktail resurgence pits itself against.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the now-ubiquitous bright pink bastardizations, alternatives that help explain where the word "maraschino" comes from and why it is misapplied to these, synthetic sugary orbs.
In 1821, in what is now Croatia, Girolamo Luxardo began making a liqueur from the Marasca cherry. Adopting its name from a sour variety of the fruit cherry that's native to the slopes of the Adriatic Sea, Luxardo called his new creation "maraschino liqueur."
The liqueur is earthy, herbal and complex, which made it popular for mixing in the early days of the cocktail. Soon, the Luxardo family began selling jars of their maraschino liqueur packed with sugar-coated, pitted Marasca cherries, and the maraschino cherry was born. The sweet, alcohol-soaked fruit provided the perfect contrast to the herbal intensity of the distillate and soon found its way into cocktails alongside the liqueur.
Americans who began making imitations as early as the late-1890s were legally bound to brand their products as knockoffs. After prohibition, the United States government revised the law and, since 1940, maraschino cherries have been defined by the FDA as any cherries "dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar syrup flavored with oil of bitter almonds."
Fortunately, real maraschino cherries are staging a comeback. Timeless drinks with equally timeless ingredients are once again being worked up at cocktail bars across the country. For a true taste of both maraschino liqueur and the original Luxardo cherries, head to the East village's new Cat Eye Club, where bartender Cory Alberto is mixing up a pungent cocktail from the '30s called the Last Word - made with the aforementioned ingredients plus gin, lime and Green Chartreuse.