Which Cocktail Cherry Should I Get?
The right cocktail cherry is the one you like. Here are some tips for finding it.
The premise of this article was going to be “We spent $200 on cocktail cherries so you don’t have to.” But somewhere between reading half a dozen “Top 5 Cocktail Cherries” articles and taking delivery of the cherries we ordered off Amazon, we began to reconsider whether the world needed yet another best-cherries list.
As it turns out, it doesn’t. But it could use some clarity.
The Intense and the Fruity
There are a LOT of cocktail cherries on the market. It can be hard to choose, and nobody wants to get stuck with a $20 jar of meh. Knowing a few things about what to look for can help narrow the field considerably.
Cocktail cherries shake out into two groups, which we think of as “the intense” and “the fruity.” The difference stems from the variety of cherry used — small and sour varieties yield intense cocktail cherries, large and sweet types tend to bottle up fruity — as well as what happens to those cherries between tree and jar.
Intense cherries are usually swimming in thick, dark syrup; fruity ones often still have their stems, and their syrup tends to be thinner and lighter in color. And while there are some deliciously intense American-made cocktail cherries, the better known brands (Luxardo, Toschi, Fabbri) tend to be imported. The liquored-up cherries you see in package stores are typically fruity and most often American; their softer, less dense texture makes them perfect for soaking up hooch.
Whether you like an intense cocktail cherry or a fruity cocktail cherry is literally just a matter of taste — and nobody’s going to die on the table if you use store-brand maraschinos in your Manhattan. The best cherry for the job can also depend on the cocktail. If you’re like us, and you like to put some thought into how you garnish your favorite cocktails, read on.
Our (Unranked) Findings
The Low-Hanging Fruit: Luxardo, the Original Maraschino Cherries
If you’re looking for a shortcut to cocktail cherry respectability, grab yourself a jar of Luxardos. We’ve never heard a single bad word about them. As cocktail cherries go, Luxardos are unimpeachable, and they work well in every Proof Syrup cocktail we’ve put them in.
The most obvious reason for their popularity: They bestride the middle ground between intense and fruity like a ding-dang Colossus. The flavor here is that cherry flavor — the one bright-red grocery store maraschinos are aiming for (and missing) — but much brighter, richer, more refined, and more natural. That intense flavor comes in a delightful lil’ package: dense, creamy, and somewhat firm in texture, gorgeously deep black-red in color. Luxardos epitomize maraschino cherry-ness, and they look great on a cocktail pick. We keep a jar in the kitchen at all times.
A Worthy Opponent: Peninsula Premium Cocktail Cherries
After one Proof staff member chewed up her second of these intense flavor bombs, she declared that the entire category of fruity-type cocktail cherries could go straight to hell.
Rude much? Surely, but this is about taste, after all, a thing for which there is no accounting.
Peninsulas really are great. They have a nicely firm texture, a deep black-red color, ultra-thicc syrup, and a flavor reminiscent of … cinnamon toast, maybe? Bread pudding? There’s some gentle, bakerly spiciness going on, and we don’t want to overthink it.
Peninsulas pair well with bourbon and rye drinks made with Proof Black Walnut, Traditional, and Maple Bacon. But in any context, these cherries are delicious. We will buy more of these. We love them.
Different in a Good Way: Egbert’s Premium Cocktail Cherries
Egberts are solidly in the camp of intense-tart cocktail cherries, with a firm texture and beautiful deep color. They also have a certain spicy something-extra going on. It’s not subtle, but it’s yummy, a little like allspice, a touch peppery.
Texture-wise, Egberts are dense and somewhat chewy, which works out nicely when you drop them in a stiff drink: They soak up only a wee bit of the drink’s flavor, but they’re still definitely themselves. They also stand up to spearing with a cocktail pick, which is nice if you’re into that. They’re not for everyone — “too spice-forward” is how one taster put it — but if we found a few of these in our Proof Pumpkin Spice cocktail, we’d do a happy dance.
We Love You, but We’re Not in Love with You: Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Bourbon Cocktail Cherries
Just so you know, these cherries will not get you drunk. The label says they contain alcohol, but while that might be true, these are not super-boozy cherries. Granted, we once got properly knackered eating moonshine cherries while cooking dinner, so our bar for liquor-soaked fruit is set pretty high. But still: The bourbon taste here is subtle rather than in your face.
Like other cherries in the fruity category, these are large, soft, sweet rather than tart, and roughly the color of a kidney bean. They also have stems, like many fruity cherries, which tells us they’re for dropping into a drink, not spearing with a pick and displaying atop the glass as a warning to all the other cherries.
What they do, they do well enough: They take on some of the flavor of your drink without imparting much flavor to the cocktail, and that’s a perfectly legit outcome. If the tart richness of intensely flavored cocktail cherries isn’t your thing, you could do a whole lot worse. Try these with Proof Traditional and Black Walnut.
Wouldn’t Kick out of the Fridge: Tillen Farms Bada Bing Cherries
These grew on us after a few drinks, in part because of their ability to soak up the flavor of a cocktail. That’s a characteristic of all of the fruity cherries we tried, and whether you lean intense or fruity may have much to do with how you feel about your cherry slurping up your booze.
We’re OK with it, especially in a Proof Traditional, Maple Bacon, or Pecan Old Fashioned, whiskey sour, or gin and tonic. (Yes, a cherry in a gin and tonic is a little different, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.) Bada Bings are also less expensive and more widely available than the other cherries we tried, and they’re very snackable — stem-on, not super-sweet, with a nice texture completely lacking the pithiness of neon red maraschinos.
Speaking of stems, remember that scene in Twin Peaks where Audrey Horne tied a cherry stem in a knot with her tongue? Us too. It made an impression; might be fair to say we haven't looked at cherry stems the same way since. And as much as we enjoyed the series at the time, the whole affair's suffused with menace — sex trafficking of minors'll do that — and frankly, we'd just as soon our cocktails weren't suffused with menace. Suffused with a touch of citrus, perhaps, maybe something herbal, or spicy. Suffuse it with that business all you want, but keep your menace out of our hooch.
All of that is to say this: Cherry stems? What are they for? Nothing good. To heck with 'em. Use a pick or pack it in.
A Tale of Two Cherries
A couple we know likes to keep a jar of store-brand maraschino cherries in the fridge. Bright red and almost translucent, mushy yet somehow brittle, these nuggets of unfruit come apart when speared with a cocktail pick. They’re made by literally bleaching actual cherries, for Pete’s sake, and neither husband nor wife likes them in the least.
Why, then, do they keep them around? Because those dirt-cheap cherries keep the kids out of the fancy cherry stash.
Maybe you’re not quite that meschugge about your cocktail cherries, but don’t settle, either. Whether you prefer your cherries intense or fruity, you’ll find plenty of options.
What if I Really Want a Top-Five List?
Here are four, plus a top-seven: