Seemingly every week on r/bourbon, a neat-sipping whiskey drinker will discuss finally dipping their toes into the wonderful world of cocktails, typically via the Old Fashioned. After having made one, though, and not being impressed, they’ll always ask the group of 218,000 Redditors what they did wrong.
Did they not use the right bourbon? Or maybe they should have tried rye? Was it the wrong bitters or refrigerator ice or simple syrup? But, I swear, the answer back from the online peanut gallery is always the same: You just need to use better cherries.
“Luxardos are the way to go,” writes one man on such a post.
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“I prefer the Amarena cherries,” touts another.
“I make my own,” claims another man, before offering his Angel’s Envy-soaked recipe.
Of course, all these people are wrong.
You don’t even need a cherry in an Old Fashioned.
Mainly, because the cherry is a terrible cocktail garnish.
Shirley You’re Not Serious
In modern cocktail culture, with rare exception, a garnish needs to add flavor and/or aroma to its cocktail. There’s the lemon and orange swathes which, when expressed, brighten up more bruising drinks like Sazeracs and Negronis. Fresh herbs like mint or basil can create a refreshing garden note in warm-weather favorites like Juleps and Pimm’s Cups. Even the olives and pickled onions, which add little aroma to Martinis and Gibsons, can’t help but inject a savory, briney quality to these cocktails as they dangle in the coupe, even if you neglect to pour the juice in to make it dirty.
But a cherry does none of these things. They don’t add aroma. And they don’t really add flavor unless you slosh some of the jar’s syrupy preservative into your drink.
“It does next to nothing for the drink aside from adding a touch of additional sweetness,” says Jack Schramm, a longtime New York City bartender and Solid Wiggles co-founder. He believes there’s no place for cherries in cocktails, outside of a classic Manhattan. Cocktail writer Robert Simonson agrees:
“They are a snack at the end of the drink, not a huge contributing flavor,” he says.
Indeed, watch a child whenever they are served a Shirley Temple. The first thing they do is toss the cherry into their mouth. For my 6-year-old daughter, I suspect it’s her favorite part about roping me into buying her Shirley Temples, which she rarely finishes much to my consternation. (With high-ends Shirley Temples now costing 8 bucks here in Brooklyn, maybe I should just start smuggling a Ziploc of Luxardos into restaurants instead.)
To be clear, I am no cherry hater. I’ve been buying fresh New York State cherries at the farmers market all summer long. And I do greatly enjoy the “artisan” cocktail cherries companies send me hoping I’ll write about them. Many of them, in fact, do taste great.
Everybody knows about Luxardo, of course, and Copper and Kings Old Fashioned Cocktail Cherries are stellar, too, but I’m particularly keen on the balaton cherries from Traverse City Whiskey Co. in northern Michigan, which just so happens to be the “cherry capital of the world.”
I have more $25 jars of cherries than I know what to do with, yet I rarely use them in cocktails.
Instead, I’m more likely to top a few scoops of ice cream with them.
Tickles the Palate
Cocktail historian David Wondrich traces the uses of drinks garnishes back to at least 1670, when cookbook author Hannah Woolley listed lemon peel as the garnish on her Limonado. Citrus and herbs like mint would reign in garnish land well into the 1800s. Mid-19th century, however, we first start seeing fruit appear as a garnish, specifically the seasonal berries that would adorn glasses of Fixes, essentially a single-serving of punch.
“Unlike the citrus peel and the various sprigs,” writes Wondrich, “these garnishes had very little influence on the flavor of the drink; they were there primarily to delight the eye.”
It would take until 1890 or so, however, for the cherry to burst onto the garnish scene and, when it did, it dominated. Some bartenders of the era even deployed cherries in the Martini, like Harry Johnson who called for it in his “Bartenders’ Manual.” (The olive would eventually replace the cherry in Martinis, circa 1896.)
As the New York Herald reported in March of 1891: “There’s no use trying to sell cocktails nowadays if you can’t throw in the cherry. … You will hardly find a barroom between the battery and Harlem, except off the main thoroughfares, which does not boast its bottle or can of cherries.”
To a certain extent, this ubiquity in 19th and early 20th-century New York made a lot of sense: A liqueur-preserved cherry was always in season as compared to citrus, whose production had further been hindered by Florida’s Great Freeze of 1894 and 1895. Often being picked, packaged, and imported from Eastern Europe also meant cherries were expensive and thus gave a bar the veneer of class.
The cherry would mostly dominate the cocktail world for the next 100 years. By a post-Prohibition, post-World War II America these were hardly quality cherries, however. Instead, cheaper stateside cherry varieties were preserved, not with liqueur, but with things like almond extract and sodium metabisulfite; eventually sulfur dioxide, calcium chloride, benzaldehyde, sugar syrups, and red dye would become involved, creating those lipstick red, extremely artificial, and mostly flavorless “Maraschino” cherries that came to dominate the bar scene in the disco drinks era.
“[The cherry] tickles the palate of the man eating it to such an extent that he forgets all about any bad taste of the liquor and is about ready to order another cocktail just for the sake of getting the cherry,” noted the Herald back in 1891.
Today, of course, liquor does not taste bad (says me!), so there is simply no use for a cherry as a palate cleanser, even if the cherries available are again of a high caliber.
“Nobody is creating new cocktails where the garnish is a cocktail cherry, unless it’s an obvious riff on the Manhattan, and most of those came along in the late aughts,” says Simonson.
Of the 113 drinks included on his Modern Classics of the Cocktail Renaissance app, only five 21st-century creations call for a cherry, and no drinks after 2008. Four of these five are Manhattan-like variants conceived between 2005 and 2008, notably Todd Smith’s Black Manhattan, Audrey Saunders’s Little Italy, and Chris Hannah’s Bywater, a sort of tiki-fied rum Manhattan that calls for a brandied cherry.
For the past 15 years, however, it would seem not a single cocktail of note has needed a cherry. If the cherry was once the country’s dominant garnish, its disappearance has happened in plain sight without anyone noticing; even Simonson admitted it had never occurred to him when I broached the subject.
“With cherries, I think the main challenge for bartenders was to improve the existing quality of the garnish, to get away from the neon fake Maraschino cherries and either use better cherries, such as the Luxardo brand, or make their own from scratch,” says Simonson, whose latest book, “Modern Cocktail Classics,” will come out in October. “Once that problem was solved, they could rest easy, knowing their Manhattans were fixed.”
Simonson believes the general trend in moving toward drier, stronger cocktails is what truly spelled a death knell for the cherry in “better” bars. In fact, Schramm explains that, as palates have shifted, far too many guests still ask that their bartender assures their drink is “not too sweet”; an ill-placed cherry garnish might accidentally make the customer think otherwise.
Still, there remains one spot Schramm and many other cherry haters don’t mind seeing the garnish these days: when used a bit ironically in, say, a “Rick Dalton”-style Whiskey Sour or Katana Kitten’s brilliant blue Calpico Swizzle.
“It’s playful and hilarious to have a bright red topper on a bright blue cocktail — just over the top enough to work for me,” says Schramm, who is a fan. “Even if I’ll send back an empty glass with an untouched cherry at the bottom.”