Look what I found in the liquor store in Albany, Oregon, among the flavored vodkas and cheap tequilas! I wasn’t looking for maraschino (pronounced maraSKEEno), but finding it made my day. It’s cherry season in the Willamette Valley, a region once well-dotted with cherry orchards. Almost all have long since been cut down, but the birds continually replant the feral descendants of the Bings, Lamberts, and Royal Annes that once made our nurserymen and farmers so proud. The fruit of the cherry trees that manage to grow up, mostly along the edges of farmed fields, can be large or small, red or yellow or black, and sweet or sour or bitter. My favorite tree, which grew from a seedling beside our shed, annually produces hundreds of pounds of small, black, slightly bitter fruits.
Because these cherries are too small to pit, I’ve had to find uncommon ways to preserve them. This was the same quandary faced hundreds of years ago by the people of Dalmatia, a region of modern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea where thrived the marasca cherry, a small, dark, slightly bitter variant of the sour morello. Sixteenth-century Dominican monks in Zadar (or Zara, as the name is still spelled on the Luxardo label) crushed the cherries along with their pits and some of their leaves and probably added some honey before distilling the fermented mash. The product, aged in white ash and then sweetened with cane sugar, became known as rosolj, “sun dew.” In the eighteenth century, rosolj was renamed maraschino and relished by the wealthy all over Europe.
Girolamo Luxardo began making maraschino in 1821. Luxardo’s double-distilled clear liqueur is sweet, viscous, and mildly bitter, with a complex flavor and aroma that you probably wouldn’t recognize as cherry or almond. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, Luxardo maraschino was available in the United States, where bartenders put it in cocktails. By the late 1800s, marasca cherries soaked in maraschino had also become popular. They were the ultimate cocktail garnish.
Prohibition put an end to the importation of both maraschino and maraschino cherries. So in the 1920s Ernest Wiegand, a professor at Oregon Agricultural College, devised a cheap, nonalcoholic substitute for maraschino cherries, using Oregon’s big, fleshy, pale Royal Annes. He first soaked them in a salt-and-alum brine, and then he packed them in sugar syrup doctored with food coloring, acid, and almond extract. His shiny crimson knockoffs soon took the place of maraschino cherries in cocktails, in “fruit cocktails” (which had gradually lost their liquor but continued to be served in cocktail glasses), and atop sundaes.
At the request of readers, I included the home version of Wiegand’s recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. But I personally preferred to soak my cherries in brandy. I’d never tasted marascas, but they sounded quite similar to my own favorite cherries. I figured that my brandied cherries, with sugar and a little almond extract added, must be pretty close in taste to true maraschino cherries. A couple of years ago I tried my brandied cherries on a young woman from northern Italy. They did taste something like maraschinos, she said. But they weren’t the same.
This year I have what I need to make almost-true maraschino cherries—I have maraschino. So here’s my new recipe: Fill a jar with stemmed sour cherries (preferably small dark ones with a touch of bitterness). Cover the cherries with maraschino. For a pint jar, you’ll need about a cup of liqueur. Cover the jar, and put it in a cupboard. Wait a few weeks or months. Then eat your cherries and drink your now dark and frankly cherry-flavored liqueur, over ice, in a cocktail or fruit cocktail, or however else you like.
I’ll let you know come fall how I like my almost-maraschino cherries. In the meantime, let’s hope that one of our new little distilleries considers producing an Oregon version of maraschino liqueur.
UPDATE 2022: The almost-maraschino cherries were heavenly. My currant black cherry tree, grown from a scion of the seedling tree on our farm, produced a sizeable crop here in town last year. Although I greedily ate every one of those cherries out of hand, this year I hope to make almost-maraschino cherries once again.