THIS IS MY first spring in Washington, and I am overcome by the cherry blossoms. I photograph them constantly, explosions of flushed pinkish-white, fluffy against the grayish sky, and my heart sings to know that each perfect bloom is destined to become a glistening red bomb of sweetness at the bottom of a perfectly balanced Manhattan.
Or it would be, in a perfect world. But alas, that’s just a cocktail writer’s fantasy. Some of the showier cherry blossoms are merely ornamental (UW quad, looking at you), with sour little fruits that are, literally, for the birds. And while there are still plenty of others that produce fruit, many of those go on to be what are commonly known as Maraschino cherries.
And that is a goshdarned shame.
Most Maraschino cherries are the zombies of the fruit garnish world — soaked in brine until they bleach out to a pale yellow, mummified in high fructose corn syrup and injected with Red Dye #40 (technically safe for consumption, according to the FDA) in garish forgery of the blush of life. I do not want one of these soaking in my drink; they taste like cough syrup (partially because of the added bitter almond flavoring) and turn good alcohol into the embalming fluid for their vivid little corpses.
The even greater travesty is that the process was developed in our very own Northwest, by a fruit Frankenstein at Oregon State University named Ernest Wiegand.
A large proportion of U.S.-produced Maraschino cherries is made with Washington’s own Royal Ann cherries, a sweet, yellow-and-red variety that looks like a Rainier cherry but keeps only half as long off the tree. Sometimes, when I look at all those gorgeous pink flowers, all I can see is saccharine death.
But these noxious little fever spots are not, strictly speaking, true “Maraschino cherries.” The original version was made from the dark-red fruit of the Marasca cherry tree, grown in what was formerly an Italian region called Dalmatia (now modern-day Croatia). As early as the Middle Ages, these sweet-tart cherries were transformed into a liqueur called “Maraschino.”
These days, at your finer drinking establishments, your Manhattans and Old Fashioneds will come garnished with “real” Maraschino cherries, which are a deep purple-wine color, tasting of the sweet-tart bite of a short, perfect summer romance.
The most well-known brand is Luxardo, a 100-plus-year-old Italian company that makes its product by crushing the Marasca fruit whole, pits and all (the pits are the source of that faint almondy flavor that artificial Maraschinos mimic), and then candying that in its own reduced syrup, free of preservatives and dyes and brines, the very souls of the mouth-puckering cherries preserved in the elixir of the gods.
In an effort to redeem the cherries of Washington, a local company called Orasella makes a version right here, with homegrown Bing cherries, the mature form of those very blossoms you’ve been Instagramming all spring.