"Coloring wildlife and contaminating honey is only the latest indignity thrust upon the maraschino cherry"

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[Flickr: armigeress]

Though beloved by small children (and the occasional grown-up) when dropped atop a sundae, maraschino cherries have developed a reputation as a nuisance to many cocktail drinkers. The bright red orb certainly looks attractive while resting at the bottom of a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, but the whole corn-syrup, FD&C Red #40, industrial fakery of the garnish is utterly unappetizing for many.

Maraschino cherries have long been disdained as unnatural, but as the New York Times reported yesterday in this piece on "The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook," the cherries are having their own impact on nature.

Susan Dominus writes that Brooklyn beekeepers recently noticed that their bees were alarmingly red when returning from foraging. "Where there should have been a touch of gentle amber showing through the membrane of their honey stomachs was instead a garish bright red. The honeycombs, too, were an alarming shade of Robitussin."

The honey produced by these bees was a similar color, creating a mystery for the beekeepers. The culprit? A nearby maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where it's believed the bees have been foraging on waste or on unprotected syrup.

Coloring wildlife and contaminating honey is only the latest indignity thrust upon the maraschino cherry. Maraschino cherries were once considerably different things. Initially created by preserving sour cherries in maraschino —a type of dry liqueur made from maraska cherries in Croatia and Italy, which tastes absolutely nothing like the red goo making its way into the honey supply—maraschino cherries began their downward slide around a century ago.

American producers experimented with flavoring extracts and coloring in an attempt to create a cheaper, consistent replica; the temperance movement at the time also prompted a demand for an alcohol-free version of the cherries. This eventually became de facto maraschino cherries.

While the neon-red orbs are still seemingly everywhere, there are less-FD&C Red #40-laden alternatives out there. The Italian firm Luxardo still bottles true maraschino cherries, available on Amazon and at specialty stores (but be prepared for sticker shock). Another alternative preferred by some is Toschi Amarena, wild Italian cherries preserved in a sugar syrup; while not a true maraschino, they nevertheless retain some authenticity of their cherry-ness, and just seem less industrial.

Or, while the season's not quite right, you can always make your own. Here's a recipe for homemade maraschino cherries we ran a couple of years ago, substituting brandy for maraschino liqueur.

I confess to having a weakness for the visual cues of a maraschino cherry in a cocktail, and I usually have a jar of either Luxardo or Toschi Amarena somewhere in my fridge. How have you come to terms with using cherries as a garnish?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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