My affinity for jarred cherries stems from slurping down Shirley Temples as a child. If somebody passed me a saccharine pink bubbly drink, I knew it was a special occasion. I became even more enamored with the fruit when an elementary school friend showed me how she could tie the stem of a maraschino cherry in a knot with her tongue—a skill that simultaneously fascinated and eluded me.
I’ve since given up my knot-tying aspirations in pursuit of the absolute best cocktail cherries for old-fashioneds, Manhattans, and more. There’s something about a high-quality cherry garnish that makes any drink feel fancier, from a lemon LaCroix to a flute of Champagne to an amaretto or whiskey sour. We’ve come a long way from the oddly almond-tasting, Red Dye 40-laden maraschino cherries of our youth. These five brands of cocktail cherries—which include tart, sweet, and boozy ones—are worth the splurge to make whatever you’re sipping more special.
You can’t book an actual trip to Hotel Starlino (it’s a made-up name), but pop open a vintage-inspired jar of these velvety Italian cherries and pretend you’re on a Roman holiday. Marinating Marasca cherries in their natural juice for two weeks imparts a soft texture that’s luscious and almost creamy. Go ahead: Spoon two into a Manhattan and two more into your mouth. Once open, the purple and red jar serves as a pretty addition to your home bar—keep it out of the refrigerator to avoid crystallizing the cherry syrup.
For these bourbon cherries, Kentucky native MK Hennigan imports wild Amarenas from Italy and ages them in syrup made with organic cane sugar and Old Forester bourbon, distilled less than an hour from where she grew up. (“It’s what my grandmother poured every evening before she sat down to watch her shows,” Hennigan says.) Her recipe imparts a strong bourbon flavor taste to every piece of fruit, adding an extra punch to any cocktail. The slight bitterness of Amarenas is especially divine as a cocktail garnish for a Dirty Shirley, toning down the sweetness.
With a toothsome texture and a natural nearly black hue, luxurious Luxardos are the OG sophisticated cocktail cherry (and heavenly in cake or atop ice cream sundaes). They’ve been one of Italy’s gifts to the world for over 100 years, harvested from an orchard of more than 30,000 Marasca cherry trees in the volcanic soil of the Veneto region. While Luxardo keeps its recipe top-secret, we do know these sweet treats are candied in Mascara cherry juice and fermented cherry wine, making the syrup as delicious as the fruit (try using a few spoonfuls to flavor a milkshake).
If the thought of sweet cherries makes your teeth hurt, grab a jar of these booze-soaked fruits. Brooklyn-based St. Agrestis (the distillery behind a beloved boxed Negroni) starts by soaking Michigan-grown sour cherries in their bittersweet amaro for 12 weeks, which imparts an herbal, almost savory flavor. The result: a pronounced and ultra-boozy cherry flavor (you can taste every bit of the 20% ABV) with a slurpable syrup. Some might find them too strong to pop on their own, but they’re fantastic in bourbon cocktails or simply mixed with soda and bitters.
These wild-grown Amarena cherries are also imported from Italy but are notably tarter than any other cocktail cherry we tried thanks to being slow cooked in copper pots, which preserves the fruit’s texture and flavor. While taste-testing, I dropped a couple in a shot of peanut butter whiskey for a grown-up PB&J. Because of their sour punch, they’re also an excellent match for an old-fashioned cocktail or a neat pour of bourbon, prettily skewered on a toothpick set over a rocks glass. Whether you eat them before sipping or save the best for last is up to you.