Three Cherries – Maraschino, Michigan, and Moonshine

While many folks obsess over which rye whiskey and which sweet vermouth make the most magical Manhattan, not enough attention is paid to the lowly cocktail cherry. I say “lowly” because, unfortunately, what passes for a cocktail cherry in the vast majority of bars around America is a pale imitation of its ancestral archetype. The modern American cocktail cherry is akin to an evil incarnation of all that is wrong with today’s overprocessed food world. Of course, in a truly great cocktail bar, you hopefully won’t find that neon-red, waxed-up and shiny Corvette-paint-job of a cherry that might belong on an ice cream sundae or even in a Shirley Temple, but definitely not in a Manhattan. What you will likely find is either a housemade version or a jar of Luxardo Maraschino cherries. These Luxardo cherries are the real deal, from Italy, since 1821, made with real Marasca cherries, real Marasca cherry juice, real Maraschino liqueur. They are a deep black cherry red. They speak to reality rather than saccarine fantasy.

I love cherries. I really do. Especially the ones you can buy on the side of the road in the heat of summer, in places where they actually grow cherry trees. There’s nothing quite like the joy of spitting out cherry seeds at sixty miles an hour as you cruise down a country highway – except maybe the joy of reaching the end of a good Manhattan and finding a perfectly delicious Maraschino cherry waiting for you at the bottom of the glass. In the name of cocktail science, I undertook a taste test of three different cherries – the classic Luxardo Maraschino, an American take on this classic by H&F Bottle Shop in Atlanta (but using Balaton cherries from Michigan), and a Southern-fried “moonshine” version from Ole Smoky Distillery in Tennessee.

Let’s start with the original, Luxardo. The ingredient list surprises with a few more entries than one might expect – Marasca cherries, Marasca cherry juice, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, sugar, but then also flavors, natural color, glucose, citric acid. Nothing wrong there, but interesting to see all that goes in to making the classic Maraschino cherry. In the jar, these cherries bear a dark black tint with just a hint of purplish red. The syrup is thick and, yes, ¬†syrupy, with an equally deep dark cherry red color to it. When you bite into one, a base sour note kicks in first, followed by a rich dark cherry flavor surrounded by subtle nutty and earthy notes. There’s a slightly petrified crispness to the texture of the cherries, maybe slightly more than I care for, that lets you know they’ve been hanging out in sugar and liqueur for a while. In a Manhattan, they deliver a satisfying range of bitter to sweet fruit that comes on strong at the end. There is a reason this is the standard bearer, as the bitter and sweet fruit accents a cocktail incredibly well. 12.7oz for $16 or so

On to a modern rendition, from H&F Bottle Shop. (If it seems I have a penchant for this particular purveyor, it’s true – after all, who else is in the South is selling housemade cocktail cherries and Bloody Mary mix¬†alongside a killer wine and spirits selection?) So, first, there are the Balaton cherries, which are “harvested once a year” in Michigan and “may be the best sour cherries grown in the States” (according to none other than H&F Bottle Shop!). Then, H&F uses a combination of cranberry juice, sugar, and Maraschino liqueur to pack the cherries and create a nice light syrup. The color here verges to a purple Kalamata olive territory, decidedly lighter than the Luxardos but still dark on the way to black. The syrup is relatively thin and tart, thanks to that cranberry juice. The taste is a little sour, a little sweet, and very natural, much closer to what you expect from a fresh cherry than something out of a factory. In a Manhattan, these deliver a balanced flavor that is tremendously complementary to the rye and vermouth. And the texture is not too soft, not too crisp, really just right. Big props to H&F for finding a way to better Luxardo, at least in my book. Pricey? Yes. Worth it? I think so, at least for a special treat every once in a while. 5oz for $16.

As for Ole Smoky, you can see right away that this jar of cherries is closer to that jar of cherries that is found in too many bars around America – bright red like cherry flavored candy. Visually¬†appealing?¬†Absolutely, like candy to a baby. Tasty? We’ll see… These cherries don’t sit in syrup, but rather in 100 proof grain neutral spirits with flavor added – AKA “moonshine” (?). The taste? Well, my notes said, “ouch, horrible, high alcohol, not much fruit.” I should probably stop there. In a Manhattan, my note simply read, “egad.” I’ll definitely stop there. 750 ml for $24 or so

What have we learned here? Well, first off, ditch that whole notion of cocktail cherries being¬†“cherry red” and opt for something closer to midnight black. Grab some Luxardo if you can find them, call up H&F Bottle Shop if you’re eager for a more artisanal approach, or wait until summer and make up a batch of your own from fresh cherries. That is, if you can stop yourself from eating them first.

The Manhattan: Cocktail Classicism and Revisionism

First off, I promise not to use the term “The Manhattan Project” or say “I’ll Take Manhattan” in the course of this post. I won’t even say “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” though I may burst out with a rendition of that “Man or Muppet” song from the recent Muppet movie. ¬†It rocks. What I most certainly will do, however, is talk about this great cocktail and the many ways to find a variation of it that suits your tastes. The Manhattan may be the very epitome of the term “classic cocktail” (yes, even more so than the revered Martini), but it also serves as a foundation for endless exploration and customization. The base idea is 2 parts rye (no bourbon, please), 1 part sweet vermouth (try Dolin, try Cocchi, you will be amazed by the distinctions), a few dashes of bitters, and… that’s it. It’s simple. It’s strong. It’s balanced. It’s deep. It’s perfect, yet…

Once you’ve got the base concept down, the fun begins.¬†The Wall St. Journal recently published a great overview of the different components and how you can mix and match them. Even just sticking with the notion of 2:1 whiskey to vermouth, you can get a lot of variation based on the particular whiskey or vermouth you use. And please don’t forget the bitters. Those precious dashes do wonders for the drink, and with all the interesting new bitters out there, you can put an interesting twist on the drink with that small component alone.(Side note: I personally prefer shaking over stirring, but you’ll find devotees on both sides of that fence.)

Bartenders have cooked up a nearly infinite number of drinks that depart from the basic Manhattan 2:1 ratio in interesting ways. My favorite variation is a relatively minor but highly impactful tweak. Cut the vermouth in half (and preferably use its close cousin, Punt e Mes), add 1/4 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and you have a Red Hook. The Luxardo adds a sprinkling of magical pixie dust that elevates the drink just a notch beyond perfection. (This one goes to 11) Some call for 1/2oz of the stuff, but I think that overwhelms the balance of the drink, basically coating your tongue in that pixie dust. Not good.

One twist I hadn’t seen before shows up in this¬†nice little video¬†from and Dushan Zaric of¬†Employees Only¬†in New York. His spin on the drink dramatically amps up the vermouth to rye ratio, and adds in some Grand Marnier for a deep orange detour. Sounds like a trip worth taking, but calling it a Manhattan is a bit of a stretch.

You like things dark, brooding and murky? Take out the Manhattan’s sweet vermouth, use 3/4oz Averna, and you’ve got a Black Manhattan. Crisper and drier? 1.5 oz bourbon, 1.5oz bianco vermouth, and a lemon peel twist makes a Bianco Manhattan. There’s the Brooklyn, the Little Italy, the Greenpoint. If it’s a New York neighborhood, there’s probably a Manhattan variation with that name. Now whether these are truly Manhattan variations, or simply clever drinks that bear a passing resemblance to the original in one or two discrete components… that’s a debate worth having over a cocktail.

Here’s the recipe and some thoughts on my personal favorite, The Red Hook:

2oz rye (I like Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond, a tremendous value at $15-$18)
1/2oz Punt e Mes (or your favorite sweet vermouth – Punt e Mes brings a nice bitterness)
1/4oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

Stir or shake over ice (I like the body that shaking provides) and strain into a chilled glass. A Luxardo cherry makes a nice garnish but is not a necessity.

Oh, and here are a few videos from – the one for the Employees Only Manhattan, and one for a nice Rob Roy as well (a Scotch variation on the Manhattan):

Tasting: Two Top Southern Bloody Mary Mixes

To some, a Sunday brunch is not a Sunday brunch without a Bloody Mary. Its recuperative properties have long been debated, but there is no disputing the fact this is the most lycopene-packing cocktail around. Holla! Tomato juice is the foundation for the drink, and of course a wee bit of vodka, but the fun comes in what else makes its way into the mix. Horseradish, lemon or lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt and black pepper are almost always present. Tabasco, beef¬†bouillon, celery salt and cayenne are not far behind. Then there are the garnishes – olives, celery stalks, pickled okra, pickled carrots, lemon or lime… I’ve even seen shrimp and lobster somehow climb their way atop a glass.

My favorite Bloody Mary recipe¬†comes from Greg Best and Andy Minchow at Holeman & Finch here in Atlanta. It pulls together your typical ingredients, plus a golden beet, some fennel, some¬†Guinness¬†and sriracha. And its made-from-scratch character shines through tremendously well. Serve it up when you have friends over and you will be handing out the recipe left and right. And, really, if you’re entertaining, why not pull out all the stops and make your Bloody Mary mix from scratch? There is something to be said for the bright flavors that fresh squeezed citrus juice and freshly grated horseradish bring to the drink.

As for bottled Bloody Mary mixes… there are a million out there. The best-selling Mr. & Mrs. T is not too bad in a pinch, and it seems most regions have their own local favorites. Today’s post focuses on two artisan mixes from the South – one from Charleston Mix in, duh, Charleston, South Carolina, and one from Atlanta’s H&F Bottle Shop (the same folks who created the recipe above, but it must be noted that the bottled version is an entirely different concoction). The Charleston Mix comes with the endorsement of Sean Brock and Garden & Gun Magazine (who am I to argue with that??). The mixologists at H&F have been lauded left and right, and for good reason – they know cocktails like crazy (Google Greg Best or Andy Minchow, go ahead, I dare you). Enough with the accolades though… how do they taste?

It’s evident right away that these two products are very different beasts. The Charleston Mix Bold & Spicy lives up to its name. It’s fairly thin, a rusty red color flecked with plentiful spice. The ingredient list is lengthy, starting with water and tomato paste, plunging into apple cider vinegar and lemon juice, veering off to roasted vegetable base, beef base, habanero mash, and a vast conspiracy of herbs and spices. Once you taste it, black pepper, celery seed, and a lemony twang jump to the forefront, but there is A LOT going on here. Behind the heat and acidity, a dark brown sugar mellowness adds depth. It goes down quick, and you’ll be ready for a second one in no time.

The H&F Bloody Mary Mix is bright tomato red, thick like a puree, almost like a marinara in texture.¬†As for the ingredients, the list is short – nine items – but includes one novelty in Cream Sherry to provide a bit of sweetness and punch. The first item? Tomato. As in, NOT tomato juice. And you can see it in the thickness of the product. ¬†The flavors veer much more towards fresh tomato sweetness and vegetable notes. The spice and the zing are a bit more in the background here – it’s clear they’re not trying to blow out your taste buds with heat, but horseradish makes its presence known. H&F notes on the bottle that their mix is a base for exploration, encouraging folks to add Worcestershire or hot sauce. For my taste buds at least, some added heat is a mandatory to get the kind of kick-in-the-pants I expect from a Bloody Mary. That’s not a knock against H&F’s mix, just a recognition that their mix is more about balance and less about the spice. And it drinks almost like a meal.

So is there a victor between these two? Personally, I appreciate the powerful spice profile of the Charleston Mix – that’s what I’m looking for in a Bloody Mary mix. H&F gives you more room to play doctor with your drink, and a more “homemade” feel, so for those who like to add a dash of this and a squirt of that (or for a more timid crowd who can’t take heavy heat), it is probably the better option. Either way, you’re in good hands, and will be off to a great start to your day with your Bloody Mary in hand.

H&F Bloody Mary Mix is available at the H&F Bottle Shop in Atlanta, $8 for 32oz.

Charleston Mix is available on their website or in select stores in South Carolina, including Whole Foods, $10 for 32oz.

Related: for another Charleston artisan of cocktail mixers, check out our review of Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Small Batch Tonic.

Full Disclosure: Charleston Mix provided a tasting sample for this review.


Small Batch Tonic from Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., Charleston

I love a gin and tonic. There are few cocktails whose spirit and mixer come together so seamlessly to produce a greater sum. Most places use good ole Canada Dry as the “T” in the G&T. Not bad. At home, I most often use Fever-Tree, which suits me to a T. Roughly, Fever-Tree is to Canada Dry as Plymouth Gin is to Beefeater Gin. Elevated, refined, both intense and balanced at once. ¬†But now, though, there’s a Southern artisan tonic that will be pushing aside the Fever-Tree in my cabinet. Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., out of Charleston, South Carolina, has introduced a small batch concentrated tonic syrup that merits inclusion in any bar, north or south. It’s not easy to find – in Atlanta, Star Provisions got some in recently – but you can order directly from the Jack Rudy website.

What you’ll notice is that the Jack Rudy tonic is not carbonated – it is a syrup built from cane sugar, orange peel, lemongrass and quinine. You get to control its strength by the amount of club soda you add in to your cocktail, which is a delightful freedom for cocktail tinkerers everywhere. I recently received a bottle of the Jack Rudy tonic and have been playing with gin and tonics, as well as drinking it simply mixed with club soda to better gauge the flavor profile. Compared to Fever-Tree, the Jack Rudy mixed with club soda has more body, more of a grassy herbal quality, and an almost gingery depth. Fever-Tree is more bracing, a bit more clean, though with a quinine bite that is assertive. For drinking by itself (why oh why would one do this when gin is close at hand?), I actually prefer the Fever-Tree; but once gin enters the equation….

In a Plymouth gin and tonic, the Jack Rudy really comes alive. Gin and tonic do go together so nicely, and Jack Rudy’s flavor profile and body simply works wonders in this combination. Somehow, the Jack Rudy produces a cleaner G&T than the Fever-Tree, a more exotic layering of citrus and herbs and sweetness. And what does “clean” mean? That’s a tough one… to me it represents a middle ground between sharp and smooth, a clarity of flavor. With the Fever-Tree G&T, the citrus notes, both lemon and lime, come prominently to the forefront, and there is both a definitive sweetness AND a more pronounced quinine bite than in the Jack Rudy G&T. Great drinks both, and fascinating to contrast them, but the Jack Rudy takes the lead.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for a “proper gin and Rudy” if you were wondering:

Enjoy, and check out some other recipes that make great use of this artisan cocktail tonic.

The Quintessential Southern Cocktail

Garden & Gun is a fine journal of Southern culture. This month’s issue features 50 great Southern bars (though, ahem, the Caribbean is included as part of the South!?), as well as some fine Southern spirits. What caught my attention though was a small graphic showing how Garden & Gun‘s Facebook fans voted in a poll to determine the “quintessential Southern cocktail.” The choices were the Bloody Mary (Southern? I don’t think so), the Mint Julep (decidedly Southern, but frankly a bit of a specialty drink in my opinion), the Old-Fashioned (quintessential, yes; Southern, not so much), the Sazerac (ahhh, yes), and the Bourbon & Ginger (quite Southern, but a bit too easy).

As if my comments didn’t hint at it, my choice would be the Sazerac – that classic cocktail of the classic cocktail city of New Orleans, a drink of great character, especially when made with a good rye whiskey. As for those Facebook voters, they chose the Mint Julep first, then the Bourbon & Ginger, then the Old-Fashioned, then the Bloody Mary (bloody hell!), THEN the Sazerac. Dead last. A sorry Southern state of affairs. I can forgive the Mint Julep win, though the commercialization of it as the drink of the Kentucky Darby (brought to you by Yum! Brands, and Budweiser, and Ram trucks, and Early Times, and Woodford Reserve!) gets under my skin a bit. But to put the Sazerac below the Bloody Mary! Blimey. Maybe those Garden & Gun Facebookers just don’t know what they’re missing. They need to get down to New Orleans, or to their town’s best cocktail bar, and reconnect with the Sazerac, THE quintessential Southern cocktail.

The Sazerac

1 Sugar Cube
2 1/2 oz Rye Whiskey (I suggest Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond)
2 dashes¬†Peychaud’s Bitters
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Absinthe (or Herbsaint)
Lemon Peel for garnish

In an Old-Fashioned glass, muddle the sugar cube with a touch of water to soften it up. Add some ice cubes, then the rye, then the bitters. Meanwhile, add a splash of absinthe to a second, chilled Old-Fashioned glass and swirl around to coat the inside of the glass, then pour out the rest. Strain the rye and bitters into the absinthe-washed glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel. Enjoy.