Maraschino makes a comeback

A new generation of cocktail lovers is rediscovering a forgotten Prohibition-era liqueur...

It may be found at the bottom of a manhattan, but the maraschino cherry has a decidedly less urbane reputation. To American ears, “maraschino” calls to mind the glowing red fruit garnishing ice cream sundaes and Shirley Temples. But in the first half of the 20th century, its namesake, maraschino liqueur, was one of the most sophisticated drinks in a barkeep’s arsenal. Now a new generation of bons vivants is resuscitating this forgotten libation.

Maraschino is one of those ingredients that are “making waves in select markets where bartenders take their profession seriously,” says Darcy O’Neil, who tends bar in London, Ontario, and maintains the blog The Art of Drink. “But outside those markets,” he adds, “I don’t think most bartenders even know what maraschino is.”

When he took over as bar manager last May at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, Greg Best knew he would need to have a bottle of maraschino liqueur on hand. “Being a self-proclaimed geek of cocktails,” Best says, “I wanted a good solid third of the cocktails to be classic. Maraschino was one of the things I had to have right off the bat.” He found it in his distributor’s portfolio, though the distributor was not even aware it carried the liqueur.

Paul Harrington, who was one of the first to reintroduce maraschino, in his much praised book “Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century,” warned in his introduction that the real stuff can be difficult to come by. “At older, fancier hotel bars, you may spy a bottle of maraschino that has survived unscathed from an earlier era,” he wrote.

But for many, that just adds to the attraction. Amateur mixologists on Web sites like Chowhound and eGullet now trade tips on where to find the elusive bottle. “Any local sources and/or brands I should be looking out for?” inquired a person with the user name Sgt. Snackers in a recent post on Chowhound.

Maraschino (pronounced mah-ra-SKEE-no) liqueur has little in common with the garish, red cherry suspended in syrup. As early as Aug. 26, 1911, The New York Times drew a distinction between the two, calling the latter “an abomination of comparatively recent origin.” However, the august Gray Lady continued, “The liquor known as maraschino, when authentic, has its merits, and though we may shun it we are not disposed to condemn it, for it is derived from the most luscious cherries.”

Marasca cherries, to be exact. These cherries are native to Italy and Croatia. Dominican monks in the Croatian city of Zadar first made the liqueur during the Middle Ages. The small, dark cherries and their pits are crushed and fermented, then distilled. The clear, slightly thick liquid that results is somewhat sweet and has an almondlike flavor. Its most frequent companion is gin.

Before and during Prohibition, in the 1920s and 1930s, when cocktails were the rage, maraschino played a major supporting role in such classic concoctions as the El Floridita, the Mary Pickford and the Opera. But it is as part of the Aviation that maraschino liqueur is most famous-and that same cocktail is most responsible for the resurgence of the liqueur.

Known as the “prince of cocktails,” the Aviation, a blend of gin, maraschino and lemon juice, was one of Prohibition’s most popular drinks. The origin of its name is a mystery, lost as interest in the art of making fine cocktails-and in maraschino liqueur-faded after World War II. Cocktail expert Robert Hess, who lives in Seattle, believes that an early recipe containing a splash of creme de violette, a violet liqueur, gave the drink a sky-blue color that may have inspired its name.

Most Aviations served today are colorless. Gabriel Szaszko remembers the first time he tasted one. The cold, clear, bittersweet drink was a revelation. “I realized there was a whole world of quality drinks to discover,” Szaszko says. He now calls the Aviation his “gateway cocktail.” It sparked his interest in crafting drinks, which led to the creation of his blog, Cocktailnerd. “I had my road-to-Damascus conversion” because of the Aviation, he adds.

Szaszko discovered the recipe for the Aviation in a book called “The Joy of Mixology,” by Gary Regan. But he’d never heard of maraschino liqueur. After scouring nearly 10 different liquor stores in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., he finally managed to get his hands on a bottle.

Expert Robert Hess says that maraschino is much easier to find these days, an indication of its growing popularity. “When I was first getting into cocktails in 2000,” he says. “You could not find it anywhere.”

The growing demand is part of a general resurgence of interest in finely crafted cocktails that dates back at least a decade. Hess believes it’s all part of a larger, broadening appreciation for high-quality food and drink throughout the country. “It wasn’t that long ago that people thought good coffee came out of a can,” he says.

Serving obscure drinks like the Aviation is also a good way to impress your friends, particularly if downing a cosmopolitan is as adventurous as they get. Researching and creating these long-forgotten cocktails holds a special appeal for people like Szaszko. “Being my nerdy self, I like the obscurity of it,” he says.

“It’s a scarce body of knowledge.” Aside from enjoying the fruits of his labor, he’s on a mission to spread the gospel of maraschino and craft cocktails. “I’m always trying to convert people,” he says. “I usually start with the Aviation. It never tastes like anyone expects.”

Drink master Charles Hardwick of the New York City cocktail lounge Blue Owl was initially cautious about serving his more-tart variation on an Aviation. “I thought people would be surprised and complain that it doesn’t taste more like cherry,” he says, “but they never do.” In fact, it has become one of the bar’s most popular drinks.