The early days of the craft cocktail movement were rife with calls for long-forgotten, pre-Prohibition cocktails. Customers curious to finally experience a Martinez, an Aviation, a Tuxedo No. 2 or a Last Word ordered them in droves, and evangelizing young bartenders were more than happy to accommodate.
The one ingredient needed to complete each of the aforementioned drinks came in a tall, green bottle wrapped in straw like a fiasco of Chianti, its label crowded with the various regalia of obscure awards won long ago. Luxardo Maraschino—a 200-year-old Italian liqueur flavored with crushed Dalmatian Marasca cherries—had spent much of the late 20th century gathering dust on the bottom shelves and backrooms of liquor stores that still bothered to carry it. The cocktail renaissance delivered maraschino its first comeback in more than 100 years.
Back in the late 1800s, when cocktails earned the prefix “improved,” it frequently meant that they benefited from a dash of the wonder elixir. But by the late 1990s and early aughts, the word maraschino conjured up images of the taillight-red garnishes euphemistically called cherries. As bartenders dug through vintage cocktail manuals, they learned that “maraschino” wasn’t the juice from a jar of cherries, but an actual liqueur made from Marasca cherries. As with other lost spirits, like crème de violette and allspice dram, maraschino was hailed as a miracle worker, single-handedly resurrecting cocktail after cocktail, from the Turf Cocktail to the Brooklyn. Bars couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and Luxardo Maraschino, the leading brand, grew by double digits every year from 2000 on.
“The St-Germain of the 19th century,” quips bartender Nick Detrich, comparing maraschino to the once ubiquitous elderflower liqueur introduced in 2007. Detrich knows his maraschino history; he’s a co-owner of the New Orleans bar Jewel of the South, whose signature drink is the dramatically garnished Brandy Crusta, one of the first cocktails to famously feature maraschino liqueur.
The comparison could hardly be more apt; both liqueurs are arguably fallen darlings of the cocktail revival. In its early years, St-Germain was tossed into innumerable original drinks. Then there was a shift. Both liqueurs were too specific to be drunk on their own. St-Germain got tagged “bartender’s ketchup” and developed a reputation for overexposure. Maraschino, meanwhile, went from being a product that was enthusiastically embraced to a focal point of debate and disagreement. It’s still loved by many bartenders and remains prevalent—a vital part of any backbar—but maraschino is no longer assured of being invited to every cocktail party.
Much of this fluctuation of opinion inevitably revolves around the ubiquitous Luxardo. “Luxardo was the benchmark for so long that I think it became a very polarizing ingredient when it was the only option,” says Joaquín Simó, owner of Pouring Ribbons, a cocktail bar in New York’s East Village neighborhood. “I am not anti-maraschino per se, but I am quite sensitive to it in drinks. A little goes a really long way for me, as my palate picks it up and amplifies it even in small amounts.”
Karin Stanley, a bartender who has worked at Dutch Kills, Suffolk Arms and, currently, Existing Conditions, isn’t as diplomatic. She claims to have disliked maraschino from the earliest days of her career. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had someone say ‘you know what I love? Maraschino!’” she says. “But I’ve definitely heard of bartenders thinking it’s too cloying or easily overused. I had someone describe it recently as their ‘nightmare punishment shot,’ though I don’t know why you’d be shooting it.”
Even some makers of maraschino acknowledge that their product isn’t necessarily all things to all people. “Yes, I have noticed that phenomenon, the love/hate opinion,” says Todd Leopold, distiller at Colorado’s Leopold Bros., which makes a maraschino by macerating and fermenting Marasca cherries from Croatia, then adding coriander, their own Montmorency cherry distillate and honey. “But you’ll find the same thing with amaro and absinthe. Polarizing spirits, to be sure.”
It’s a remarkable turnabout for an ingredient that owes its commercial rebirth to young cocktail bartenders. But, like other ingredients that were blindly accepted during those hungry years because they were old and smacked of historical legitimacy, the reappraisal was inevitable. For Lee Zaremba, who bartends at Bellemore in Chicago, what he sees as Luxardo’s prominent almond note becomes too defining a characteristic in any drink where it plays a large role, like in the Last Word. “I know certain people absolutely love” that flavor profile, he says, “and think of it as the nostalgia that binds them to the classics.”
For many, the solution to the maraschino problem is a matter of moderation. Whereas the liqueur might have been used in three-quarter or half-ounce pours in the past, today it is often pulled back to a quarter-ounce or even less.
“I’ve been known to wince at a cocktail with maraschino in equal parts,” says Julia McKinley of Chicago’s Young American. “I’m only speculating, but it seems to me that some bartenders use it as a sweetener or, generally, simply use too much.”
But the liqueur’s advocates are as impassioned as its detractors. Tom Macy, an owner of Clover Club in Brooklyn, thinks the intense, pungent elixir adds depth to cocktails. He’s sympathetic to those who call the juice a flavor bully, but still believes the flavor maraschino brings is a requisite in classics both old and new. “When working with classic recipes that have maraschino—Hemingway Daiquiri, Aviation, etc.—I think they’re more interesting when it’s a prominent flavor, rather than just a hint,” he says. “I like a half-ounce in Hemingways, for example. I also tried backing off on it in a Red Hook, but realized it needed the full half-ounce for the drink to really work.”
For other bartenders, the fix lies not in how much you use but in which brand. In the aughts, some turned to Maraska, a brand from Croatia that possessed a softer character, as an alternative. But Maraska’s distribution was spotty and it was often difficult to find. These days, those seeking a more restrained expression of the liqueur have found their answer in the Leopold Bros.’s version, including Simó and Zaremba, as well as Thad Vogler, owner of three bars in San Francisco.
“Leopold is a bit drier,” says Zaremba, “and I enjoy the tart cherry flavor really taking center stage.”
Luxardo is not likely to be sweating this debate. The brand has been around since 1821 and will still be on shelves when grousing bartenders have moved on to their next battlefield. It’s also entirely possible that the fickle cocktail pendulum will swing back in maraschino’s favor in the years to come. Even Stanley has noticed a certain softening in her stance of late.
“Nowadays, while I still don’t like it, I can see its place in certain things, even if I wouldn’t choose it myself,” she says. “I find that happening with all my ‘dislikes’ as I get older. I can appreciate the drink as a whole if it’s well made, even if it has ingredients that aren’t up my alley.”