Alongside the olive (or three) that accompanies the Martini, the cherry is perhaps the most ubiquitous cocktail garnish. No Manhattan or Last Word is complete without one. But whereas leftover olive brine rarely goes to waste, becoming instead a core ingredient in the dirty Martini, the cherry syrup left in the jar remains a grossly underutilized ingredient. In the history of mixed drinks, only a handful of obscure recipes, like the 1933 Almond Eyes (gin, lemon, maraschino cherry syrup), specify its inclusion.
“Finding drinks that meld well with cherry syrup and being able to utilize it on a consistent basis isn’t easy,” says Josh Ibañez, bartender at Seattle’s Rumba and The Doctor’s Office. “There are two things I would consider when using it in a cocktail,” he explains. “Does it fit with the cocktail? Will it meld well with the other ingredients but still shine in its own way? It should play a role and also uplift all the other ingredients.” This is precisely what the syrup does in Ibañez’s aptly named My Cherry Amour, where it plays off of the tart cherry liqueur in the drink, creating another layer of like-flavor to complement the rum and amaro base as well as the pineapple and lemon juices that complete the recipe.
Ibañez first encountered the ingredient back in 2015 while working at Johnny’s Gold Brick in Houston. His coworker Justin Ware created a cocktail called Dr. Better, a drink designed to taste like Dr Pepper. Though the Dr. Better is no longer on the menu, Johnny’s Gold Brick has been serving its cherry syrup–laced Old-Fashioned “shot” for nine years.
“It was conceived as a sort of high/low boilermaker, where the shot itself would be a concentrated classic cocktail,” explains Ware. To make it, the bar team steeps orange peels in syrup left over from a jar of maraschino cherries “to combine the citrus flavors and mild bitterness of the orange oil with the sweet and tart cherry flavors.” This infused cherry syrup is then mixed with Mellow Corn whiskey and Angostura bitters to create an Old-Fashioned shot. “It has the added benefit of taking a pretty expensive ingredient (the fancy cherries) and utilizing all the components to avoid waste,” explains Ware, who also suggests using the leftover syrup to make a straightforward cherry spirit, a sort of fast track to Cherry Bounce, a Colonial-era cherry-infused liqueur. “This syrup is sweet and tart with a nice richness, which translates well into cocktails.”
Cherry Bounce is also the inspiration behind Jonny Raglin’s cocktail of the same name, a stalwart at his San Francisco Bar, Comstock Saloon, for more than decade. According to Raglin, a regular told him about a midcentury Hollywood restaurant that served a house cocktail called the Cherry Bounce, which contained both cherry brandy and Champagne. He used this as a starting point for his bourbon-based sour sweetened with cherry syrup (left over from Griottines brandied cherries) topped with sparkling wine. “My online research for Cherry Bounce led me to the Colonial bottled version and a recipe from Martha Washington. I was more than intrigued and set out to combine both ideas,” he says.
Raglin, Ware and Ibañez each caution that substituting cherry syrup for a sweetener is not as simple as swapping one for the other. “It’s not exactly a plug-and-play sort of deal,” says Ibañez. Ware echoes this sentiment, explaining: “The cherry syrup is not a 1-to-1 replacement for simple syrup since it has some acidity and because the naturally occurring pectin and high sugar content make it super thick; it can be hard to work with. I would suggest starting with a small amount of syrup and make sure to mix well.” When those steps are taken, however, the payoff is a simple way to add cherry flavor to cocktails with no prep at all. “When cherry syrup is done right,” says Raglin, “it is an ethereal flavor that loves to be brightened up with bubbles, be it Champagne, tonic water or seltzer.”