In honor of “National Brandied Fruit day” as decided by some entity somewhere, I’ve been contemplating making my own home-made brandied fruit and as usual, would take my readers through the journey with me.
*I apologize now for the lack of photos and actually making the stuff I’m writing about. Shortly after I wrote this everything went to shit at work and I have had no time at all! I shall remedy that in the next week I hope.
While some may gripe about the dearth of flavored vodkas, rums, whiskeys and more that are on the market today, the truth is that fruit + alcohol has a long standing tradition. I would go so far as to argue that the idea of “pure” spirits which should not be adulterated is an entirely modern one. For most of distillation history (~1000 A.D. and on) the spirits produced were raw, rough, and tasted kind of awful. We just have to look at the older brands that have survived (or been revived) to be a part of our cocktail culture today: Luxardo Maraschino, Benedictine, Drambouie, Frangelico, Averna, Chartreuse, and many more. In these products you take a base spirit (brandy or whisky or whatever is geographically appropriate) and you add spices, sugars, and fruits to create a unique product. This is absolutely a reflection of what was going on in the home at the time as well. Distillates would be made or bartered or purchased and then people would flavor it with whatever they had nearby. Having done my own fruit flavored infusions, I know that one does not waste either fresh fruit or alcohol by discarding the flavoring ingredients afterwards (depending on what they are). While blackberries and raspberries become some sort of uncomfortably colored sludge stuff after a week of soaking and shaking, apple slices are still delightfully firm. The same can be said of pineapple, apricots, pears, peaches, and of course, Cherries.
The Brandied Cherry is by far the most famous of the brandied fruit family and this could be for several reasons. My personal opinion is that it is the right size, shape and maneuverability to be used behind the bar. While a slice of brandied pear may be delightful, it’s an odd shape and doesn’t sit well in the glass and would be difficult to work with when you’re in a rush. A cherry however is small and round and easy to stick a pick in and drop in a drink. It seems like a little thing, particularly if you are making drinks at home, but when you factor in the sheer volume of the alcohol industry and what it can be like behind a busy bar… seconds matter. Everything has to be as efficient as possible to achieve the desired results. Seconds spent fuddling with a non-compliant pear or a less-attractive-than-desired brandied orange slice seem like an eternity with dozens of people waiting to place an order. But that’s just my theory… either way, the cherry is by far the most ubiquitous of these fruits and I will delve into there first.
The Brandied Cherry
According to David Wondrich in his book Imbibe!, the original cocktail garnish was generally seasonal fruit arranged sort of decoratively. Before that, there were no cocktails and therefore no garnishes so really, the history of the Cherry Garnish begins in the late 1890’s with Maraschino Cherries. Like most high quality products that come to America, we quickly stripped it of it’s grandeur and cost, giving us the “maraschino cherries” that most of us know today.
Naturally, if you are reading this article, you know that this is sad and a bad thing and you want something better. The good news is that there are plenty of store bought options available now! A lot has changed in the last 15 years… in addition to the traditional Luxardo Maraschino cherries, Woodford Reserve and Makers Mark also produce some nice cherries. Amazon also carries Egberts, Jack Rudy’s, and Fabbri Amarena. Unfortunately I haven’t tried all of these brands and am not going to experiment for today because combined that’s like $120 worth of cherries which I can’t justify to the people around me. Mostly my boyfriend who doesn’t tell me how to spend my money but would be very confused at all the cherries and I would feel like he’s judging me. Besides, we aren’t really here to buy brandied cherries, we want to make our own! Life is more fun that way and sometimes cheaper! … maybe.
Let’s start with the cherries. First thing’s first: Sour or Sweet? Luxardo uses sour marasca cherries to create their signature product, so if you are leaning towards using Maraschino Liqueur, maybe take a hint from the experts? A cursory googling will give you a variety of results that use sweet cherries. Ultimately it is a matter of taste… taste being used in two ways. Both as an indicator of what you personally like to put in your mouth and also in the sense of how flavors interact together, the way a chef might think of it. For example, I personally don’t particularly enjoy sour cherries or rye whiskey so it wouldn’t be to my taste, but when I experiment with making my own cherries at home, I will probably try those two together because I feel as though the sour and spicy rye blend would be very complementary. If you are making for your home use, go to your own personal taste. If you are making it for a bar or a party or a gift, try to go for something tasteful. As always, fresh is better. If you have a local cherry farm or farmers market, absoluely try them. If not, buy in season and if you can’t do that either then you might just want to buy the above brands. That said, in his NCOTW #4, u/hebug claimed to prefer using Dried Montgomery Cherries from Trader Joes. I tried this once and while the results tasted quite good, they looked sort of like tiny shriveled up old black testicles which was somewhat off-putting. Call me a prude but I prefer testicles on men and not in my drink (and not both).
Now the observant reader might notice that literally none of the brands I listed above are made from brandy. Why do they call them brandied cherries if there’s no brandy? Well… I don’t know. It’s very frustrating. Luxardo does use their sour cherries to create the liqueur so it certainly follows that people would assume to soak cherries in Luxardo as opposed to some other fruit. While the part of me that deals with misconceptions constantly wants to correct the difference between a brandy and a brandy based liqueur, the historian in me knows that at that point in time, nobody cared and certainly might have been calling it a ‘brandy cherry’. Alternatively, America has always been somewhat obsessed with the French (see: history) and French Brandy was often considered the pinnacle of distillation technology, so it stands to follow that anyone attempting to create an upper class garnish would naturally gravitate towards brandy as the soaking of choice. While my resources have much to say about advent of Maraschino Cherries and the subsequent perversion, I have yet to find anything discussing another type of brandied fruit specifically.
So,with that in mind if you are making your own brandied fruits at home, feel free to get wild with it. If you are using a fruit brandy base, it’s a really solid idea to use the fruit that it’s made from. For example if you want brandied pears, consider soaking them in a pear eau-de-vie. Same for peaches and apples and cherries. I know that my local Total Wine store has a perfectly respectable selection of fruit brandies/eau-de-vie’s and if you have a decent liquor store near you, they should as well. If that is not an option, there are plenty of reputable places to shop online, though check if it’s legal to ship to your state. If you are more of a whiskey person, go for a middle-of-the-road whiskey for your fruit needs. Bourbons are excellent for something like this as they have a lot of cinnamon/caramel/vanilla notes that complement sweeter garnishes in general. A high rye will give it a spiciness that could really complement certain cocktails. I would probably be inclined to try bourbon with sweeter fruits like cherries, apples, and peaches. A Rye I would consider with more tart/dry fruits like apricots or pears or the sour cherries we talked about before. I honestly can’t think of a fruit that I would use a Scotch for, but Irish or Canadian Whiskey could be used in much the same way as a Bourbon. Personally, I’m looking forward to truly Brandied fruits, for which I picked up a very mid-quality brandy and I see no reason not to use it with any of the above fruits.
Since we are getting wild with the spirits, don’t be afraid to use liqueurs other than Maraschino you might have lying around. Personally, I think a St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur soaked Pear sounds like a little slice of heaven. An orange wheel with Grand Marnier or Cointreau could seriously amp up your next Margarita or Sidecar. It’s one of those rare instances where tradition and modern practice are on your side with this one so feel free to experiment.
There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to making Brandied fruits: booze or syrups. Now don’t get me wrong, they both have booze, but the outcome is going to be a little different depending on which you choose.
The “booze” school of thought is more simple, you just take your fruit, pack it into the jar, fill with spirit of choice and call it a day. The advantage to this route is that it’s simple, faster and at the end you get a jar of fruit that will knock you on your ass. This is probably going to be my preferred route because my personal tolerance for alcohol-flavor is pretty high and also because I’m lazy and this is easy. This also works better for your lower-proof, pre-spiced liqueurs such as Maraschino. With such a heavily spiced product there isn’t much reason to complicate the process. The disadvantage with this lies in your friends and family who don’t do as much drinking and therefore find that ‘alcohol-taste’ overwhelming, which is reasonable. If you are into making cocktails, you might also consider the alternative option. While finishing the liquor soaked cherry at the bottom of your Manhattan is a time honored pleasure, a huge burst of alcohol right at the end of your drink has the potential to ruin the balance of the drink and the overall experience.
The “Syrup” option is going to yield a more flavorful, lower alcohol content product that is probably more reminiscent of the maraschino cherries you are familiar with (the good ones and the bad ones). In this process, you will make a simple syrup in the flavor of whatever fruit you are using. Some tutorials have you adding the alcohol before bringing the simple syrup to a boil. I don’t like that because you are boiling off the alcohol content and to me that defeats the purpose of doing this at home. I much prefer to create the syrup then wait for it to cool before adding your brandy or whisky or whatnot, that way you control the alcohol content. If you are using a straight spirit and looking for a more complex final product, this is probably the option you want to go with. The versatility of simple syrups will give you a lot of control over the flavors your picking. For example, if you want a cherry that is perfectly designed for your Manhattan, you can use the whiskey of choice, add some nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, and maybe a little bit of orange peel to create a really flavorful syrup that accents the drink instead of overpowering it.
When creating a garnish that is meant to be eaten with the drink, it’s important to consider it as part of the overall experience, particularly since you are taking the time to prepare this weeks in advance. A great garnish can be the final piece of the puzzle that keeps people talking about a drink for weeks. But don’t feel limited to just drinks! Really fantastic bandied cherries and syrup over a good French Vanilla ice cream can be a dream come true and is a good addition to any dessert program. Really, it’s so easy, the kitchen will love it. Just make sure the runners are on their shit.
This recipe from serious eats is probably the best one I’ve seen so far for experimenting with different combinations. It’s written specifically for brandied cherries, but it’s extremely versatile. You start with a simple syrup which is whole chapters in some books but essentially it’s an equal parts sugar + water mix that you can flavor. For what we are doing, substituting the juice of whatever you are brandy-ing is a great way to get added flavor (eg. cherry juice, apple juice, pear juice). At this stage you also add the complementary spices you will be using. Fresh grated or ground is always preferential, especially with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, or pepper. From there you add your spirit/liqueur of choice and combine with your fresh fruit! In order to Can it follow basic canning instructions. You can find those anywhere online, I’m not the expert there.
1/2 cup Sugar (white, turbinado, raw, agave, honey, flavored, etc.)
1/2 Cup Liquid (water, juice)
Less than 1 tbsp spices combined (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, pepper, cardamom, clove, ginger, juniper, anise, vanilla, and so on forever…)
1 cup Spirit (Maraschino, Frangelico, Chratreuse, Spiced & Dark Rum, Bourbon, Rye, Aged Brandy, fruit brandies, and so on forever…)
1 Lb Fruit (Cherry, Apple, Peach, Pear, Orange, Blueberry, Plum, Nectarines, any firm fresh fruit you can get your hands on)
Age at least 1 month, will keep for up to a year unopened, get cautious after 2 months opened.
Notes on execution: Cinnamon can be thrown in as a whole stick or grated into the mixture. Anything with a pith (oranges and orange-adjacent fruits, also I guess lemons and limes if you’re doing that… not sure how it would work.) should be peeled and as much pith should be removed as possible. Weigh the pound after you’ve picked out the seeds and stems to be more accurate. It’s okay to sing Colt 45 by Afroman while you do so. I won’t judge.
While templates and information are nice and all, it’s still good to throw in a couple recipes to get started. At the very least you have something to work off of when you are deciding your own combinations.
In the aforementioned NCOTW post, u/hebug had the following brandied cherry combinations going and they sounded really solid to me:
Rye whiskey & Peychaud’s bitters
Bourbon & Angostura bitters
Dark rum & Cinnamon chips
Cognac & Amaretto
In these ones the bitters and amaretto take the place of the spices. These are also clearly in the ‘spirit’ school of thought where you pack the jar with fruit and fill it up with spirits. How much alcohol you use will be entirely dependent on the size of your jar.
I’m also intrigued to try the following combos:
Peaches & Amaretto Pears & Yellow Chartreuse
Oranges & Frangelico Cherries & Creme de Almond
Golden Apples & Grand Marnier Sour Cherries & Creme de Cacao
Greeen Apples & Averna Peaches & Dom. de. Canton
Pears & Benedictine Oranges & Licor 43
As you can see, the options are vast, and this is just the liquor and fruit. Once you start adding in your spices of choice… you could try a new one every week and have no duplicates for years. When choosing spices, consider both the fruit and the spirit. Usually you can find descriptors on the back of bottles or on the spirits website that will point you in the direction of the spices that complement that particular liquor. For the spices that complement your fruit, here is a quick reference.
Spices that go with Peaches: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, (sparingly) black pepper, (sparingly) cayenne pepper.
Spices that go with Apple: Cinnamon, caramel, assorted nuts, clove, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, anise-seed, rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, dill (I personally probably wouldn’t do a mint/dill infusion but I’ve seen weird enough drinks that there’s probably a cocktail out there that would be amazing with it.)
Spices that go with Oranges: Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, cumin, coriander, saffron, almonds,chocolate, ginger, persimmon, vanilla
Spices that go with Pears: Vanilla, Saffron, almond, pepper, hazelnut, caramel, chestnut, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, walnut
Spices that go with Cherries: black pepper, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, assorted nuts
For an exciting (and a little overwhelming) array of fruit & spice flavor pairings check out this website! It’s way more in depth and looks like a great resource.
In closing… get weird! Make small batches and try lots of different combinations and you will have a good time. Brandied cherries can be so much more than just brandy and cherries and with the holiday season coming up there is a lot of room for sharing with (read: Experiment on) with family and friends. Put these in a cute jar with some ribbon or some shit? Man, that’s a great homemade gift for all those people on your list that don’t warrant a personal thing. Maybe give them out at the office, I dunno. As long as Pam from HR doesn’t get her panties in a knot over alcoholic gifts. Proceed at your own discretion. Report back with the experiments that you’ve tried and how they turned out!