Unless you have a home bar and know people who drink Manhattans, Old Fashioneds or the occasional Tom Collins, it’s unlikely that you’re going to have any maraschino cherries. Oh, you’ll buy a jar during the holidays or if you’re having a kid’s birthday party, but otherwise maraschinos aren’t a standard kitchen item at all. On the other hand, bartenders have been stocking maraschino cherries next to the stuffed olives since before Prohibition, and in their heyday soda jerks routinely placed them atop sundaes and in sodas.
The term “maraschino” originates from the Marasca cherry—a sour, dark variety cultivated on the coast of Dalmatia (now part of Croatia) beginning in the mid-19th century. The original version was brined in ocean water, then preserved in a liqueur made from its own juices, and ground-up pits. In the 19th century, these became popular in Europe, but the supply was so small that they became a delicacy for the rich and royalty and other cherries came to be preserved in various ways and sold as “maraschino.”
Fine bars and restaurants in the United States began serving the cherries in the late 19th century. To meet the growing demand, by the turn of the century American producers were experimenting with other processes for preserving cherries, with flavors such as almond extract rather than the original alcohol liqueur and substitute Royal Anne (‘Napoleon,’ or ‘Napoleon Bigarreau’) cherries. In 1912 the USDA defined “maraschino cherries” as “Marasca cherries preserved in maraschino” under the authority of the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The artificially-colored and sweetened Royal Anne variety were required to be called “Imitation Maraschino Cherries” instead. Food Inspection Decision 141, signed on Feb. 17, 1912, defined Marasca cherries and maraschinos.
Ernest H. Wiegand, a professor of horticulture at Oregon State University, developed the modern method of manufacturing maraschino cherries using a brine solution rather than alcohol since alcohol dehydrated the fruit, shrinking them, making them hard and wrinkled. By focusing on preserving the shape and structure of the cherry in its plump, beautiful ripeness, Wiegand discovered that adding calcium salts to the preserving brine firmed up the fruit, a method that with modifications is still used today.