As our closest friends and family (aka test subjects) have known for some time now, Barker has a tendency to disappear into the kitchen in a fit of midwestern can-do spirit and return with armloads of preserves, spirits, infusions, syrups—you name it. His pepper jelly has been likened to crack. The annual pear spirits are hotly anticipated at holiday time. Then there was the mustard craze of 2010. But when Barker disappeared into the kitchen in pursuit of a better cocktail cherry no one expected the results to be this good. Too good to share with just friends and family—these cherries had to be shared with the world. At least the small world of people who appreciate a good cocktail and can’t stomach putting a fluorescent red cherry-shaped mockery of a fruit into a finely-crafted drink.
But why bourbon-vanilla cocktail cherries? Historically cocktail cherries were marasca cherries, combined with Italian maraschino liqueur made from those same cherries. Some of the more discerning cocktail drinkers in the room may be familiar with Luxardo cherries, which are still made this way. However, once this style of cherry ran afoul of Prohibition (much like Root Tea/Root Beer), the alcohol was removed and nonintoxicating preservatives like calcium salts were used. This was not so great for the texture of the fruit, never mind the taste. And with drinking having moved under the radar of the law, the only real market for preserved cherries were soda shops and ice cream parlors. Thus the product was ever-more sweetened, and colored, to appeal to children. Swap sugar out and hi-fructose corn syrup in, with a whole lot of artificial dye, and you come face to face with the neon monster that lurks at the bottom of every bad Manhattan and atop every peak of whipped cream.
So Barker began by recreating true maraschino cherries, and they were delicious, true, but they were missing a little flair. Why simply make a fresher version of a cherry that companies like Luxardo are making perfectly well (if somewhat expensively) when you can make something with a little more personality? Realizing that cherries appear most frequently as garnishes in drinks containing whiskey, bourbon, rye, and the occasional rum drink, Barker started experimenting with bourbon—after all, he was using american cherries, why not an american spirit—and after that, a touch of vanilla brought it all together. Now that’s not all that’s in there, but we’re not giving away all of Barker’s secrets. It’s safe to say that each batch is made with the finest raw sugar and best cherries available, in small batches that retain their own unique personality. Sometimes it’s a different breed of cherry, sometimes it’s a different bourbon, and that’s part of the fun. Barker also found that these cherries had to be made with such attention and care that it was impossible to produce them in large batches without sacrificing some element of texture or taste. Or form, as every type of (and there are many) mechanical pitting device ruined the shape and firmness of the cherries—so each and every cherry is pitted by hand. This the necessity of producing very small batches, of about 100 jars each, and hand numbering them to keep track of natural variations in the batches.
The first few jars disappeared along with not a few Manhattans, but as time went by we realized that even though the cherries kept a slightly bourbon flavor, they worked as well in clear-spirited drinks, without throwing off the flavor of the drink itself. Of course, if you are trying to affect the flavor of the drink, a little of the cherry juice poured along with the cherry is a delicious addition. The cherries also soon found themselves on top of ice cream (I cannot recommend this highly enough), in tarts and pies, and making a pretty fine cherry coke.
So here we are, finally ready to announce that as of October 1, 2011, Barker & Mills Bourbon Vanilla Cocktail Cherries are available for sale though the well-respected cocktail experts and fabulous friends at The Boston Shaker. We truly could not be in better company than with the fine products in their store near Boston, MA, or on their fantastic online shop. Go for the cherries, but do avail yourself of at least a few jars of bitters while you’re there!