The modern maraschino cherry doesn’t bear much likeness to the original fruit, though the name stuck.
The marasca is a small, black cherry indigenous to Croatia. For centuries, the fruit was brined and then macerated in maraschino liqueur (the liquor distilled from the pulp, skin, and pits). Then, as now, maraschinos were added to desserts or cocktails. The cherries were popular in the United States as a drink garnish until Prohibition made the alcohol-soaked fruit illegal.
A nonalcoholic alternative was developed in 1925 by Ernest H. Wiegand, a professor of horticulture at Oregon State University. Today, 100 million pounds of maraschino cherries are produced in North America annually, with two companies dominating the market: Gray & Company and Diana Fruit.
Josh Reynolds, Gray & Company’s executive vice president, says, “We take a piece of fruit and we turn it into candy.” The process starts with cherries (usually Royal Anns or Rainiers) that are too small to sell at major grocery store chains. They’re soaked in a salt solution that removes their natural coloring and flavor. Next, the cherries are pitted and soaked for approximately 30 days in massive redwood containers filled with sweetener. Finally, they take a dip in artificial coloring—usually the signature bright red, though cherries can be dyed green, orange, purple, or any color. The FDA defines a maraschino cherry as “the common or usual name of an article consisting of cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar sirup flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor.”