Maraschino Cherries

by Ari Weinzweig

luxardoIf you think about it for more than 15 seconds, you’re going to quickly come to the conclusion that the super-processed, red-dye-number-whatever, cute little maraschino cherries that we all grew up with cannot possibly have been the original item. Just as cream cheese didn’t start out in foil packages with a one-year shelf life and a lot of stabilizer, so too there’s more to maraschino cherries than what they put into the cans of fruit cocktail.

So what were the original maraschino cherries? Quite simply, they were cherries that were macerated in maraschino liqueur. At one time, maraschino liqueur was more popular than cointreau. The marasca cherry, or in Latin, prunus cerasus marasca, grows typically on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, especially on the Dalmatian coast. It’s a pretty tart, dark red fruit that gives maraschino liqueur its unique flavor. So we’re starting with tart cherries, and then putting them into the very highly-rated Luxardo maraschino liqueur which has been made in Italy since the 19th century. Yes, the difference is beyond night and day. Bacon to Bacos.

Credit for creating maraschino goes to a Genovese by the name of Girolamo Luxardo, who was living in Zara on the Dalmatian Coast where he became familiar with the local cherry. His wife, Maria Canevari, began using the cherry to make liqueurs at home (as was customary at the time) and after her “rosolio maraschino” gained a reputation among serious connoisseurs, Girolamo opened a distillery in 1821.

After World War II, the Luxardo family relocated to the Veneto region of Italy. Today they have about 22,000 cherry trees, in the hills between Padua and Venice. The fruit is all hand-picked, crushed, fermented and then distilled in pot stills. The new liqueur is aged for two years in Finnish ash vats. There are some other maraschino liqueurs out there but they’re pretty much all copies of the Luxardo original and not anywhere near as good.

The liqueur on its own is very thick and full-bodied, and very complexly flavored. You can’t miss that it’s made from cherries; big and rich with a purity of flavor that hints subtly of cinnamon. It’s got a long, strong finish, as do the cherries that we macerate in it. I think every single person that’s sampled them has loved the flavor!

So with all this about the real thing, you might be wondering just what happened to maraschino cherries that changed them so drastically. Well, it seems that back in the 1920’s, one Ernest H. Wiegand, a horticultural professor at Oregon State University, developed a method for preserving cherries that was based on brine not alcohol. And in the process, the “modern,”-or what I think would more fairly be called “faux”-maraschino was first manufactured. (If you’re really interested, Oregon State still offers a course devoted to the technological and scientific aspects of maraschino cherry production.)

To compound the problem, the formal American definition was changed in 1940 when the FDA determined that, “A maraschino cherry is a cherry that has been macerated in a flavored sugar syrup, and then dyed. Red maraschino cherries are usually almond-flavored, while green are mint-flavored.”

A small thing at first glance, our shift back to making REAL maraschino cherries at the Roadhouse is something significant. Even today, Epicurious says on its website, “At one time they were traditionally flavored with Maraschino liqueur though such an extravagance is now rare.” They’re a meaningful flavor addition to the Classic Cocktail line at the Roadhouse. Think about what it means to put those super-processed ones into your cocktail-it’d be like putting American singles on a Niman Ranch burger. And, in the bigger scheme of food life, it’s a move that’s as meaningful as baking great bread, growing good produce locally, eating good olive oil, etc.

As part of our effort to take back our language around food, I think we can safely and clearly differentiate these cherries verbally as well as in flavor simply by pronouncing the name as it should be pronounced in Italian, “mar-ahs-kee-no,” instead of the Americanized “mar-ah-shee-no.” We do, by the way, still have the old-style ones for kids and for nostalgic adults. The real maraschinos aren’t for kids, but they are really good.

Vya Vermouths at the Roadhouse

by Ari Weinzweig

I love when an ingredient I’ve always taken for granted and has never seemed particularly exciting turns up in a form that’s about fifty times better than I’d ever had it.

Which is exactly what’s happened for me in 2005 with Vya Vermouths. If you haven’t yet tried them and you have any interest in wines and aperitifs in particular, I really recommend that you come by and ask for a taste. For me at least, Vya has brought Vermouth to a whole new level.

When I asked Roadhouse bartender Bob Brunelli what he thought of Vya Vermouths, he said, “I like ’em because they actually taste like wine.” Which is odd, but actually, oddly true. They do taste like wine. They do taste good. And they’re something you’d want to drink, as Vermouth was intended to be, on its own. Of course, he’s right, and of course, IT IS A WINE so that’s the point. Giri — who’s worked with wine around town for many years, said much the same thing: “It’s remarkably good. It’s very complex—it actually tastes like it has something to do with grapes, which is unfortunately rare in a vermouth.”

Vermouth History

Although everyone’s heard of it, a lot of folks probably don’t even know what vermouth is. So to get that out of the way first, vermouth is a wine that’s “seasoned” with various botanical herbs. Maybe it was the herbal tea of the 18th century? It was meant to be drunk on its own where its complex and interesting flavors could be appreciated.

Historically, vermouth dates back about 200 years. Vermouth was first made commercially in a sweet red style, crafted by one Signor Carpano in Turin in 1776 from his grandmother’s home recipe. In 1813, Joseph Noilly made the first dry white Vermouth in the village of Marseillan on the Mediterranean coast of France and that vermouth is available today as the very good Noilly-Prat. Vermouth, like absinthe, was originally made with wormwood. (Since absinthe and its history are currently so in vogue, I’d guess that this fact would help to sell more vermouth). In fact, the name is derived from the German “wermut” or the old Anglo-Saxon “wermod,” for wormwood. Wormwood is naturally very bitter, so sweeteners and herbs were added and vermouth was born.

While most vermouth being poured today is pretty passively mediocre, an added ingredient to stick into cocktails, Vya—made by Quady Winery in Madera, California—is, as you can already hopefully tell, something special. It’s a vermouth that I think you’ll likely want to drink in as many forms as you can get it. Literally everyone I’ve given a taste to has been wowed by this stuff.

“The idea,” founder and Vermouth visionary Andy Quady explained to me, “was to create a vermouth which didn’t have to be compromised to create a low price. Most producers use wines that aren’t suitable for regular drinking. But since they’re putting flavorings in it they can get away with that. They use an activated carbon and ion exchange to strip out color and flavor, and they add flavorings to it. They’re cheap and very stable.” The Vya approach is, as I think it should be, to taste both the wine and the botanicals, in what has to be a balanced blend. Quady makes make two Vya Vermouths—dry white and sweet red. Both are delicious.

The white is built on a pair of base wines—Columbard and Orange Muscat—which are blended with 15 different herbs and botanicals, including lavender, sage, alfalfa, and linden. It’s super smooth, almost creamy on the tongue. Nice round aroma. Lively but in a really soft, subtle way. Like nice soft but interesting jazz, you can be fooled into thinking it’s almost too soft. But let the finish come on, exhale a bit and you suddenly start to notice the different herbs and botanicals. (For those of you, like me, who are cheese eaters first, wine drinkers second, it’s akin to a great summer cheese made from Alpage milk). The herbs are subtle. They don’t dominate, but they’re there. And they’re delicious and very refreshing. For me, it’s a little taste of summer on a cold dark winter’s night.

As much as I love the white, the red Vermouth might be even better. It’s made with a base wine of the Orange Muscat and Valdepenas and flavored with an array of herbs and botanicals that include citrus rind, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and galangal (the wild Asian ginger root). In fact, Ric Jewell—former Front of the House Manager , and exceptionally knowledgeable about wines—wrote me, “The red is the real find.” All I had to do was put my nose into a glass of it to know that he was right. The aroma is amazing. Sherry-like, smooth, not at all cloying. Really, really deliciously good, with subtle hints of red fruit and berries . If you want to try one new thing to drink this month, I think this ought to be it.

Something Special at the Bar

Vya is the only vermouth we have at the Roadhouse—it’s what we automatically use in all our mixed drinks. Mind you, this is no small investment in quality—Vya costs us about three or four times more than what one pays for everyday Martini and Rossi. It didn’t surprise me that Andy Quady was happy we’d made the move. But I was a bit surprised to hear his comment that, “You wouldn’t believe all the expensive places that won’t carry it because they think it is too costly for their bar.” For us though, it’s no different than any other work we do. We buy Anson Mills grits or Niman Ranch pork, better butter for the croissants, Valrhona chocolate the Pain au Chocolat, or Daterra coffee for our espresso. You have to start with great stuff to get great stuff. And if we’re going to have great cocktails, they have to start with great ingredients like fresh lime juice, fresh lemon juice . . . and this exceptionally good vermouth from California’s Central Valley. Ask for a taste next time you’re at the Roadhouse!

You can order Vermouth to drink on its own. It would make Andy Quady happy. “I’m on a mission to get Americans to rediscover the aperitif,” he told me. The white goes particularly well with slightly salty pre-dinner treats like olives, toasted nuts and the like. “I mix the two Vermouths together,” Andy added, “about two parts of the dry and one part sweet—that’s a delicious aperitif. “ Not only does it taste good, but a vermouth aperitif actually “wakes up” the taste buds and makes the food that comes later in the meal a bit more interesting.

The dry white vermouth is, of course, great in a martini. Check out the entire Roadhouse Classic Cocktail menu on line or at the Roadhouse—it’s in the Dirty Martini and the Scofflaw, just to name a couple of drinks. And it’s one of the stars of the Classic Martini. Of course it’s great in Manhattans. You can also try it in some of the other Classic Cocktails—Blood and Sand, the Oriental, and the Martinez, which was the likely historical forerunner of the Martini.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka: A Beveridge Family Tradition

by Ari Weinzweig

vodkaTwenty years ago there were no legal distilleries in the entire state of Texas. Not until a young geophysicist named Tito Beveridge (that’s not a made up name!) was at a loss as to what to give his friends for Christmas that year. Tito recalled his uncle’s habanero-flavored vodka, that he tasted a year earlier at a watermelon thump in Luling Texas. After handing out the case of hand-made peppered spirit to his closest friends (for which he created his own recipe, straying from his uncle’s all habanero concoction) he received piles of praise and encouragement to get it onto shelves. After consulting others in the industry, Tito felt that the market for flavored vodkas was too small. He opted, instead, for a martini grade spirit. Just like that – a hobby had gone to full time (with 17 maxed out credit cards to prove it!).

Tito’s is made from 100% corn, but like most fine sakes, only the heart of the run, “the nectar”, is used for the final product, leaving the residual higher and lower alcohols behind, which are harsher in flavor and less refined in texture and purity. The liquor is then filtered six times through the finest activated carbon available for a finished product that is as clean, smooth, and refreshing as any premium vodka on the market at a fraction of the price.

In 2001 Tito’s hard work and dedication to quality really paid off, he was invited to attend the World Spirits Competition where he took Double Gold Medal (it was a unanimous judges’ choice). Unfortunately Tito was not able to attend as the distillery was short-handed that week – now that’s hands on.

You can taste Tito’s handmade vodka everyday at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Ask your server or bartender for a taste. Unlike many restaurants, which use the lowest-quality spirits for their well-drinks, the Roadhouse uses Tito’s in every well-drink made at the Roadhouse! Why? Because we love it, and believe that Tito’s vodka makes every drink shine! You really can taste the difference!