Cherry Nice

A glass of Polish Cherry Cordial in the park.
Whether cited in bowlfuls or as a single drupe placed atop a marvelous dessert, cherries have imparted legendary happiness since antiquity.

Piles of fossilized wild cherry pits discovered on the floors of Stone Age dwellings throughout North America, Europe, and Asia Minor are evidential reminders of early man’s enjoyment. Greek literary sources dating back to the 4th century B.C. indicate that cherries had been domesticated for centuries. Called “kerasos” by the Ancient Greeks, the name suggests a place of origin (Kerasun, an ancient city of Pontus, now part of Turkey), yet whether that cherry was domesticated in Greece or introduced from regions further east remains a mystery.

By Roman times, sweet cherries (Prunus avium) were a common domestic fruit: the species name avium (of birds) alludes to the songbirds’ dietary preference for them. Although winged agents are largely responsible for the cherry’s wild proliferation, the old adage “to find the old Roman roads, follow where the wild cherry grows” credits Roman soldiers for its distribution throughout the Empire.

14th century illustration of a cherry picker by unknown artist.
Theatrum of Casanatense (cherries),
14th century illustration by unknown artist.
Victorian cherry games.
Cherry games.
Of all the edible tree fruits, cherries exhibit the shortest period between blossom and harvest. The fragile fruit only ripens on the tree: once picked, it withers within days. This fleeting state of grace inspired religious-minded artists of the Middle Ages, and plump cherries clasped in the hands of holy infants and angels stood in for their grasp of heavenly paradise.

Divine attributions notwithstanding, Medieval maidens clutching handfuls of fresh-picked cherries had a very different paradise in mind. In the sometimes dark Middle Ages, cherry-picking season was a bright but brief moment celebrated with dancing, drinking, and a certain amount of hanky-panky in the orchards.

Girls engaged in teasing sport, enticing young men to share conjoined cherries, or daring the lads to nibble on ripe fruit from branches entwined within their tresses. Eleventh century church records recounting the number of babies born nine months after cherry season declare their flirtatious games a success.

A few hundred years later, cherry’s cheerful reputation remained fully intact. “A basket of cherries” was an expression describing untold delight: no matter which cherry was picked out of that basket, each one was perfect. A carefree feeling may be what prompted newly-crowned King Charles V of France to plant one thousand, one hundred, and twenty-five cherry trees in his gardens at Tournelles and St-Paul as an everyday reminder of his personal happiness.

Sweet cherry cultivars migrated from Europe to America in the early 1600s. Before that, industrious colonists took advantage of America’s native black cherries (P. serotina) for their cherry pies, preserves, and a cerise-tinted tonic (or liqueur, if you prefer) called “cherry bounce”. This colonial pantry staple is made by combining spirits, sugar, fresh cherries, and two months of patience. There is some evidence suggesting that the recipe may have bounced its way over to the colonies from an English hamlet called Frithsden, but most sources cite Yankee ingenuity for its creation.

Most surviving 18th and 19th century cherry bounce recipes are larder-filling affairs calling for upward of four pounds of sugar, four quarts of spirits, and four quarts of fresh-picked cherries with steeping times from two months up to half a year.

Sour cherry blossoms in late April.
Many fruiting cherry varieties (like this sour cherry) have white or light pink blossoms. 
Wiśniak, a semi-sweet cherry cordial with a noticeable hint of almonds, is the sister-spirit of colonial cherry bounce. This low-alcohol spirit has been popular in Poland for the past eight centuries, and was historically made at home using the abundant sour cherries (P. cerasus) growing wild throughout the country.

Our Babci brought her wiśniak recipe from Zakopane to America in the 1930s, then adapted it to suit the sweet cherries growing in her yard.

Babci's wiśniak is delicious served chilled or over ice, and also performs admirably in cocktails, so mark your calendars for the start of cherry season because you’ll want to bottle up enough for yourself, friends, and family.

Craving wiśniak now? Commercial wiśniak (available in many U.S. liquor stores) is ready to impart legendary cheery cherry happiness upon all who imbibe. Cheers!

Wiśniak od babci
(Polish Cherry Cordial)

Makes 4 1/2 cups

Wisniak, a Polish Cherry Cordial.
This recipe is ready in a month, but aging it further will improve the complexity. Need enough for gifts? This recipe can be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled: all that's needed are containers large enough to hold the steeping fruit.
  • 1 pound sweet cherries, washed, stemmed
  • 1 1/4 cups rectified spirits (96% ABV grain neutral spirits), such as Spirytus
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 3/4 cups hot water
  • 4 ounces vodka (40% ABV)
Pit half the cherries. Place cherries and rectified spirits in a sterilized 1-gallon glass jar with tight-fitting lid. Cover jar; let rest undisturbed at room temperature in a dark cupboard or floor of closet for 14 days.

After 14 days, make a simple syrup by stirring sugar and water together until sugar is dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, strain the alcohol from the cherries, pressing cherries to release as much liquid as possible. Return cherry mixture to gallon jar; add simple syrup and vodka, cover and age in dark cupboard or floor of closet for an additional 14 days.

Serve wiśniak chilled, or use in cocktails.