Tempered Spirits

Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels

MxMo LXXIV: Cherries & Cheerwine Cocktails


Time, once again, for Mixology Monday! It seems that us cocktail bloggers have been bitten by the fresh produce bug — after vegetables and herbs, we’ve naturally moved on to fruit. Andrea, at Gin Hound, is acting as this month’s host, and she has a particular fruit in mind: cherries. As Andrea mentions in her announcement post, there are all sorts of ways to incorporate cherries into cocktails: muddled fresh cherries, infusions, cherry liqueurs, and cherry eau de vie, not to mention brandied and maraschino cherries. [Update: Check out here round-up post, Part 1 and Part 2] Wanting to keep things simple and take a different tack, I’ve decided to mix up a couple of drinks involving cherry soda. And not just any cherry soda — it’s that gentle, dark red Southern specialty called Cheerwine.

For those unfamiliar with Cheerwine, it’s a cherry-flavored soda native to North Carolina that’s been produced since 1917, when it joined the ranks of other regional sodas like Nehi, Dr. Enuf, RC Cola, Big Red, Ale-8-1, and Blenheim. As bottler Mark Ritchie explains to the Lee Brothers in their Southern Cookbook, the name is modeled on other turn-of-the-century soft drinks like ginger “ale” and root “beer” — the drinks contain no alcohol, but their color, fizz, and nomenclature suggest fermentation and adult beverages. The soda has a cult following in its home state, its proponents frequently going out of their way to obtain a bottle of the bubbly, brick-red liquid. Folks love it so much that they’ve even stuffed Krispy Kreme doughnuts with it — how awesome is that?

Anyway, enough talk — time for a drink…

CheerwineCocktails (1 of 3)

Cheerwine Cocktail No. 1

  • 1 ounce Gin [1-1/2 ounces London Dry Gin]
  • Juice from Half of a Lime, lime shell or wedges reserved for drink [3/4 ounce Lime Juice]
  • 6 ounces Cheerwine
  • 1-1/2 ounces soda water [you may omit this if you like]

Fill a tall, 14-ounce glass 2/3 full with ice cubes. Add the gin to the glass, squeeze the lime juice in, toss the spent lime shell or wedges into the drink, then add the Cheerwine. Top with the soda water and stir.

Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, by Matt & Ted Lee.

This is not my first encounter with this particular cocktail — I mixed it up a couple years ago after reading an article in Imbibe on Southern sodas (“Pop Culture,” written by our hometown food critic, John Kessler). I’d been a fan of Cheerwine for several years running at that point — my college roommate and I would go through cases of the stuff (I’ve since cut back) — though I hadn’t tried any mixological experiments involving the soda. I found the Cheerwine Cocktail No. 1 to be a basic, serviceable drink, light on the booze and refreshing, but it fell out of my regular rotation. After rediscovering the cocktail in my recently-acquired Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, I figured it was time to give it another go.

As the Lee brothers mention in their book, the No. 1 is basically a Gin Rickey finished with a hearty dose of cherry soda instead of soda water. Since Cheerwine is rather sweet (it is a soft drink, after all) and has atypical, finer-grain carbonation, the brothers thin out the drink and add a bit more fizz with a dose of soda water — not really necessary, and I think it dilutes the drink too much, but give it a try and see what you think. Definitely go with hearty dry gin like Tanqueray or Beefeater for this one — you’ll need a good dose of juniper to match the volume of soda. Cheerwine itself has a nice caramel-spice-herbal flavor component in addition to the cherry, so it combines nicely with the gin and lime (though a dash of bitters would not be out of place here).

Next up we have a southern variation on the Americano, “a tribute,” the Lees say, “to Spoleto, Charleston’s Italian sister city…”

CheerwineCocktails (2 of 3)

Cheerwine Cocktail No. 2

  • 2 ounces Campari
  • 2 ounces Sweet Vermouth
  • 6 ounces Cheerwine
  • Orange slice or orange peel, to garnish

Fill a tall, 14-0unce glass 2/3 full with ice cubes. Add the Campari, vermouth, and Cheerwine, stir briefly, and garnish with the orange slice and/or peel.

Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, by Matt & Ted Lee.

I rather enjoy this drink — the bitterness is slight, and the vermouth and soda do a good job of mollifying the Campari while allowing its herbal notes to shine through. Cocchi vermouth, with its abundant notes of cinnamon, performs nicely, though the powerful Carpano, vegetal Martini, or fruity Dolin would all work well. I recommend halving the drink’s proportions to cut it down to a more manageable, everyday size (unless, of course, you’re in need of the extra refreshment). A little bit of gin (or maybe a dash of orange bitters) might cut down on the sweetness and up the herbal flavor, but I’ll save that experiment for another day.

As far as drinks go, the No.1 and No. 2 are simple and voluminous, perfect for backyard soirées — I can easily imagine gulping them down on a hot summer day prior to eating some smoky barbecue pork. Maybe we’ll try them out at future cocktail parties…hmm…

CheerwineCocktails (3 of 3)

Though Cheerwine has been famously difficult to locate in the past, it’s increasingly available across the U.S. and maintains a solid presence in Southeastern grocery stores. Cans and plastic 2-liters are relatively easy to find, but try and hunt down some “Retro” Cheerwine in the nifty glass bottles: it’s made with cane sugar, the fizz is more subtle, and the texture isn’t quite as sticky. If you can’t find Cheerwine, feel free to substitute other black cherry sodas in the Lee Brothers’ cocktails (Cherry Dr. Pepper is a pretty close match). Cherry Heering or homemade cherry syrup mixed with soda water would also do the trick.

Cheers (and Cheerwine)!

PS: If you’re looking for more cherry-fied drinks, I’ve done a number of them in the past, including the Cherry-Basil Collins, the Cherry Blossom, Byrrh Cocktail No. 1, and the Wilde Heart.

Photos by IJL.

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