Back in the '60s my parents saved all year for our summer vacations. They carefully put aside a little bit of each paycheck in the name of adventure, hoping to have enough to take to the road for a few meals out and a few nights spent at a motel with a swimming pool. When summer came we packed the car and drove off to see what the area had to offer. Most of our vacations focused on regional attractions and several summers found us traveling to the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a favorite destination that my parents enjoyed for its scenic beauty and family friendly diversions.
My parents, like my grandparents before them, loved the diverse geography of the region. They remarked on the splendid views as we rode along into the hills and mountains of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. We planned our route around waterfalls and caves and stopped at countless scenic overlooks along the highway.
What I remember better than the scenery was the wildlife. Black bears frequently wandered into the human pathways cut through the mountains. You were bound to see them over the course of your vacation and if you didn’t run into one in the wild you could also find them on display back in the day. One of my clearest memories of those early vacations is of a big black bear chained beside a roadside souvenir shop. His celebrity was based on his ability to sit up on his hind legs and drink down a bottle of Choc-ola bought for him by a tourist.
The Great Smoky Mountains are still a popular tourist attraction. These days, however, the area is better know for moonshine tasting than for Choc-ola drinking bears. Having grown up hearing tales of moonshiners and bootleggers in the bone-dry counties of Tennessee I was surprised when I moved back to the southeast last year to find that liquor laws have relaxed substantially and that moonshine making is not only legal but has become a product of regional pride.
Equally surprising was the great variety of flavors now available. Looking on-line I discovered Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, a moonshine distillery located in Gatlinburg, TN, widely distributes an Apple Pie flavored Moonshine. At the distillery you can also pick up seasonal flavors like Pink Lemonade, Lemon Drop and Blueberry. Beyond drink, they even sell the same sized mason jar filled with White Lightnin’ infused maraschino cherries. Their marketing calls it an “Appalachian party tradition” and “A party in a jar!” When I found them sold locally I bought a jar as a curiosity.
Truth is, I don’t even like maraschino cherries. I don’t think I have eaten more than three (aside from those in my recently acquired mason jar) in my entire life. Instead, I have passed them along to any takers when I find one garnishing a drink or an ice cream sundae or buried them in a napkin. And still, I clearly remember that they taste like plastic. All the same, those maraschino cherries sure looked pretty piled in that mason jar of clear liquid.
Finally curiosity demanded that I open the jar. I screwed off the lid and looked in the jar. Those pretty neon red cherries smelled totally disinfected. I took my cute seafood forks from the kitchen drawer and passed one to each person present to stab a cherry for tasting. I popped mine in my mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
Sure enough that little maraschino cherry tasted a lot like I remembered. It had that same plastic texture and a similarly indifferent taste. Added to that, however, was a hint of rubbing-alcohol-like vapor ascending upward to my sinuses as I chewed followed by a slight burn going down. A quiet squint followed, and a smirk that suggested never again; then, a pause... and a dizzy sense of amusement, as I reached for my fork and fished out another moonshine cherry!
I’d say it is prudent to set an initial three or four cherry limit, until you have sensed the proof of those pretty little garnishes. They are small but potent and while I wouldn’t say they tasted good I thought they were kind of fun. The shine itself wasn't all that tasty but it wasn’t any less appealing than, say, kirsch and at least has the merit of being American made, a true regional product.
While these cherries are an interesting novelty on their own I quickly found myself looking for a recipe to feature their qualities in dilution. Aside from suggestions for mixed drinks or sweet cocktails, of which I’m not a big fan, my search came up short.
It is easy to imagine these cherries as a garnish for drinks and adult desserts. Beyond that my memories focused on only one other retro food that I remember picking maraschino cherries out of as a child: Fruit Cocktail.
Here is my version. Having looked it up, it wouldn’t qualify as fruit cocktail according to USDA standards since it includes oranges and pineapple instead of peaches and pears. Still, to my way of thinking, these Moonshine Cherries make it a true adult fruit cocktail and a interesting conversation piece.