Notes From A Tasting Of 120-Year-Old Cherry Heering

It's been around for almost 200 years, but even many dedicated drinkers don't know much about Cherry Heering. After all, it's not often that someone walks into a bar and says, "Gimme a Danish cherry liqueur." If there's a bottle to be found at your local watering hole or in your liquor cabinet, it's probably been sitting there for a while, gathering dust. Until recently, Heering's claim to fame has been its use as a crucial ingredient in the classic Singapore Sling cocktail. Alas, it's such a complicated drink to make correctly that most bars either dumb it down or don't serve it at all.

The thing is, Cherry Heering is damn good. On its own, it makes a lovely after-dinner cordial. Bartenders are once again mixing it into a host of different cocktails, the best-known of which is the recently revived oldie, the Blood And Sand. And, decades after essentially abandoning the American market, Heering is back with an updated image.

The new Cherry Heering marketing campaign proclaims itself "the ultimate fashion accessory." Um, OK. I can't really imagine many fashionistas carrying a bottle of Heering around with them, but whatever. At least it helps to explain why, at a recent tasting, I found myself standing next to a stunning, statuesque model who, in her heels, had a good foot of height on me.

Gawking at models aside, the reason I and a bunch of other boozehounds had been assembled at Manhattan's uber-swank Campbell Apartment bar was for a history lesson of sorts. A handful of vintage bottles of Heering had been unearthed, and we were there to try two -- one from 1950 and one from 1890 (later discovered to actually be from 1888). Since Cherry Heering is a brandy-based liqueur, it can age in the bottle much as wine does. Nobody, including the distinguished tasting panel and the CEO of the company, who was on hand for the occasion, knew exactly what we'd be getting.

The affair started with a taste of a new, 2010 bottle of Cherry Heering, both to establish a baseline and to remind us all what a fine liqueur it is. It's got a lovely, deep red color (all natural -- no artificial nothin' in this stuff) and a rich and viscous mouth feel. Once it hits the taste buds, you get a nice peppery kick, and along with the dominant cherry notes you'll get traces of prune, chocolate, almonds, and even a touch of mustard greens at the end.

Then we got down to business with the 1950 vintage bottle, which was successfully uncorked in one piece by Robert Hamilton, the sommelier at Porter House in Manhattan. It tasted, well... older. The dried fruit notes were more pronounced, the nose was a little more musty, the color a little more brown than red. It had the elegance of a dowager as opposed to the flowering beauty of a debutante. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, although the all-star tasting panel, including Tony "The Modern Mixologist" Abou-Ganim and former Iron Chef Judge Akiko Katayama, didn't seem particularly impressed. Still, after six decades in the bottle, I thought it had held up pretty well.

The main event, the 1888 bottle, blew away both the tasting panel and the invited guests. Unlike the 1950 vintage, the 1888 was still very lively, with a dark ruby-red color. It had pronounced notes of chocolate, cigar and orange peel, providing a refreshing balance of acidity and sweetness. In fact, what really impressed me is how much it tasted like the 2010 vintage. It's an amazing indicator of how little this stuff has changed since the 19th century.

It's true that 120 years of aging does create a more refined Cherry Heering, with a little more subtlety and depth. But the next best thing (apart from bidding on another 1890-era bottle that's being auctioned in the coming weeks) is a new bottle direct from Denmark, via your local liquor store. For aspiring mixologists, here are the recipes for my two favorite Heering cocktails:

Singapore Sling
2 parts gin
1 part Cherry Heering
1 part lime juice
8 parts pineapple juice
1/2 part each Cointreau, Dom Benedictine, grenadine
Dash of Angostura bitters.

Shake with ice and pour into a tall glass. Garnish with a cherry and pineapple slice.

For a slightly less complicated concoction, try the Blood And Sand:

2 parts Scotch whisky
1 part Cherry Heering
1 part sweet vermouth
1 part orange juice

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish with orange peel. Sounds a little weird, but once you take a sip it all makes sense.