by Paula Marcoux
Ever try any of the tiny wild cherries that weigh down our American or Pin Cherry trees around the start of August? Chances are that you spat out the bitter-skinned, not-very-juicy fruit as quickly as possible. So, they’re not great eating, but they can, with time and technique, make an incredibly good drink. Steeped in alcohol with enough sugar, the intensity of these fruits pays off. Cherry Bounce was a popular tipple in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and for the wild-crafting locavore who can take the long view, it is still an easy and fantastic homemade cordial. Although Cherry Bounce has been made with brandy (in its earliest form) or vodka (in its most recent) or whiskey (in its most moonshine-y), it finds its quintessential New England expression when made with rum, once a local product. The following version, from a late 19th-century manuscript (probably the handiwork of Ruth Spooner Baker), resides in the collection of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, and it used here by their kind permission.
4 lbs sugar
4 qts rum
4 or 5. qts cherries
Soak cherries over night in water, pour it off saving 1 qt. to put with rum and sugar.
Put all together, and shake often the first ten days, and occasionally for three months and until it tastes good. Strain and bottle.
Advice: Often you’ll find a number of cherry trees growing together along an old field, or at the edge of a parking lot. Sample fruits from each tree to find the best-flavored (or the least-worst-flavored) one; there can be a lot of variability. Pick the darkest fruit – virtually black – for best ripeness. Follow the directions, using non-reactive containers and utensils. Don’t break the bank on the rum – something light and not-too-assertive is best for this purpose. In the winter, when you strain out the cherries, taste them before you discard. Early on, they are delicious on ice cream (eventually they become mere ghosts of cherries, when the full complexity of the fruit – pulp, skin, and pit – has been transferred to the rum).
One last proviso: this was and is an alcoholic beverage. It goes down easy and seems almost harmless. Donna Curtin, Executive Director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, shared an anecdote from a remarkable 1799 diary by Julia Bowen, a young Rhode Islander. Julia and some of her well-heeled and well-educated friends packed a picnic with Cherry Bounce as the liquid refreshment; there was much toasting and singing of patriotic songs and dancing around a tree. A long series of mishaps followed including a good deal of floundering about in a stream; there were no fatalities, but the take-home message is clear across the centuries.