Modern mixology is bananas. It’s now easier to get a fantastic cocktail in any corner of the country, a win for those of us who consider drinking a four-season, off-court sport. On the flip side, the movement elevates prices and the sort of panoramic pretension in which your Uncle Jimmy describes his Applebee’s Margarita as “unbalanced.”
Thankfully, the anti-elitist backlash has begun. Talented bartenders are reclaiming the cocktails and ingredients deemed passé in the early aughts. “There are no bad drinks, only bad bartenders,” impresario Jeffrey Morganthaler told The New York Times last summer. (That story, “When Bad Drinks Go Good,” celebrated a reboot of “trashy disco drinks” like Amaretto and Midori Sours.)
Banana, previously associated with cloying syrups and blender drinks crushed in the wake of a breakup, is ripe for revival. Forward-thinking bartenders are punctuating thoughtful cocktails with top-shelf banana liqueur, homemade banana shrubs, and infusions made with cutting-edge culinary technology.
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A dash of Giffard Banane du Bresil liqueur adds complexity to a bourbon and Oloroso sherry cocktail at Diamond Reef, a Brooklyn cocktail bar from NYC’s Attaboy team. Made with fresh fruit and Cognac, Giffard has the smooth, subtle appeal of aged rums. It’s a far cry from the saccharine instant hangover of, say, 99 Bananas, a banana schnapps launched in 1997 and currently sold alongside 15 other liqueurs on the website, 99BrandParty.com.
“I think that banana made an entrance into high-end bars and cocktails when Giffard’s Banane du Bresil liqueur became widely available in the USA,” Charlotte Voisey, director of Brand Advocacy at William Grant & Sons, writes in an email.
Giffard Banane du Bresil also makes an appearance at The Pool Lounge, a swank new cocktail bar in Manhattan. Thomas Waugh’s cerebral menu features drinks inspired by singular ingredients; the simply titled Banana drink combines reposado tequila with Giffard, Amontillado sherry, and housemade ginger syrup.
“I love the combination of sherry and banana together,” Waugh writes. “Since being in Martinique and seeing the massive banana production that goes on there, I knew I wanted to do a banana swizzle.” His version is served in a Collins glass and garnished with Angostura bitters and a baby banana.
In Los Angeles, Hinoki & the Bird bar manager Gregory Westcott creates a homespun “banana tea” by steeping the ends of bananas in boiling water. It lends delicately fruity notes to his Velvet Underground cocktail, made with Eagle Rare bourbon, velvet falernum, and toasted pecan bitters.
“Fresh banana can be tricky as it has quite a thick and heavy texture, but, by way of infusion into a spirit, it can be very effective,” Voisey says. She cites the increasing availability of cocktail expert Dave Arnold’s Spinzall centrifuge as a useful tool for bartenders who want to incorporate nuanced banana flavors into their drinks. “I expect to see an uptick in banana infusions that way,” she adds.
Three Degrees, a bar and restaurant in Portland, Oregon, serves a version of the Banana Justino recipe in Arnold’s 2014 book, “Liquid Intelligence.” Rum, bananas, and vanilla are spun in a centrifuge for 45 minutes, resulting in a clear concoction that’s mixed with coconut water. A centrifuge is also used to create the crystal-clear banana cocktail at Three Dots and a Dash, an iconic tiki bar in Chicago.
The tiki revival undoubtedly contributes to our collective abilities to embrace banana in fancy cocktails. Contemporary bartenders reimagine traditional tiki drinks with top-shelf spirits and fresh-pressed juices, giving tropical flavors like coconut, pineapple, and banana a seat at the modern mixology bar.
“Everything is cyclical,” Dan Jacobs, head chef and owner of DanDan restaurant in Milwaukee, says. He cites Three Dots and a Dash among the influences for DanDan’s tiki-centric drinks menu, including the Dan-anarama, a drink featuring dark rum, Bacardi, lime juice, coconut milk, and housemade banana simple syrup and purée.
Old Stormalong, a tiki-inspired drink at Bambara restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, uses homemade banana shrub alongside Sailor Jerry spiced rum, Plantation rum, cream sherry, and Peychaud’s.
Banana shrub enlivens Bananas in Pajamas, a riff on a Scorpion, the Trader Vic’s tiki classic, at Hollywood’s Ever Bar. Lead bartender Dan Rook combines homemade shrub with Three Sheets spiced rum, Cognac, orgeat, and lemon. Rook thinks any ingredient or cocktail can be redesigned for modern palates, as long as it’s done with care. “It’s just about giving a sh*t about what goes in the glass,” he said in an interview in November.
Seeing as how Maraschino cherries and liqueur now headline cool-kid cocktails like Manhattans and Aviations, there’s no reason why bananas should be relegated to industrially mixed Daiquiris. Reclaiming maligned ingredients with modern mixology might sound like hipster nonsense, but it actually demonstrates the expanse of America’s cocktail evolution.
Snobbery, like taste, is subjective. Perhaps we all had to get a little pretentious before we could apply our newfound tinctures and technology to the Scorpions of yesteryear.
Cover image courtesy of Matt Taylor-Gross.