We live in a big country, and with that comes a desire to discover unfamiliar parts that exercise different traditions than our own. For example, I am from Wisconsin. Friends from other states have informed me that they always hear Wisconsin is a drinking state. This is accurate. We order beers along with our Bloody Marys. We crack bottles of Angostura bitters for shots. And we joyfully serve and consume ice cream drinks in the cold heart of winter. But when I started traveling through the country for my new book, The United States of Cocktails, I realized each state has their version of Wisconsin’s drinking traditions—if you know where to look.
As I began my research into the country’s idiosyncratic regional drinking habits, one of the early destinations found me in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a very walkable coastal town in the Granite State. Once I started making the rounds downtown, a quintessentially New England tableau offering the right balance of bookstores and breweries, boutique gift shops and historical museums, I discovered a unique spirit infusion popping up on numerous bar menus: banana-infused Jameson. It’s a pairing that makes total sense (even though it’s rarely seen). While bananas have long been associated with rum, Jameson’s flavor profile—honeyed lemon notes, vanilla roundness and toasted cereal softness—pairs well with the tropical fruit. Plus, all it takes to make a batch of the stuff are three ripe bananas, one bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey and three days of patience, then—voilà.
As a lifelong bartender and bar director, I have spent a fair amount of time working with spirit infusions, and have my own easy-at-home favorites: cinnamon-infused bourbon, toasted pecan bitters, coconut fat–washed rum. And for years I have observed and appreciated banana-infused Jameson from a distance, but I’d never personally experienced it on menus anywhere in the world, let alone with the consistency witnessed in and around Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“One thing I’ve noticed in Portsmouth is when one bar gets something unique, just about all the rest have to get it,” explains Erich Kantz of The Wilder, a gastropub in the heart of downtown Port City. “I think it’s because there’s so many bars located in such a small area. So if one bar markets banana-infused Jameson, then everyone needs to have it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right?”
Not only was banana-infused Jameson on the list at one of the first cocktail bars I visited, the cozy, nautical-themed Wallingford Dram (in Kittery, Maine, just across the Piscataqua River and walking distance from Portsmouth), but it appeared on the next bar’s menu that evening, and another destination shortly after. One menu even listed it alongside the other whiskeys on the spirits menu, which is not unlike knighting a spirit to serve the higher level of nobility. Never had I seen so many repetitions in one night than with the amount of banana-infused Jameson in and around one of the nation’s oldest cities.
Portsmouth’s Row 34, Earth Eagle (a brewery with a well-curated cocktail menu), The Wilder and, of course, The Wallingford Dram, all offer some version of banana-infused Jameson. At the latter, the infused whiskey stars in Deepesh Mode, a house cocktail combining banana-infused Jameson with Redbreast 12-year whiskey (another Irish whiskey, produced in copper pot stills and aged in oloroso sherry casks), bitters and Fernet Michaud (a local amaro aged in Maine blueberry wine barrels). But banana-infused Jameson can also easily be enjoyed on the rocks, in an Old-Fashioned, a Whiskey Sour or even punches.
While banana Jameson seems embedded in New Hampshire’s drinking culture, it’s actually a relatively recent newcomer. The infusion was born in New York City circa 2012, by way of Matthew Conway, the general manager of Restaurant Marc Forgione in Tribeca. Though Conway had created a beloved peach-infused Jameson for their summer menu, peaches were starting to move out of season, so Forgione recommended using bananas, which, it turned out, were an ideal complement to the Irish whiskey’s honeyed, fruity, toasted spice notes. The drink grew so popular it soon started appearing on the menus of other New York restaurants, such as Le Bernardin, Jeffrey’s Grocery and Wild Ink, which made an Old-Fashioned variation with banana Jameson, toasted coconut syrup and vanilla tincture, and even at sports clubs—because nothing says “great workout” like feeling the burn of some whiskey in your belly. Since then, Forgione has made many different cocktails with the infusion, but has remained partial to the now-classic offering: chilled banana-infused Jameson served over one big ice cube.
How the pairing wound up in Portsmouth is not quite so linear. Ben Walnicki, who was bartending at The Wallingford Dram back when I visited and is responsible for their Deepesh Mode cocktail, recalls encountering the infusion north of the border before introducing it to his hometown. “The banana Jameson I was making was from Toronto, at a bar called Sweaty Betty’s. I think I introduced banana Jameson to the Moxy in Portsmouth, and my buddy put it on at The Nice, and then it eventually made its way to The Wallingford,” he recalls.
For Michael Pazdon, co-owner of The Wallingford Dram and The Wilder, it was only a matter of time before bananas met Jameson. “The idea that banana and Jameson connect is pretty intuitive,” he says. “Bananas are the Jameson of the fruit world, and Jameson is the banana of the spirit world.” Once it landed in Portsmouth, the power of proximity saw the infusion land on menus all across town. “For a long time, there has been a vibrant restaurant and bar scene in Portsmouth, and Kittery, which is the Brooklyn to the Manhattan of Portsmouth,” explains Pazdon. “Portsmouth is a small community, and the industry clientele will be predictable. Flavor combinations that are great are going to find their way everywhere.”
When asked why he thought Portsmouth had become the adoptive home of banana-infused Jameson, New York originator Conway had a similar response: “Because it’s delicious.”