The Banshee began its life at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, a famed Milwaukee bar, sometime in the middle decades of the 20th century. The mixture of banana and chocolate liqueurs and cream make it read like a lesser-known cousin of the Grasshopper. Unsurprisingly, the Wisconsin bar was also responsible for dairy-driven drinks like the Pink Squirrel and Blue Tail Fly—both staples of the dairy drink canon.
But for New York–based bartender Garret Richard, who first encountered the Banshee on a visit to Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, the drink belongs to the tropical dessert cocktail category, which encompasses drinks like the Rum Cow and Banana Cow. A bygone subgenre that hasn’t been taken up by today’s tiki revivalists (at least not on a large scale), these dairy- and chocolate-laced drinks provided much-needed relief to guests at tiki restaurants, according to Richard. “When you’re having several swizzle- and Daiquiri-style drinks, it’s nice to take a break from the acid,” he explains.
For his take on the Banshee, Richard first turned to his favorite Grasshopper recipe, which is heavily influenced by Paul Gustings’ brandy-spiked version. To keep with the tropical theme, though, Richard swapped a small measure of rum in place of the brandy. A Demerara rum, his spirit of choice for the drink, provided contrast from the Banshee’s other flavors, thanks to its orange peel, molasses and caramel notes.
Instead of reaching for one of the industry’s favorite banana liqueurs, such as Tempus Fugit or Giffard, Richard prefers his “Banana Bunch” liqueur, which he’s been developing for a decade for use in drinks like a cachaça-based cocktail, the Cleopatra, that he served at Slowly Shirley. The homemade liqueur uses a high-proof schnapps, 99 Bananas, as its base, which Richard then infuses with freeze-dried bananas. He likes that it provides the “cooked,” ripe flavors people want in a tropical drink. “This is a populist kind of banana flavor that I think everyone can identify, reminiscent of bananas Foster,” he says.
And, for a tropical-drinks nerd like him, it’s a point of fascination that the chemical used to make artificial banana flavor (as in the schnapps) was developed from the now-nearly extinct Gros Michel banana variety, which was the dominant species until the mid-20th century. The creamier, tangier banana flavor offers a taste of what early tiki practitioners would have been using in their drinks.
The chocolate element of Richard’s Banshee is twofold. First, he turns to Tempus Fugit crème de cacao, which offers a rich chocolate flavor, vanilla notes and hints of baking spice. The other chocolate component is a dash of bitters made with a technique from Dave Arnold, in which cacao nibs, gentian, quassia and mace get packed into an iSi canister to quickly infuse a neutral spirit. Richard calls the chocolate notes contributed by the bitters “clean”; they also help to keep the drink’s sweetness in check.
Neither shaken nor blended in a traditional blender, Richard’s version of the Banshee takes a cue from the creamy drinks at the tropical haven Tiki-Ti. He calls for flash-blending the cocktail to aerate the drink more effectively and to extend its life; creamy, up drinks that are shaken tend to fall flat quickly.
Like many flash-blended drinks, it’s served on crushed ice. A dusting of fresh nutmeg is applied atop, both because it’s a classic tropical drink garnish and because the spice channels its fraternal twin, mace, contained in the bitters. At Brooklyn’s Sunken Harbor Club, where Richard is chief cocktail officer, the cocktail gets an additional garnish: a salty plantain chip.
To Richard, the Banshee is the superlative chocolate-and-cream cocktail. Light and airy, yet still creamy and decadent, the dessert cocktail means, for Richard, “you can sort of have your cake and eat it, too.”