Equal parts Cognac and crème de banane, the Banana Bliss has not received due attention in our current cocktail revival (despite it having resuscitated everything from the obscure Brandy Crusta to the infamous Blood and Sand). Likely, it’s the banana liqueur that’s to blame; as a whole, the category is often dismissed as overly cloying and artificial. But according to bartender Caitlin Laman, beverage manager of Ace Hotel Chicago, the Bliss is nonetheless worthy of re-examination.
The simple drink originates in the 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book, compiled by William J. Tarling, who tended bar at London’s still-operational Hotel Café Royal. With recipes like the Aviation and the Picador, an early name for what we now know as the Margarita, this collection provides a detailed snapshot of a time characterized by a tug-of-war between old school and new school. Though classic drinks were still being born, bartenders of the era were also beginning to experiment with spirits uncommon in England at the time, like vodka and tequila.
In fact, in the introduction to the book, Tarling, who co-founded the United Kingdom Bartending Guild alongside Harry Craddock, implores readers to keep an open mind about the fresh ideas permeating the profession. “[At] the majority of Cocktail parties, there is little variation in the cocktails offered, and each party is apt to have a monotonous repetition,” writes Tarling. “Therefore, I ask my readers to try the modern cocktails.”
One such drink was the Banana Bliss, credited to an otherwise anonymous “E. Angerosa,” which calls on nothing more than Bols Banana Liqueur and Courvoisier Brandy XXX, shaken.
A relative dearth in historical liqueur-based cocktails made the discovery of the Bliss all the more valuable to John Troia of California’s Tempus Fugit Spirits, which seeks to recreate historic, pre-Prohibition liqueurs once considered lost, and bring them back to market. Troia, at the time he discovered the Bliss, was trying to revive the archaic crème de banane as an alternative to the over-sweet options that had tainted the reputation of banana-flavored cocktails.
It was Troia, in fact, who introduced Laman, a longtime advocate for under-appreciated brandy drinks, to the original cocktail. Recognizing its innate potential as an after-dinner drink, Laman added oloroso sherry to the build to add complexity and highlight its dessert-like qualities. (In doing so, she also trimmed the banana liqueur down to a quarter of an ounce.) From there, she opted to stir her version instead of shake it, to minimize dilution. “It’s two totally different drinks, based on how you make it,” she says. “To me, that is something kinda nerdy, but also kinda whimsical.”
Characterized by dark fruit and nut aromas, the profile of oloroso mingles so well with the banana liqueur that, according to Laman, “It’s almost like cheating.” Importantly, it also makes for a less spirit-forward drink. Per Laman, in her version of the Bliss, the brandy almost functions as a referee: “You have this intense, deep banana flavor, then this kind of salty, nutty thing,” she says. “The Cognac is like, ‘I’m gonna mellow you guys out a little bit.’”