If the birth of any modern cocktail could be considered inevitable, it would be the Bananavardier.
Over the past few years, banana-tinged riffs on the 1920s classic Boulevardier (equal parts whiskey, Campari and sweet vermouth) have popped up far and wide in the drink world, almost as if the flavor combination were predestined to plant its flag in the current cocktail zeitgeist.
Two notable examples have arisen independently—a rare feat in an age when bartenders are constantly sharing ideas online, often in real time. Yet, driven by different motivations—and using very different techniques—Terry Williams in Houston and Austin Hennelly in Los Angeles both homed in on the tropical twist on the bittersweet blueprint.
Williams placed a Banana Boulevardier on the menu at Anvil Bar & Refuge in August 2015. The breakthrough began simple enough—as a way to polish off a bit of banana liqueur left over after a menu development session. Williams paired the liqueur with Campari as a room-temperature 50/50 shot. The combination was “mind-blowingly good,” he recalls. “Just a little bit of random good luck.”
It didn’t take long for the combination to evolve into his Banana Boulevardier, with specs close to the classic: a half-ounce each of Giffard Banane du Brésil and Campari, and the rest of the equal-parts structure intact. The end result reads like the bittersweet original on vacation in the tropics.
Meanwhile, Hennelly created a very different banana Boulevardier when he jumped from New York’s now-shuttered Booker & Dax to Los Angeles’ Majordomo in 2018. His version draws inspiration from the Bananas Justino created by B&D’s Dave Arnold, who developed the technique of blending fresh bananas with booze, then centrifuging the mixture until clear.
“We use the same technique: blending very, very ripe bananas with Suntory Toki whisky,” says Hennelly, who then clarifies the mixture in a Spinzall centrifuge. Both Booker & Dax and Majordomo share the Momofuku pedigree, and the Bananas Justino connection is, in fact, deliberate. “I’m the throughline that has been at both places,” explains Hennelly.
Though he arrived at his version by very deliberate means, Hennelly nonetheless wound up at the same end point as Williams’ accidental discovery: Campari and banana work well together. (Though it was one of the first drinks developed for Majordomo when it opened in early 2018, it has stayed on the menu as a guest favorite.)
One of the reasons it succeeds, says Hennelly, is that banana’s inherent sweetness naturally pairs with “something with a bitter backbone.” For Hennelly, this often means Campari. “No matter where you’re coming from in the cocktail world, if you want something bitter, your mind will first go to a Negroni. The Boulevardier is just an extension of that.” In other words, it was only a matter of time before the banana Boulevardier happened.
Hennelly’s version is heavy on the banana-infused whisky, using a full ounce and a half against smaller amounts of Campari and sweet vermouth. He also adds a couple of dashes of Pernod Absinthe: “There’s something kind of magical about Campari and Pernod together, that tastes like dark chocolate to me,” he says of the trick he learned while working at New York’s Amor y Amargo. The drink is prebatched and prediluted, then stashed in the fridge, ready to be pulled and poured.
Of course, any drink that gains traction in public consciousness is bound to generate a little controversy eventually. When Matt Levy, proprietor of Brooklyn home-speakeasy Covert Cocktail Club read about Williams’ Banana Boulevardier on PUNCH about a year ago, he loved the concept, but took issue with one particular element. “I was so outraged by the idea that they were calling it a ‘Banana Boulevardier’ and not a Bananavardier, I had to rectify the situation and come up with my own,” he recalls.
It took three attempts to reach what he now refers to, appropriately, as “Bananavardier 3.0.” Like the Anvil version that inspired his own take, a small amount of Giffard Banane du Brésil supplies the requisite banana flavor. But Levy leans into the tropical nature of this addition by bringing pineapple into the mix, too. The first attempt called on Bittermens Tepache, a spiced pineapple liqueur, which “muddied the flavors.” Version 2.0 omitted the liqueur, “but something was missing,” Levy explains.
The current 3.0 version infuses the Campari with wedges of fresh pineapple, which, having leached some of Campari’s signature hue, are later put to use as garnishes for the drink. “It’s a secret tiki drink, basically,” says Levy, who sees “endless variations” within the template, such as swapping in a peated Scotch for the bourbon, working with a different red bitter to add floral or fruity nuance, or infusing the sweet vermouth with other fruit, such as papaya.
“How far can you push the concept of the Bananavardier?” he asks. His tropical-accented version is likely only one of many to have spontaneously sprung into being.
Levy is particularly enthusiastic about this prospect. “That would be great,” he says. “I want to get us together and have a Bananavardier party.”