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Gone Bananas

How did the humble fruit become the cocktail flavor du jour?

If the precise moment when banana cocktails began to skyrocket toward ubiquity can be pinpointed, it would be July 2013, when Chicago tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash put the Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri on their opening menu.

Made with a trio of rums, house-made coconut liqueur and fresh banana, all blended with crushed ice into a brain freeze–worthy consistency, the drink—served in a tiki mug, garnished with a highly Instagrammable dolphin carved from an actual banana—set off a wave of banana buzz across the bar world. “That was when I started to think about banana again,” says New Orleans bartender Kirk Estopinal, who visited Three Dots and a Dash shortly after the bar opened. Inspired by what he saw there, and assisted by the U.S. debut (also in 2013) of Giffard’s Banane du Brésil liqueur, Estopinal soon added his Banana Spider, a Pisco Sour riff, to the menu at Cane & Table.

But that was just the beginning of bananamania.

While banana-flavored cocktails are far from novel, renewed excitement over all things tiki has stoked interest in the flavor—a central component of one of Trader Vic’s earliest recipes, the Banana Cow—while access to a new wave of banana liqueurs has aided in executing those tropical-flavored fantasies, even at bars firmly outside the tiki realm.

Of course, banana liqueur never went away. It’s existed since the 19th century, when it found a niche market among rum drinkers. “It had a popular application: adding it to cheap or low-quality rums to simulate some of the flavors you’d get from aging a higher-quality rum,” explains John Troia, director and co-founder of Tempus Fugit Spirits, who researched the topic extensively to develop his own banana liqueur, which debuted in late 2018.

But for decades, between the 1950s and the 2000s, banana-flavored drinks were relatively obscure. Most banana liqueurs were considered poor substitutes for the real flavor, and the appetite for banana in cocktails was sparse at best. After all, in the 19th century, despite the proximity to banana-growing countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, bananas themselves were a rarity in the United States and the flavor had not quite caught on.

In the 1930s and 1940s, however, perhaps because of its perceived exoticism at a time when tiki was on the rise, the tropical fruit found its way into a handful of drinks. One was the Banana Bliss, a shaken mixture of equal parts brandy and banana liqueur that appears in the pages of the 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book, compiled by London bartender William J. Tarling. Meanwhile, in the 1940s, Trader Vic introduced his Banana Cow, a blended banana-rum milkshake, that was featured on the menu at Hinky Dinks in Oakland before he re-branded under the Trader Vic name. According to tiki expert Martin Cate, it was the Banana Cow that “made [Trader Vic] realize the power of the exotic on his guests.”

Yet, while the tropical fruit is among the most beloved, the fresh version can be difficult to work with. Dave Arnold, co-owner of New York’s science-minded cocktail bar Existing Conditions, found a workaround for his Bananas Justino. “I was interested in making a banana cocktail that wasn’t thick and gloopy like a smoothie,” he explains in his 2014 book Liquid Intelligence. “I wanted to use just the straight juice, and I wasn’t having much success making it. My yields were poor, and the taste was off.” His solution was to blend the bananas with booze, centrifuging the mixture until clear, yielding “a rum with pure banana flavor.”

A recent wave of enthusiasm over banana desserts, like the brown butter banana brulée at Los Angeles’s Porridge and Puffs and the banana millefeulle at Seattle’s Canlis, has only intensified the craving for the flavor. In fact, many of the techniques used to extract banana flavor from the fruit draw inspiration directly from culinary applications. The fruit is fermented for The Donkey Kong at Broken Shaker NYC, roasted for the Clarified Milk Punch at Dante, freeze-dried into banana chips for the Cleopatra at Slowly Shirley, and infused into oloroso sherry at The NoMad, where the team uses it in an array of cocktails.

But with a growing crop of banana-flavored liqueurs that accurately capture real banana flavor, bartenders have found a welcome addition to the backbar. Giffard’s Banane du Brésil, for example, is made by macerating banana purée in neutral spirit, then blending with a second spirit distilled from bananas and finished with a touch of aged Cognac. To make Tempus Fugit’s Crème de Banane, the white interior of the banana and the banana peels are macerated in two separate batches, distilling each into separate eaux de vie, before blending the two together and sweetening the liqueur.

Estopinal likens Giffard’s version to spiced banana bread (“all tasty, with just a little spice mystery”), putting it to work in the Banana Manhattan at Cane & Table. Meanwhile, Tempus Fugit’s liqueur, which reads more like fresh banana trifle, with hints of Nilla Wafer–like sweetness and a green note, makes its way into the pisco-forward Time Flies cocktail at Cure.

It’s taken several years for banana-accented cocktails to blossom everywhere—even Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri has hopped across Chicago: It moved with its creator, Paul McGee, to his newest outpost, Lost Lake, where it joins other banana cocktails like the Feet First in the Deep End, a stirred mixture of bourbon, rum, amaro and banana liqueur. But to this day, the OG Daiquiri, topped with the banana dolphin seemingly jumping out of the drink, remains the catalyst for the current wave of banana madness.

Looking back, Estopinal notes, “That was the moment when banana became cool again, at least in my eyes.”

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