This Is Not a Banana

Today’s most innovative bartenders are on a mission to uncover the spectrum of flavors hidden within the ingredients we think we know.

At his new bar, Lyaness, London cocktail impresario Ryan Chetiyawardana was determined to incorporate one of his most beloved fruits, the banana, into the cocktail menu. But he wanted to avoid the confected, candylike expression of most “banana-flavored” products on the market. So he invented his own. After extensive research and development his team put the finishing touches on a mind-bending cordial made by blending together batches of cured, fresh-cut, perfectly ripe and slow-roasted banana. They called it Infinite Banana, a nod to the countless permutations of flavor that can be teased out of a single piece of fruit.

“Single is not singular,” says Chetiyawardana, who built the entire Lyaness menu around seven similarly supercharged flavor composites, including Ultra Raspberry and Purple Pineapple. “It’s not about going, ‘We sourced the bananas nobody else can get a hold of.’ It’s about taking that everyday fruit and going, ‘This can be remarkable if you put the right care and attention to it.’”

At like-minded innovative bars around the world, the approach of focusing on a solitary ingredient or flavor and unpacking its natural complexity is gaining purchase. Instead of beginning with a known blueprint (the Old-Fashioned, say) or genre of a given cocktail, it begins with an element that captures their imagination; it’s then deconstructed and reinterpreted, with the volume turned up to 11. At Operation Dagger in Singapore, concrete nouns double as drink names, each representing the basic taste expressed or played upon (Lilies, Strawberry Gum, Bee Pollen 2015). At Monica Berg’s new London bar with Alex Kratena, Tayēr + Elementary, drinks are listed only by ingredients, with the main flavor (Butter, Vetiver, Apricot) bolded. And at New York’s Existing Conditions, the team taps into the emotional valence of well-known flavors (peach Snapple, waffles with syrup) and builds drinks around them. It’s a platonic turn of mind for a pluralist industry based on mixing and adding things. But it’s also a way of thinking that suits drink innovators who love to focus on one concept and explore every inch of it.

“When I do a Gin and Tonic, I’m going to strip it down to its bare Gin-and-Tonic-ness,” says Dave Arnold, one of the partners at Existing Conditions, where drinks rely on techniques like pressure cooking and clarifying via centrifuge. “I’ve always been a one-good-note guy. That’s why I played the bass and not piano.”

This approach is a step (or three) removed from the early days of the cocktail renaissance, when bartenders made it their task to simply excavate and rehabilitate the largely forgotten mixological forms: the sours, juleps and slings. Led in part by lovers of history like David Wondrich and Sasha Petraske, the aesthetic of the movement had an antiquarian bent. With the passing of the years, the pre-Prohibition stylistics relaxed into something more casual and contemporary, and bartenders, like chefs, gained access to better produce, as well as new categories of spirits that drew on novel natural flavors. Where conversations with cocktail bartenders in the 2000s tended to be peppered with references to then-obscure 19th-century drink manuals and forgotten ingredients, today you’re more likely to hear about acetic acid, polyphenols and lacto-fermentation. Employing science to “hack” certain ingredients, laying bare the technical structure of the flavors within a certain fruit or childhood candy, has opened up new dimensions of creativity.

Bars like Lyaness and Tayēr + Elementary have found a collaborator and kindred soul in Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits, where Noma alum Lars Williams produces “freeform spirits” that color outside the lines. “It’s about taking a flavor-first approach and not really thinking about what box tradition has cast things in,” says Williams.

A growing distillation bank containing 250 to 300 flavors, as well as a prototyping process that allows for fast iteration, mean Williams and collaborators can pursue countless variations uninhibited by whether a given creation falls into a familiar category like gin or shochu. One of the creative models Williams has pursued, especially through the use of his flavor bank, is that of a parfumerie, approaching a spirit like a scent by layering base, middle and top notes.

It’s a way of thinking shared by Marco Zappia, whose imagination for reinventing the familiar has made the Minneapolis restaurants Martina and the newer Oaxacan spot, Colita, beacons of avant-garde drink-making. He’s taken a similar path of liberation from the big brand-name bottles by layering multiple gins or tequilas in a single drink, abstracting the liquor away from its label and amplifying its essence as a spirit. Armed with a sophisticated knowledge of the chemical processes that create flavor, he, like Chetiyawardana, is interested in uncovering the multifaceted reality beneath an ingredient we think we know.

“A Negroni, for instance, we think of it as a three-ingredient drink,” says Zappia. “But in each of those—the gin, sweet vermouth, and your red bitter—there’s dozens upon dozens of ingredients. So that Negroni is not a three-bottle pickup, it’s a 50-plus ingredient concept.”

It’s become a signature act of Zappia’s—an admirer of El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià—to break down a flavor into its requisite components and rehash them in Wonka-like fashion. Thinking about how to replicate the aspect typically provided by Cointreau in a Margarita, for example, left Zappia asking: “How many different ways can I take the ingredient—orange—and split it into multiple concepts, and then put it back together?”

This led him on a journey of subjecting an orange to maceration, fermentation and lacto-fermentation, creating an orange citrus kombucha. To mimic lime juice, he created an oleo saccharum combined with malic acid, citric acid and sodium citrate. “When you put it all together, I’m like, it has the same sugar content, the same ABV, but the complexity and nuance is a little bit rounder and there’s more things to pick at: Seville orange, navel orange, Curaçao orange.” It’s an orange you won’t find in nature, but one that nevertheless vividly captures the true range of citrus expression in a way that a single variety can’t.

These high-flying ministrations might seem to imply a significant break with the cocktail past, but often the more innovative the approach to the ingredient, the more traditional the drink it’s used in. Each of Chetiyawardana’s seven flavors is paired with three suggested drinks, almost all variations on classics like the Martinez, Airmail and Daiquiri. For all of Zappia’s experimentation with orange, he’s still interested in making a Margarita. But unlike in earlier chapters of the craft cocktail movement, the archetypal recipes are more a destination than an origin.

Don Lee, one of the partners at Existing Conditions, made his name at PDT through an inventive focus on flavor, gaining notoriety for popularizing a fat-washing technique in the creation of the now-famous Benton’s Old Fashioned, a bacon-laced spin on the classic combination of whiskey, bitters and sugar. Yet while he’s often associated with innovative techniques, Lee believes that a drink’s structure basically doesn’t change. No matter how far afield the modern flavornauts might go, he argues, if they plan to make something palatable, it is all but impossible to escape the basic grammar of drink creation.

“Every single cocktail that anyone is doing today, no matter how innovative it may seem, has a fundamental balance,” says Lee. A drink’s ABV, water, acidity and sugar must fall into some proportion to be enjoyed. Those proportions are, by and large, the patterns or ratios that we today call a Collins or a sour. But the journey of cocktail creation often starts far away from a bar—a taste or smell picked up in a restaurant or garden that captivates the mind, demanding exploration. The initial spark to create the Benton’s Old Fashioned began with Lee’s first, revelatory taste of Benton’s bacon at Momofuku—one of those singular sensory encounters where the rest of the world fades away. It’s the kind of deeply personal moment that, through the imaginative use of technical savvy, bartenders like Chetiyawardana and Zappia are looking to create with cocktails that hinge on a single flavor.

“It’s like an earworm: How do I get this melody out of my head?” says Lee. “You get it out of your head by turning it into a drink.”

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