The cocktail scene these days is bananas (que the Gwen Stefani references, please). But, really -- banana has become the flavor-du-jour in recent years, appearing in everything from Art Basel to Bananavardiers (more on that later). These drinks eschew the candy-like, artificially sweet banana flavor and instead opt for a tropical, yet sophisticated, infusion of the rich, sweet fruit flavor. For many, it feels like a head-scratcher: But...how? And why? Why did banana go from children’s candy to “haute cocktail,” and what lessons can we possibly take from that (if any)? These trends may feel very fly-by-night, but as it turns out, they can often speak to some larger mentality within cocktail and bar culture. Today, we’re going to look at the American bar’s long-storied, love-and-hate relationship with the banana, and how we got ‘here’ from ‘there’.
There are two potential points of inception for the ongoing banana trend. First was the opening of Chicago’s now-famed Tiki Bar Three Dots and a Dash. The bar does a lot of things right, and their banana cocktail was no exception. Three Dots included a drink on their opening menu known as the “Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri”, which was made from rum, coconut liqueur, and fresh banana -- all blended up over crushed ice to make a veritable and modern Tiki classic. The drink was garnished with a half banana carved to resemble a dolphin, creating a surefire Instagram hit. What’s not to love, really? On the other hand, a newly-available liqueur may be the inspiration for all things banana in recent years. Charlotte Voisey, director of Brand Advocacy at William Grant & Sons, told Vinepair: “I think that banana made an entrance into high-end bars and cocktails when Giffard’s Banane du Bresil liqueur became widely available in the USA.”
...it’s important to note that the banana was only recently dropped from the American cocktail canon.
For the unindoctrinated out there: Giffard’s Banane Du Bresil is a South American liqueur made by macerating bananas in a neutral spirit, and then adding a generous splash of cognac. The result is a delightfully tropical and sweet spirit with a pleasantly soft mouthfeel. We’d definitely recommend it. But, we digress.
While either of these instances may have caused the recent bananamania, it’s important to note that the banana was only recently dropped from the American cocktail canon. Bananas were a central piece of the 1950s Tiki craze, and before then, banana liqueur was a favorite way for rum drinkers to cheat their way into creating better-quality rum. Many of the tropical-aging techniques resulted in banana-forward flavors, so adding a bit of banana liqueur to low-grade rum was often used to simulate intense tropical aging.
As the Tiki crazed died down, though, so did the interest in banana liqueur. This coincided with an uptick in factory farming and large-scale banana growing in South American and Pacific countries. As the fruit became much more available to the average consumer, it lost its status as an exotic ingredient, instead finding its place in the lunchboxes and breakfast tables of suburban America. During these years, quality banana liqueur was nearly impossible to find, replaced almost entirely by artificial, hyper-sweet alternatives.
So, what are modern, cutting-edge bartenders doing with the banana? Well, it seems the fruit’s place in today’s cocktail culture knows no bounds.
Some bars have created house-made banana tea by steeping banana stumps in boiling water. This process makes a subtle, nuanced tropical sweetness that pairs well with dark and robust liquors like bourbon or rye. Elsewhere, the “Banana Boulevardier” is popping up, often known more playfully as the “Bananavardier”. Many cool-weather cocktails are even looking to banana spice as a more novel alternative to pumpkin spice. Heck, even craft beer masters New Holland created a Banana-Coconut porter recently under their “Dragon’s Milk” line. But before you get too crazy...
...Putting a little banana or a little mango juice here and there could be a great way to stay ‘on the wave’, without going too far off-brand.
We should outline some of the problems that seem inherent with having a banana cocktail on your menu, and some of the things that this trend did well to overcome. First, there are the logistical issues. Bananas don’t last more than a couple of days, so if you’re planning on using fresh banana in a drink… you better hope it’s selling! Additionally, the texture of a banana makes it very difficult to include in a drink. It lands somewhere between mealy and creamy, so a blender feels necessary to do much of anything with the fruit. With this in mind, many bartenders have opted to go the ‘infusions’ route, instead of using fresh bananas on each order. Banana simple syrups and banana infused liquors are both fantastic ways to incorporate the tropical fruit. As the Spinzall Centrifuge becomes more accessible to bars and restaurants, that presents a way to bring the banana flavor as well.
All of this is fine and good, but what exactly does the bananamania mean for us all? Well, we can use it as a case study for how to properly capitalize on trends without needing to overhaul your entire operation. As the tiki trend has made its resurgence, incorporating tiki-inspired flavors and ingredients is proving a great way to tap into the public’s ever-changing tastes. Trends are so wildly diverse and fleeting, that they often don’t quite fit your establishment. If that’s the case, look to small-scale inspirations and cues from these trends to make adjustments to your menu. If you’re running a speakeasy-style bar in the midst of a Tiki-crazy, adding three different Mai Tais to your menu may not be advisable. But, putting a little banana or a little mango juice here and there could be a great way to stay ‘on the wave’, without going too far off-brand.
All in all, we love bananamania. It’s a great ingredient with great flavor that is surprisingly versatile. Using fresh bananas in your establishment might not be realistic or logistically viable, but with banana infusions and liqueurs now available in the States… we say go for it! Do some experimenting, see what works for you, and consider how your bar utilizes trends like the current Tiki craze. Even if banana isn’t a good fit, it’s entirely possible that the next big thing has a natural home on your menu.