This Banana Liqueur Is a Secret Weapon Behind the Bar
You should put banana liqueur in your Manhattan and in your Negroni. You should drink it with mezcal and scotch and aquavit. You should mix into spirit-forward, bitter, dry and otherwise unlikely cocktails. Banana liqueur—more specifically, Giffard Banane du Bresil ($32)—is the Swiss army knife of bartending ingredients you never knew you needed. But bartenders are in on the secret, and they’ve been using it to make bafflingly delicious cocktails for years now.
Bottles like St-Germain (aka, bartender’s ketchup), St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur appear on almost every backbar because they’re so incredibly useful, even if they seem slightly obscure to the home bartender. Since it launched in 2013, Banane du Bresil has quietly joined that roster at craft cocktail bars across the country. To make the liqueur, Giffard macerates Brazilian bananas with a neutral spirit made from sugar beets and blends the result with banana essence to infuse a wide range of banana flavor. The company also finishes the liqueur with Cognac to deepen the taste and enhance the caramelized sweetness just a touch. Sweet yet subtle and enticingly tropical, it’s nothing like the artificially flavored syrup you know as banana liqueur or créme de banana.
Banane du Bresil filled an immediate need in the market, supplying a flavor bartenders were eager to use, according to Terry Williams of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston. “We all want 99 Bananas or other banana liqueurs to be better,” he says. “I’ve been to resorts in Mexico and had those Chunky Monkey chocolate-banana frozen drinks. We all want some aspect of that, but we don’t want the Runts/Laffy Taffy artificial flavor. Giffard’s was the first to hit the market to start to bring something like that to the table for bartenders looking to use better quality products.”
Chaim Dauermann, beverage director at The Up&Up in New York, seconds that thought. “I don’t think you’re going to find another banana liqueur that is as readily available and is just a natural banana flavor,” he says, adding that for years the stigma around créme de banana scared off bartenders from using banana liqueurs. Committed craft bartenders were still making banana cocktails, but they were relatively difficult because the only way to achieve natural fruit flavor was to incorporate an entire fresh banana.
“With lemons or oranges, we can always get [those flavors] from juice, infusions, oils,” Williams says. “The banana is much harder to extract without high tech equipment or just putting the banana in the drink. It oxidizes and browns. It’s not a sexy color.” Giffard has entirely solved that problem.
While the phrase “banana cocktail” once conjured thoughts of a heavy, sugary beach drink, Banane du Bresil has achieved instant popularity thanks in part to its remarkable versatility. At the new Atomix in New York, Jesse Vida, head bartender of Blacktail, and Samantha Casuga of The Dead Rabbit, use Banane du Bresil in a soju Highball called Three Kingdoms (Hwayo Soju, Dolin Blanc, Banane du Bresil, lime, soda). Natasha David of Nitecap used it in her Bananarac, a take on the classic Sazerac, while Jim Kearns of Slowly Shirley created something wholly unique in the Typical Banana Ambiance (Cognac, curry-infused Clement Barrel Select, Giffard Banane, banana lime cordial, ginger, lime, Underberg, egg white). All of a sudden, banana liqueur no longer belongs in the hands of rowdy spring breakers—it’s a bona fide staple in high-end cocktails.
At Melrose Umbrella Co. in Los Angeles, Scott Eton, who developed an allergy to bananas as a young man, fell in love with Banane du Bresil as a pathway to the banana flavor he loved as a kid. He started adding a splash to just about every drink to see what happened, and the liqueur eventually landed in a cocktail on the menu: the Mezcali Me Banana. The take on a Prickly Pear Margarita reveals how Banane du Bresil can coax nuance out of a fruity Sour. Prickly pear and grapefruit infuse fruit into the usual mix of mezcal, lime and agave syrup, while serrano habanero salt and flamed rosemary heighten the smoky spiced notes in the mezcal. The Giffard, meanwhile, elicits tropical notes from the agave spirit, transporting the overall flavor from the desert to the jungle. “You just need a little bit, just a quarter ounce, and it completely changes a cocktail,” Eton says. “It rounds it out. It’s a tropical curveball for any cocktail.”
At The Up&Up, Dauermann really shows off the liqueur’s range in his Bowie Intro. Suntory Toki Japanese whisky, Krogstad Aquavit, lemon juice, demerara syrup and muddled Luxardo maraschino cherries combine with the Giffard to create something like banana bread slathered in fruit preserves—and it’s a fruity flavor that can be enjoyed year-round. But perhaps the liqueur’s most implausible coupling is in bitter cocktails. Dauermann is fond of an older recipe he developed for Novo Fogo, the Dummy Run, which combines 1.5 ounces of Silver Cachaça with a half-ounce of banana liqueur and a quarter-ounce of Fernet-Branca. Williams splits the ounce of Campari in a classic Boulevardier with banana liqueur, which gives the classic booze-forward cocktail a tropical tinge.
Should you take their cue, Williams, Dauermann and Eton have some advice for home bartenders experimenting with Banane du Bresil. As Dauermann points out, you can swap it for the sweetener in pretty much anything, but especially in cocktails with aged spirits. Williams agrees. In addition to oddball pairings like Campari and sweet vermouth, he suggests bourbon, rye, scotch, aged rum, brandy, Cognac, Spanish brandy, Armagnac and Calvados. “Heaviness and darkness work,” he says. “With white rum, gin and tequila, you have to be careful. Finding the right balance is a little more delicate than those heavier, wood-influenced spirits.”
To start off on the right foot, go with Eton’s suggestion of whiskey—specifically Jack Daniel’s, which he says already boasts some banana notes. “I would say an Old Fashioned is the best start,” Eton says. “You can do a 50-50 split with a dark rum and whiskey, and banana liqueur subbed out for the sugar, and that would be fantastic. Add a little bitters and you have those baking spice notes that trigger banana pie.” That should get you started. Then you can find out how it is in a Banana Martini.