I’m prouder of the Banana Dance than almost any other drink that I’ve created. More so than I probably have any right to be. It’s an esoteric, nerdy, centrifuge requiring, relatively prep heavy drink that is ultimately delicious, complicated, and easy to batch and execute in a way that belies its complexity. Its evolution is also a damn good microcosm of my personal journey behind the bar in the past few years.
The Banana Dance began life as the Josephine Baker as an entry for Diageo’s World Class competition three years ago. I had entered my very first competition the year before, a little competition known as World Class and having made it to the Western Regionals I was determined to make it back and prove myself. Prove that I wasn’t just some beach side Santa Monica bartender slinging Vodka Soda’s all day long. I certainly had a chip on my shoulder when I was younger.
For my entry the following year I looked at the spirits available and decided that I wanted to play to my strengths with a stirred drink and ended up riffing on the modern classic the Chet Baker. I knew the base was going to be Ron Zacapa Centenario and I wanted a drink name, and a flavor profile, that would compliment the story and flavors of the rum. Enter Josephine Baker.
Josephine Baker was an African-American ex-Pat who rose to fame as a dancer and performer in Paris in the 1920’s. Earnest Hemingway once called her, “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” While being a multifaceted performer her most famous act, and photos, are of her dancing in a banana skirt. Josephine was more than a performer though. During WWII Josephine used the freedom granted to her as a performer to spy for the Allied troops and help smuggle refugees out of France. She was also incredibly active in the American Civil Rights movement later in life. Pairing this phenomenal woman’s story with a rum crafted by one of the few female master blenders in the world was a no brainer.
Too add to that the Giffard Creme de Banan had just be released which provided a perfect flavor, and thematic, compliment to tie the two together. Add in a little amontillado sherry and a passable Old Fashioned style variation on the Chet Baker was born. It was serviceable but unfortunately didn’t make the cut leaving me out of the competition that year. I knew there was something special in there though and couldn’t let the idea go.
The next year I ended up using some discretionary income to help fund Dave Arnold’s kickstarter for the Spinzall tabletop centrifuge because, well, I’m a nerd. I had already been experimenting with every technique that I possible could from Liquid Intelligence and had voraciously devoured every technique book I could get my hands on. I was actively experimenting with melding flavors in every way that I could. However, there were two pieces of technology that seemed like they would forever bne outside my reach: the rotovap and a centrifuge. Now here was one of those unicorns just sitting on my kitchen counter. I went nuts.
I played with infusing and clarifying everything but one of the most successful experiments was that original pairing of Sherry and banana. It was a relatively simple process, slightly overripe bananas were blended/ together with sherry and Pectin X and the resulting smoothie was run through the Spinzall clarifying the mixture. Here phenomenal fresh banana flavor married perfectly with the sherry with out adding any unnecessary sweetness like other creme products.
The experiments took a hiatus however as I joined Team NoMad as one of the opening Bar Managers for NoMad LA. The training, translating and entire hospitality culture from NYC to LA, and opening four separate venues in a single building consumed my and my team’s attention for months. It was in this period that I also learned to collaborate in a way I never had before.
Not only was this team larger than any I had ever worked with before, it was also the most talented. And while I was a leader this was not a program that was about me or my force of personality as so many venues I had worked on in the past were. This was about the guest experience and about working as a team to create the best product and experience possible. It was demanding, meticulous, and honestly exhausting. The light at the end of the tunnel was R&D.
I love doing drink R&D. I love throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, I love creating crazy ingredients, and I love what seeing other people do with those ingredients. Once we were in a place to start R&Ding drinks specifically for LA I dove in head first. But you never walk into a R&D session with out a concept. The drink hiding up my sleeve that seemed to most fit this NoMad model I had learned was the Josephine Baker, updated with the new clarified Banana Sherry of course.
If you check the NoMad compendium they make phenomenal drinks. They also rely heavily on sherry and a lot of small culinary touches. This comes from the collaborative R&D process as well as the fact that NoMad bar was birthed out of the bar at Eleven Madison Park which is absolutely driven by the mentality of its award winning kitchen.
This was going to be the first time putting any of my drinks through this culinary tasting style with a group of incredibly talented, and opinionated, peers. I’m still amazed to this day how the process can create a drink that is both unrecognizable from the original yet still wholly in the same spirit and design.
The first thing that became clear was that style of sherry needed to be dialed in. We quickly moved away from the darker amontillado in favor of an oloroso which left more acidity with the banana. The Banana Sherry was a crowd favorite and we decided to make it the star of the show. The banana sherry became the base of the drink instead of a modifier.
To add back in some of the richness that the clarification process had stripped out of the sherry we turned to another classic NoMad ingredient, Brown Butter Falernum. Essentially a brown butter washed Velvet Falernum that add in baking spices, a rich mouth feel and tied back into that original idea of bruleed bananas and sherry that had inspired the flavor pairing.
Finding the right balance was tricky because the Falernum can easily overwhelm. As a through line between the Sherry and the Falernum was added Blanc Vermouth. A touch of bitter to go with the vanilla that lengthened the flavors. It wasn’t quite bitter enough so a quarter ounce of Punt e Mes was also added to round out the effect. This firmly moved the drink out of the Old Fashioned style and into the Manhattan style, a subtle but important distinction.
At this point I gave into my true desire to make every drink a whiskey drink and pulled the Zacapa and subbed it with Greenspot Irish Whiskey. This Pure Pot Stilled Irish Whiskey is aged in New American Oak. It has an intrinsic bright green banana note as well as the barrel tannins to be a base for all of these complex flavors to stand on.
At this point the drink was good but the culinary drive for perfection kicked in and we went through countless more variations. The difference between them being a teaspoon of this versus a dash of that. The final touches were a teaspoon of Walnut Liquor to bring a bit more tannin and a nuttiness to compliment the banana as well as a teaspoon of Verjus Blanc to add in a hint of acidity to cut through all of the rich fruits and fats.
The drink was now a lovely fruit forward, complex, surprisingly dry, low ABV stirred drink that still had enough depth and tannin to stand on its own as well as pair with food. It was a real crowd pleaser while still being esoteric and weird. It was my kind of drink. It just needed a garnish and a name.
The garnish was easy. While I personally love an incredibly dry drink I know not everyone does. And the drink ingredients could read sweeter than the final product. So, to appease both types of drinkers a single brush stroke of chocolate ganache was added to the outside of the glass. This allowed the guest to choose their own adventure. If they wanted the drink slightly sweeter they could indulge in the chocolate or leave it alone. It also ads a look of elegance has an elegance that can sit just at the tip of the lips.
The name quickly followed. While the drink had come miles and even years from its roots with Josephine her spirit, her dance, still infused every ounce of this drink and thus it was christened the Banana Dance.
I love this drink. I think that the prep needed for it is relatively small considering the final product. Especially for the Banana Sherry. I was fortunate enough to finally utilize a version of this drink, with the Banana Sherry and Zacapa, at the World Class National Finals this past year bringing the drinks journey full circle.
I’ll never create a drink that’s a modern classic but I hopefully will create things that inspire people and tickle their imagination. The NoMad just published a brand-new cocktail book and while sadly the Banana Dance didn’t make the cut the Banana Sherry did. Bright and bold at the top of the ingredients section is the recipe for Banana Sherry.
Hopefully this little dance will continue to inspire people not only in my extended NoMad family but the entire cocktail community that has embraced me and given me so many opportunities this past decade.
The Banana Dance:
1.5 oz Banana Infused Oloroso Sherry (Preferably Lustau)
.5 oz Greenspot Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey
.5 oz Blanc Vermouth
.5 oz Brown Butter Washed Velvet Falernum
.25 oz Punt e Mes
Tsp Verjus Blanc
Combine All ingredients in a mixing glass.
Short stir with Kold Draft Ice.
Strain into stemmed cocktail glass painted with a chocolate ganache brushstroke.
750 ml Oloroso Sherry
3 overripe bananas
3ml Pectin X
Blend all ingredients together.
Into the Spinzall spindle add 375ml and set to continuous mode.
Once the centrifuge reaches full speed pump the rest of the mixture in at 80ml/minute. The should run clear.
Once all liquid has been pumped into the centrifuge let it run for another 5 minutes then power down and strain the remaining liquid through a chinoios.
Bottle and store under refrigeration for up to three (3) weeks.
Brown Butter Falernum:
750ml Velvet Falernum
.5lbs unsalted butter
Cube butter and place in pot over medium heat.
Melt and constantly whisk butter so that milk solids brown evenly
Continue to brown, whisking constantly, until as dark as the color of an almond skin
Remove from heat, and add velvet falernum
Transfer to cambro and place in freezer until the fat has risen and solidified on the top
Remove solidified fat cap from top and discard
Bottle and store under refrigeration for up to one (1) month