Travis McGee said, “Every day, no matter how you fight it, you learn a little more about yourself, and all most of it does is teach humility.” I remember the first time I read those words and thought to myself, “Yeah, right.” I still had the confident ignorance of youth going for me and I had no idea just how much I did not yet know. To be fair, I don’t know all that much now, but at least I am aware of just how much I have yet to learn. As Mark Twain once mused “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience is the result of bad judgement.” Well, I have a ton of experience, which has not necessarily translated into sound judgment. Call it a moral failing but there are some lessons I have not been able to learn, no matter how often life has tried to teach them to me. So in the hope that an old dog can still expand his repertoire of tricks, won’t you please join me as we stand and make the ever elusive, yet remarkably accessible, Bananakin Skywalker.
That is right, after many failed attempts and months of fruitless searching, I have finally cracked the Bananakin Skywalker code and it was so easy, but we will get to that bit later. This drink has been a bit of a holy grail for me ever since we started making the “Cocktails From Quarantine”, my banana flavored Moby Dick, as it were. It was created by Sam Treadway, the owner of one of my favorites, Boston’s backbar. A tiny sign on a nondescript door in an alley just off Somerville’s Union Square, leads to this amazing space with some of the best cocktails I have ever experienced. Their selection of ingredients is unparalleled, especially for such a compact space, and the cocktail program is absolutely top-notch, without ever feeling pretentious. The whole place just has an awesome, welcoming energy. Kinda like going over to your buddy’s converted garage gameroom/chillspace, just a great vibe all the way around, with a waiting list. When we saw the menu, I don’t think I even had a chance to speak before my buddy Jenn, went ahead and ordered this one for me. Smoky scotch and tiki? I am in, all the way. She knows me so well. This was my first foray into tropical drinks with scotch, so I was a little concerned that unlike a Reese’s Cup, this might be two great tastes that don’t go great together. But they did. Oh my god, it was amazing. The first one arrived in a Tusken Raider glass, the second arrived in an alien head, after running through a couple of other drinks on the menu, I am honestly not sure what the third one showed up in. That is how good this drink is. After having plenty to drink already, I opted for just one more, so I could walk away with that taste in my mouth. I wasn’t driving, so why not have one too many for dessert. Let’s make it, so you can see for yourself.
Grab your tins and pop in 1 ounce of Dewar’s 12 Year Old Scotch, 1/2 an ounce of Compass Box Peat Monster Scotch, luckily I still had part of a vial from the “Concise Introduction to the Delicious Range of Whiskies by John Glaser, Whiskymaker” assortment; 1 1/2 ounce of fresh pineapple juice (1/4 ounce less if you are using canned), 3/4 of an ounce of Appertivo Cappelletti, 1/2 an ounce of banana liqueur, I used Giffard’s Banane du Bresil; 1/2 an ounce of fresh squeezed lime juice, 1/4 ounce of maple syrup and 2 stabs of Angostura Bitters. Yeah, that’s a lot of ingredients, like a proper tiki drink. Add ice and shake to the beat of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day“. Sure, that’s a weird choice and a bit slow for shaking, so go on the backbeat as well, though it might be fun to just do a nicely reverent slow shake for such an auspicious drink. I usually choose my drink making music to have something to do with the drink or the lesson, but in this case, it was just kismet. I was shaking the drink and the song came on. When I looked around the kitchen at my 10 year old son helping hand me ingredients and calling out the recipe, while my wife sliced bananas for garnish, I knew that this song was just right for this moment. I mean sure, he was singing about heroin, but I’ll be damned if those fleeting moments of perfect familial harmony aren’t a high at least as elusive as any found in a needle, so we are going with it. When your tins are well-chilled and you have taken a moment to appreciate how blessed you are to all be together at this moment in time, strain over pebble ice into a tiki glass. I chose yet another holy grail, a vintage frosted one from Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort, that the boy found and gave to me for Christmas. I have been saving it for something special and since Disney owns Star Wars now perhaps it will bring that metaphysical balance that Anakin missed in life. Such a fine drink and vessel wants for garnish. So slice some bananas and lime wheels, dust them with brown sugar and hit them with the torch, taking all proper precautions, of course. Add a pineapple frond crown to the glass, lay those caramelized bananas and a lime wheel in there, grate a little fresh cinnamon on the ice and pop in a reusable glass bamboo straw from Surfside Sips.
This drink is fucking amazing. There I said it and lost my PG rating. To be fair, that might have been gone when I compared domestic bliss to a heroin high. Hell, we probably lost it way back at “banana flavored Moby Dick”, you never know what’s gonna set people off. I do know that this drink was everything I remembered and more. Rich and complex, that smoky scotch setting the tone, the pineapple and lime joining the banana to elevate the entire thing with that Cappelletti bringing this amazing almost salty top note that fades to a sweet finish with just a hint of maple and vanilla. So damned good. This is practically perfect tiki, lots of ingredients working together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, reality doesn’t quite reach the level of something you have built up in your mind, but this one exceeds memory. Oh and don’t miss out on those caramelized banana slices or that lime wheel, burned sugar makes everything nicer, trust me. Total satisfaction. Thank you, Mr. Treadway.
Thank you for this drink and for the lesson that I hope I learned working toward today. We are coming up on a year of these unprecedented times™ of staying close to home and doing our best to keep ourselves sane. Through my friends behind the bar at Corsair Distillery and their wonderful cocktail courses I had begun to dabble with making my own drinks and I really missed that camaraderie. Spurred by a gift from my wife, I decided to expand on what they had taught me and try my hand at learning the science, and more importantly, the craft, on my own. I have read voraciously on the subject and been exposed to all sorts of new techniques, tools and ingredients. I have learned a lot, seriously. I don’t create my own drinks, very often, The Dumpster Fire is my only real attempt at something new, but I have a better understanding about how things go together and that is a blessing. After making and sharing over 300 cocktails with varying success, I know enough now, at least, to tell when I mess up and sometimes, how to fix it. I have also gained an even greater respect for the folks tasked with creating new drinks. The skills and knowledge required to succeed in this realm are amazing.
Probably, more than any other, this drink has taught me just how complex it can be to make a simple drink. I have chased this one all over. I started with internet research, looking for this specific drink, with no luck. Then I delved into the world of Scotch and Banana tiki drinks, figuring that had to be a fairly small pool to swim in and if I could not find this drink, I could find something close. I made plenty of the wrong drinks in my quest that never made it to the page, some of them horribly wrong. Seriously, that shit was bananas…b-a-n-a-n-a-s. I actually documented the Tiki Peat, I loved it, but it wasn’t quite there. Then I stumbled across the Traveling Banana, by Sam Treadway of backbar and I knew I had finally found my drink. It is amazing, but it is also a very different drink from this one. I was kind of bummed about that. I mean, this guy has two different Smoky Scotch Banana inspired tiki drinks? Seriously? So, like Elsa, I let it go.
For months, I just stopped trying. I did not forget it, but after many failed attempts trying to tweak the Traveling Banana, I just decided to move on. I discovered that Sam had begun sharing some of his recipes and techniques on his YouTube channel, so I liked and subscribed, as one does, in hopes that he might share this one someday. But, he didn’t. After that week of snowbound isolation, I hit upon an idea so crazy that I almost did not even try it. I considered the options, weighed how it might work out, started to go for it, walked away and reconsidered. Then I came back and tried something I am not very good at; I asked for help.
I am bad at asking people for things. I’ve always tried to be the person that helps other folks, so asking someone else to help me has always been harder than it should be. I am not proud of this, it is just the way it is. It honestly doesn’t occur to me that you can ask someone to show you how to do something, I just set out trying to reinvent the wheel, with expected levels of success. After psyching myself up, I shuffled right up to the contact page on their website and pled my case. I explained my love of the bar, I shared my questionable cocktail bona fides and I asked for the key to this nectar. In the interest of full disclosure, I admitted to writing about drinks, but promised to keep the recipe to myself and only make it on moonlit nights with the shades drawn, if they would only share it with me. I hit send and moved on to other things. Specifically, things that did not involve thinking about having to ask for help, or, more importantly, why that should be so hard. I was super excited to see an email from Sam Treadway pop up in my inbox, sharing not only the recipe, but tips on how to make it better and a blessing to share it with you, gentle reader.
Seriously, how cool is that? You just email a guy, ask for some knowledge you have fruitlessly sought on your own and he just shares it with you. I am grateful, for the recipe and the time taken to make sure I understood how to make it, but more than that I am grateful for the open response. On a practical level, we all know it is ok to ask for help, but a lot of us also find it really difficult to do that. It is especially important at this time in our lives to not be shy if there is some way that others can help to make things better or easier for us. These are strange days we are living in and no one has a blueprint for what the right thing to do is, with any of this. So don’t worry if you feel lost sometimes, we are all in uncharted territory. That’s what unprecedented means, we have no practical experience to fall back on here. The good news is we do have each other. We can all continue to try to take care of one another. You know I have been preaching about those better angels of our nature for quite some time, and as silly as it might seem, a guy in Tennessee reaching out to a stranger in Massachusetts for help and getting it, without hindrance, gives me a little more faith that we are going to be ok. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not much. A couple of guys exchanging emails is not the point, what matters is the impulse to answer that call when someone asks for help, no matter how inconsequential it may seem. Those little kindnesses are what will pull us through and make us stronger than we were, if we are willing to take that chance and ask for help. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.