It’s all about change. A lot of folks talk about “survival of the fittest” but what Darwin was really getting at was the ability to change. Those who are most “fit”
to adapt are the ones who not only survive but excel and prosper when conditions around them change. Think of the world you were born into. How much our ideas of what is right, fair and equitable have changed. How technology has created a new universe of jobs and opportunities while leaving entire industries and mindsets obsolete in its wake. Time is a river and it keeps moving. The truth is, either we adapt to the place and time we live in or we find ourselves stagnating, losing relevance, contact and context, stuck in a backwater as that river moves on without us. Change can be painful, but it is the key that unlocks our future selves. Won’t you please join me now and pass through the crucible as we stand and make the Bananas Foster Manhattan.
I have been thinking about change a lot lately. How we’ve had some, how we need more, how most of it has been scary and how I hate what some of it has cost. When I first read about this drink, I wasn’t thinking about change, but when I started building it was obvious that this one is all about transition. The way heat and mixing unlock elements that were hidden in the ingredients. This cocktail is a true exploration of potential. It was created by Heather Wibbels of Cocktail Contessa as a dessert riff on the Manhattan featuring banana liqueur. She does amazing work with whiskeys, cocktails and words. I stumbled across her work while exploring drinks made with Italicus Bergamot liqueur, and I am more than a little enamored with her drinks. Lots of inspired, yet accessible, creations, you should definitely check them out.
The unsung hero of this drink is an ingredient you will need to make ahead of time, Salted Caramel Syrup. Sure, there are off the shelf options, but I prefer to make things in house when I can and avoid extraneous ingredients. We are going to start by making 1:1 simple syrup, I used 1 1/2 cups each of water and sugar. Bring that to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar is incorporated, let it come up to a rolling boil then stop stirring and let it continue to boil. This is a tricky thing for me, because I want to stir the pot, figuratively and literally. You are going to let this mixture continue to boil for a long time, anywhere from 20-45 minutes. I know that sounds like a lot, but the key here is we are cooking that simple syrup down until the sugars caramelize. About 15-20 minutes in you should see the color begin to change from clear to a pale yellow, progressing on to gold, before arriving at a rich amber color. As soon as it gets to that amber color and you can smell the caramel notes, remove from heat. If you elect to make this recipe, you need to be careful, you are working with boiling liquids that will stick to anything they are spilled on. This is particularly true with this next part. You want to add 1 1/2 cups of hot or even boiling water to this mixture slowly. Take care to not splash or splatter the mixture, bearing in mind that your caramel solution was boiling at a temperature higher than 212°, so the water is going to let off a cloud of steam when it flash boils. Once the water is added, you may have some caramel that has hardened, continuing to stir over heat will incorporate it. At this point add 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, I used Bell Buckle Country Store brand and 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, I used some really cool Maldon Smoked Sea Salt flakes. Give it a good stir and let sit half an hour or so to cool before bottling and store in the refrigerator for up to 30 days.
Ok, with that done let’s make the drink. Grab your mixing pitcher and toss in 2 ounces of whiskey, the original calls for bourbon, but I am really enjoying playing with Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch and its spice notes, so I chose that; 1 ounce of Banane du Bresil, 1/2 an ounce of our salted caramel syrup, 12 drops of Bittermen’s Elemakule Tiki Bitters and 2 stabs of Black Walnut Bitters. Add some artisanal ice and give it a good stir to the beat of Suzanne Vega’s “Caramel“. When well chilled and strain into a fancy coupe and garnish with a slice of banana on a pick, but cover it in sugar and caramelize it with your kitchen torch first. The sugar is good, but fire makes it better. Toss a mint leaf on there for good measure.
That is so damned good and smooth and wonderful and just all the things. I can’t help but think of New Orleans when I take a sip. Booze forward, but with a playful nibble instead of a bite. That salted caramel partners with the banana liqueur to bring this one to heel, taming the harsher notes with a hint of sweet and savory saltiness. There is also a wonderful mouthfeel on this one that surprises me, salt does that sometimes. Not to say that this is a salty drink, you probably won’t even notice it unless you know it is there. It just has a certain, unquantifiable, impossible to truly describe specialness, that you need to experience to understand. This is also not a dessert drink, it is well balanced, but after a good meal in the Quarter, this would be divine.
The key to this drink is the transformative force of fire and its place in creation and destruction. The same fire that matures sugar and water into a rich caramel syrup, boiled the mash to make the whiskey. Those flames that dance across the banana slice, burning the sugar into a golden smoky, candied treat would set the whiskey on fire ruining the drink. It’s all about balance and just the right amount of fire at just the right time. This drink brings together sweet and bitter with fire and ice to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Life does that too. Sometimes, it is too much and things fall apart a the fire consumes our strength. We get stuck in a moment and the river begins to pass us by. It’s those other times, though, that interest me. When that flash of light, the heat of the torch, the pain of transformation, wakes us up from our slumber and pours us back into life with renewed energy, vigor and purpose. Anyone can burn something down, but it takes something special to rebuild from the ashes.
It’s funny that this drink percolated up to the top today. It wasn’t till I was writing about it that I realized it had a lot in common with a dear friend who celebrates another journey round the sun today. She is one of those people with an infectious spirit that is impossible to ignore. A creative powerhouse who always shares freely and gives others the strength to make their own change. A woman who has endured change from without and responded with strength and change from within. One who has passed through that crucible and emerged, ascendant, with a generosity of spirt that cannot be described only experienced. The woman with that indomitable steel beating heart, who creates and shares her own sunbursts from the broken pieces she found and gave new purpose. Here’s to you with much love, happy birthday, Joycelyn. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friend.