Bananas don't get much play in the cocktail world because they're mushy and fibrous, making them impossible to juice and gross to muddle. Even when the blender is out, poor old banana is frequently left out of the cocktail party. But the vibrant, tropical flavor of bananas tastes amazing in drinks, especially ones made with rum.
Banana just needs a bit more help getting into liquid form. Banana liqueur (aka creme de banane) is a natural for umbrella drinks and desserts, but it can also add an exotic touch to simpler cocktails. And when you make your own, you can decide if you want a decadent dessert liqueur or a drier banana spirit with just a hint of fruit.
What's Available to Buy?
There really isn't one well-known specialty brand that defines banana liqueur the way that, say, most people think of St Germain when they think of elderflower liqueur or Cherry Heering when they think of cherry liqueur. That's not to say there aren't great banana liqueurs on the market. Bols banana liqueur has a clean banana flavor and gets some extra depth from its rum base.
Some of the other low-cost offerings aren't as refined—DeKuyper, Hiram Walker, and 99 Bananas Schnapps are more like artificially flavored banana candy with an alcohol kick. Most larger liquor stores will carry at least one type of banana liqueur, though I've yet to see any carry some of the fancier French imports like Giffard Banane du Bresil, Gabriel Boudier Creme de Bananes, or Lejay-Lagoute Liqueur de Banane. I hear these are amazing, but haven't been able to track them down myself.
Real bananas taste sweet and bright, while artificial banana flavoring can be cloying and taste like paint. Banana extract and artificial banana just aren't the same as fresh bananas, which in addition to being delicious happen to also be cheap and readily available. Add a couple of bananas to a little rum and sugar, and you have a tasty tropical liqueur for just a few bucks, and it kicks the butt of every banana liqueur I've been able to get my hands on.
As I planned my banana liqueur recipe, there was no doubt that the base should be rum and the sugar should be raw since both would add depth to the liqueur. I used a rum distilled from molasses and turbinado sugar which retained a little molasses flavor. With all that richness, I didn't think vanilla was necessary. However, if you use white sugar or vodka, you may want the added oomph of a vanilla bean. You could even reduce the sugar for a more subtle liqueur or leave the sugar out altogether for a tasty, unusual banana-infused rum.
My favorite way to use banana liqueur is the Banana Daiquiri. But a little splash of homemade creme de banane also adds a nice sweet accent to rum, bourbon, or vodka on the rocks. For a simple summer highball, you can modify a Rum & Coconut Water by adding your banana liqueur to taste. Mix a little with strawberry liqueur and rum on ice with some lime juice, complete with tiny umbrella, or give into the full dessert drink experience by using it in a spiked milkshake.
Of course, there are plenty of actual desserts that benefit from a little banana liqueur, including French Colonial Pie. I want to use it instead of coffee liqueur in this chocolate chip loaf cake. But first, I have an ice cream sundae that's just begging to be drizzled with homemade banana liqueur.