It's a very green cocktail, though sometimes in the dim light it can look blue. This is the first inescapable fact of the Cleopatra, a hit dram at New York City's subterranean cocktail destination Slowly Shirley. "Our idea was to create a bartender's dream bar," says managing partner, beverage director, and longtime barman Jim Kearns. "The sky's the limit in terms of ingredients and serving vessels. It's meant to be a haven for cocktails, for the bartenders who make them and the people who drink them." And so he serves a cocktail inspired by the ghosts of tiki drinks past, one made bright green by an unusual ingredient.
Slowly Shirley bartender Garret Richard is responsible for creating the Cleopatra. Kearns calls him a "tiki ninja," and Richard brought his tiki passion to this particular drink. Richard's first inkling of the Cleopatra came to him at a tiki conference a few years ago, where he learned about a lost tiki tradition of using lime cordials and banana liqueur. He had a drink at Los Angeles' iconic tiki den Tiki-Ti that used those ingredients, and noted that the drink was green at the bottom. "In essence, what I was creating was a modern, deconstructed version of this green banana lime drink" from tiki menus of yore.
Richard worked on devising lime and banana cordials for literally years. The lime cordial is pretty standard: lime juice, granulated sugar, and lime oleo-saccharum (a sugary citrus oil made by resting lime peels in granulated sugar until the oil is extracted, breaking down the sugar). The banana cordial took a bit more work, but here's what Richard figured out: By soaking freeze-dried bananas in high-proof spring break classic 99 Bananas schnapps, he was able to get real banana flavor as well as a the huge punch that comes from the artificial stuff. "It's a high-low game," Kearns beams. Richard turned to Żubrówka, a Polish vodka with a strong flavor of bison grass and a hint of banana and to Avuá Prata Cachaça, a single-sourced Brazilian sugar cane distillate that "is a no brainer" with bananas.
All Richard needed was that green component, and he already had a good idea of what he wanted to use. "Growing up in L.A., at farmers markets you could always get shaved ice with pandan, and I wanted to get that into a cocktail," he states. Pandan, a tropical plant whose leaves are often used in Southeast Asian cooking, "made sense in the cocktail when I finally started working with it," Richard explains. The extract is intensely green, the leaves are nice and fragrant. Kearns explains pandan this way: "It has a flavor profile evocative of coconut and fresh buttered popcorn. It's very hard to identify it if you don't know what it is. It creates roundness in the drink."
"It was a set of flavors I'd never encountered before," Kearns recalls from when Richard first made him the drink for menu consideration. "When I tasted it I knew it was an incredible cocktail. It was one of the only immediate sells of the development process."
See how it comes together below:
- A pandan leaf is knotted and tied to the glass.
- Kearns starts the drink with a quarter ounce dose of demerara syrup. He only uses this unrefined sugar because "white sugar is the vodka of sweeteners."
- Next he adds a half ounce of lime juice. Juice and sugar go first because "they have a profound impact on the flavor of the drink and are also the cheapest."
- Next Kearns adds a full ounce of banana lime cordial, a pre-batched equal combination of the banana liquer and lime cordial.
- Next Kearns add a full ounce of Żubrówka bison grass vodka.
- Kearns says this particular vodka "has a lemon, banana, vanilla thing going on" which makes it a perfect fit for this cocktail.
- Kearns then pours a full ounce of Avuá Prata Cachaça.
- This Brazilian sugar cane distillate brings a funky umami backbone to the cocktail, as well characteristic grassy notes.
- Next comes two serious dashes of McCormick Buco Pandan extract.
- Kearns adds ice to the glass.
- He shakes the mixture over just three ice cubes. He doesn't need to dilute it much.
- The first garnish is an ice shell. Step one is adding crushed ice into a juice squeezer.
- Squeezing the ice will create a the circular shell.
- Kearns adds the ice shell to the drink.
- He also garnishes with an orchid, a classic tiki finish.
- "So much of tiki is about garnish and presentation," says Kearns.
- The Cleopatra.