Here’s how award-winning bartender Hayden Lambert develops new drinks

Hayden Lambert at Above Board.

Sometimes, any means to an end will do. Sometimes, well, the process is what matters.

We’ve always been fascinated with the drinks that the Australian industry dishes up, whether they tend toward the out-there, conceptual, transgressive end of the spectrum; or whether they’re more simple three or four ingredient affairs — drinks like this one from Above Board bartender and co-owner, Hayden Lambert.

Here we have asked Lambert to walk us through the conception of this drink. And given that he’s one of the country’s best proponents of the classically structured drink, we asked him to share with us the way he approaches his craft.

As told to Sam Bygrave

It’s called the Bananadrama. Originally it was called the Bananarama, but not many people liked the Bananarama as the name and that caused too much drama — so it became the Bananadrama. 

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It was a little bit of an experiment in the bar with a couple of things: first was acidity, we only use lemon, lime and orange juice at Above Board, so it was an interesting way to bring in a different style of acidity that was, yeah, it was more controllable than lime and lemon juice. And then the other part of it was, we didn’t really have any mezcal, and people love tequila but Melbourne loves mezcal. 

We got a lot people asking for mezcal drinks. And I thought, well, I haven’t really played with mezcal, so we introduced a couple of things that weren’t really in the Above Board wheelhouse which were mezcal and verjus. You know, it was just a combination of the two.

We took an Old Fashioned-style structure, and we tried to layer the smoked lightness of mezcal on top of banana, or vice-versa.

The Bananadrama.

You’re like, banana and mezcal shouldn’t really go together… but then I thought Scotch has a lot of those smoky, bacon, butterscotch, banana ester flavours so what you’re kind of making is a makeshift Scotch whisky with a little bit of acidity — does that make sense? In my brain that’s how I was trying to layer it.

So we were just trying to create that kind of flavour profile, introduce that to our customers in an interesting and sometimes divisive way. Because I think, you know, we can produce drinks that taste amazing and I’m all for those drinks, but we also need to produce a drink once in a while that’s challenging. Not everything has to be challenging; you know, you don’t have to go to a bar just to be challenged.

The idea was a little bit of acidity through the verjus, and then a little dash of bitters to bridge the gap between the banana and the mezcal. Serve it over a big piece of ice, and then give it a lemon zest so it still has that aromatic aroma. That’s about it.

We conceive the idea, and then we present it to customers, and we present it to a very limited amount of customers. And we try to find the right match for customers — if it’s a sweeter style drink, then we’re not going to present it to someone who likes bitter flavours and vice-versa. You’re going to to try and find your customer. 

The thing we’re looking for is instant feedback, not verbal feedback because I think people lie — at Above Board it’s so simple, we’re half a metre away from our customer at any one time, and you can see when they’re liking the drink and when they’re not.

You need to work on it, you need to tweak it and you need to develop it, and then a lot of the time I think your imagination is a really great way to make drinks, but you need to be careful because your imagination can tell you that that’s been done, or that’s not going to work, so you self-audit yourself. You get to a point in your bartending career where the books and the stuff that you own are probably more of a collector’s item as opposed than actual reference item.

You need to have a solid base. And then you can work it into two different ways: you can take it back and make it simpler, or you could take it forward and make it more complex, and that’s where clarification comes in, or something like sous-vide, or in the rotovap, where you take it to the most progressive end of the scale. Because we’re not the most progressive bar, we don’t follow that all the way through; we’re working with the simplicity of three or four ingredients.  

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