How to Substitute (Reverse Engineer) Navan Tahitian Vanilla Liquor For Use In Cocktails?
Navan was a delicious Cognac based Tahitian vanilla liquor used for a couple recipes in my first cocktail book, Kahuna Kevin's Tiki Cocktails Volume 1, written in 2009. Over the past couple years, I've had many readers ask where to find Navan liquor, so here's a simplified explanation of what happened to Navan, and how to make a decent substitute for your home or professional bar.
Unfortunately the maker of Navan (same maker as Grand Marnier, the bottle shape was even similar) ceased production years ago due to slow sales, the product was quickly phased out, and the spirit offerings today are sadly short of a decent quality vanilla liquor substitute or competing product. Navan liquor had a wonderful Tahitian vanilla floral bouquet, accented by sweet honey notes and tongue warming Cognac. The taste was exceptional by itself as an after dinner sipper, as well as mixed in cocktails, in my personal case Tiki drinks.
Unless you were lucky enough to catch the rare online article mentioning Navan's production closure (swift demise), and hoarded bottles soon after (I've only got 1 small 375ml bottle left after dropping and breaking a new 750ml during my move), you're basically left to your own devices finding a substitute (Hint: There are NONE), or in this case reverse engineering a suitable quality alternative.
Here's the basics on how to recreate one of my favorite flavored liquors, for you to remake my earliest cocktails as intended, but ALSO hopefully a few of you out there will experiment on your own and bring some new Tiki drinks (or non-Tiki) to life that otherwise would have never existed.
What you'll need...
1. A decent mid to high grade sipping Cognac. This is the backbone of the liquor so don't skimp kids! Once the higher quality/proof Cognacs hit water they really open up.
2. Organic Grade A Clover Honey. Do NOT use flavored honeys, like mesquite, etc. You want the Tahitian vanilla and Cognac to be the stars of this liquor, with a simple but high quality honey to smooth out the overall alcohol burn.
3. Purchase Nielsen-Massey Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract. 8 ounce bottles are available at Amazon.com. (This is the best and most flavorful vanilla extract that you will ever find for the price. Great for baking too! Awesome investment for your home bar and kitchen. Put some in a small atomizer as well to flavor other cocktails, because you WILL use this, it's that delicious!)
*Some may be asking why not just use real Tahitian vanilla beans to extract in the Cognac... Simple: CONTROL. Different proof Cognacs will extract botanicals at different speeds, and you can easily wreck an entire batch (too vanilla forward) if not extremely careful. Adding a quality Tahitian vanilla extract gives you absolute control over the liquor to Vanilla and honey balance in real time, and saves potentially trashing both expensive vanilla beans and Cognac.*
-Add 6-12 ounces of Cognac to a Mason jar or other tall cocktail mixing glass. Make sure it's something easy to pour the final mixture into another bottle preferred for storage and to use when actually mixing cocktails. Right now all we care about is ease of mixing ingredients without spilling and ease of checking for consistency and flavor balance.
-Add honey and stir until fully dissolved (do NOT use heat!), until the consistency starts to slightly thicken, similar to the consistency of Simple Sugar Syrup. Simple Syrup is 1:1 ratio sugar to water, so be careful as you approach this halfway point with honey not to go overboard. Less is better at first, sample, add more. The Cognac's alcohol proof will be the deciding factor on final honey amount and overall flavor balance, and main reason I'm not posting an actual recipe with ratio numbers.
-Sample the mixture at each addition. It should be sweet, but also let the Cognac cut through with a nice warming effect. If overly sweet, add small amounts of Cognac until the flavor is balanced again and a pleasant warming Cognac heat returns to the tongue. Warm, not burn.
-Start adding the Tahitian Vanilla extract in small 1/4 teaspoon quantities. Stir the mixture completely. Always sample again before proceeding to gauge where you're at. Add more vanilla as needed (you may want to use an eyedropper at the latest stage) until it's balanced between the honey and Cognac, not overpowering. What you're trying to achieve as an overall flavor is a honey sweet floral vanilla note, then the Cognac warmth wraps everything together and lingers. Scent should similarly be vanilla honey sweetness upfront before the Cognac alcohol completely permeates the nose a split second later.
Nothing should overpower the other, but the Tahitian vanilla is ever so slightly forward, as I'm sampling the original Navan right now as I type.
Once this balance is achieved, transfer the mixture into a bottle with a screw cap or air tight stopper, preferably a bottle the size of the mixture. Do NOT store half a bottle worth of liquor into a bottle twice as large. Air is the enemy, and this extra air gap will only oxidize the beautiful flavors faster over time. Store in the fridge if you're not going to use completely in the next month or two.
Those last 2 sentences should apply to any other natural ingredient liquors in your bar, and any hard alcohol half or more empty should be transfered to smaller bottles to eliminate oxidization degradation. Also keep everything away from indoor light, sunlight, and far away from direct heat sources above room temperature. Keeping your half empty booze in a sun lit garage mid-summer is a recipe for absolute disaster and sadness.
Lastly, keep notes on the brand of Cognac, alcohol proof and ingredient ratios to speed up making your next batch. Don't want to make an entire batch and just need a small amount of this liquor for a couple cocktails? Simply use the same ingredients and steps above, but only use an ounce or so of Cognac as a base starter, then add all other ingredients slowly to taste.
Enough ranting. Now enjoy making drinks from Kahuna Kevin's Tiki Cocktails Volume 1 originally using Navan liquor, and I hope everyone has a blast experimenting and inventing many new cocktails. I think we should call this liquor substitute Kevan...