Several years ago, when I was first developing my appreciation for swanky bars masquerading as modern-day speakeasies, I went to one in Manhattan’s East Village. I wanted to order something for myself that I hadn’t had before, and that I thought would be difficult to acquire or otherwise make on my own. I didn’t know exactly what bacon-washed bourbon was, but I knew it was something I’d never seen on a drink menu (and, besides, I’ve always been of the opinion that bacon makes everything better). So that’s what I got.
Turns out I was at the place where the very concept of “fat-washing” spirits for cocktails originated. In 2007, only a few years before I pulled up a stool, Don Lee, then Beverage Director of Please Don’t Tell, had created what’s believed to be the first cocktail to include a fat-washed spirit. The Benton’s Old Fashioned, a twist on the classic, married a slew of breakfast-y flavors: maple syrup, orange, and—yep—bacon, and is one of the bar’s best sellers to this day, ten years after its creation. Lee himself credits his fat-washing know-how to another NYC-based bartender, Eben Freeman, who ran the bar at the molecular gastronomy–focused restaurant wd~50 at the time.
The good news is, you actually don’t need a highly advanced skill set to fat-wash alcohol. Though the technique is relatively new, the tools and ingredients required to employ it are not. Fat-washing alcohol simply requires that you combine a liquid fat and a spirit, then allow the mixture to solidify (usually by chilling) so that the fat can be skimmed off or strained out. This process yields a spirit with the flavors of the fat with which it was mixed.
When you fat-wash a spirit, you’re technically not deviating too much from a traditional infusion; whether you’re using vanilla beans, chili peppers, or bacon fat, the alcohol will extract both fat-soluble and water-soluble flavor compounds in the ingredient in question (but, while all fat washes are infusions, not all infusions are fat-washed). Fat-washing is just a means of infusing a spirit with another, often savory, flavor, while also altering the overall mouthfeel of the cocktail that the spirit’s included in, making it a bit richer and silkier. In the case of Shaker & Spoon’s Ma Sour from the Austin Without Limits Box, the salted butter fat–washed spirit (see below) adds a salinity that plays well with the other elements of the drink: it tempers the acidity of the lemon and makes the sweetness of the orgeat pop.
You can use a variety of fats for fat-washing: butter, bacon, or other meat fats; even olive, sesame, or coconut oils. No matter the particular fat/booze combo, cocktail recipes that include a fat-washed spirit help to reinforce the connection between food and drink, and how the flavors of one can play off of and complement those of the other.
In Los Angeles, The Walker Inn infuses bourbon with graham crackers for its Campfire Cocktail, while the Ace Hotel features a beverage inspired by Tom Kha soup, starring peanut butter–washed gin. Hollywood’s Spare Room bar turns out the Bikini Kill (created by its Bar Director Yael Vengroff—who also contributed a cocktail to S&S’s Campari Hard Box), made with coconut oil–infused vodka. Chilled Magazine has recipes for all three of these if you’d like to roll up your sleeves and DIY. Or you can recreate a Sazerac made with duck fat-infused rye, served at Haddington’s in Austin. The sesame-infused, gin-based Play It Sam can be found on the menu at DC’s Ripple. Just wanna stick with the classic? New York Mag can help you out if you want to give Don Lee’s original fat-washed cocktail a try at home.
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