In 2007, the Benton’s Old Fashioned, made with bacon fat-washed bourbon, first appeared on the menu at NYC’s PDT. At the time, flavoring liquor with cooking fats seemed unusual, subversive and exciting—and the drink would go on to become the bar’s best-selling cocktail.
Today, by contrast, the technique has become such a fixture on drink menus that there’s no shortage of eye-rolls at the mere mention of it—though it hasn’t faded away. Instead, fat-washing has evolved and fragmented to include methods that, according to Don Lee—inventor of the Benton’s Old Fashioned and current product developer and educator at Cocktail Kingdom—are fat-washing in name only.
“Just like all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne,” he explains, “all fat washes are infusions. Not all infusions are fat-washing.”
To find out where the trend stands today, we talked with bartenders who are using fat-washing—and what we might call “fat-washing-adjacent” techniques—to push cocktails in surprising new directions.
Ingredient: Chocolate Milk | Technique: Milk-Washing
At NYC’s Pouring Ribbons, chocolate milk-washed Koch Espadín mezcal added a subtle cocoa note to My Dear Unfortunate Successor, part of the Moody Authors menu, which ran from October 2016 through April of this year. Served in a tea cup, the drink also included Vida Mezcal, green Chartreuse and a rinse of Copper & Kings lavender absinthe, creating a loose riff on the classic Sazerac.
The cocktail began, simply enough, with a question: “How [can] I bump up the chocolate note in the mezcal?” asked bartender Courtney Colarik. The answer was to combine the spirit with chocolate milk, allow the flavors to marry, then fine-strain out the milk fat to remove cloudiness. According to Lee, this technique is more infusion than fat-washing and shares some DNA with how milk punches are clarified. The same principle applies to infusions made with cheese or butter, unless the milk fat is removed (as in the case of ghee).
Ingredient: Peanut Butter | Technique: Enfleurage
When Nico de Soto—who is particularly prolific with fat-washing and related techniques at Mace in New York and Danico in Paris—wanted to create a peanut butter-washed cocktail, he sought out Lee’s advice.
“Peanut butter was challenging,” de Soto admits. The hardest part was making sure the finished spirit would be clear. As it turns out, the solution came from an unlikely place: a technique called enfleurage, one of the earliest ways of making perfume.
“People would take a neutral oil, spread it across a sheet of glass, then press flowers between these sheets,” Lee explains. The flowers would be peeled away later, leaving the floral scent in the oil. De Soto uses a similar approach, spreading peanut butter thinly across a baking sheet with a lip, then gently pouring spirit across the broad surface to maximize contact between the spirit and nut butter, before pouring off the liquid.
“That technically is a fat-wash,” Lee confirms, “because I’m not getting the peanut [butter] solid, I’m just letting the alcohol flow over the peanut oil on the surface and pull out the flavor.” Infusing peanut butter and alcohol together, however, then trying to strain later? “Not fat-washing.”
Ingredient: Meats or Oils | Technique: Fat-Washing
Today, an increasingly esoteric parade of meats (duck confit, chorizo, foie gras, pork al pastor) and oils (pistachio, avocado, coconut) are finding their way into drinks. While they have all strayed far beyond Lee’s original bacon fat concoction, they all still adhere closest to the traditional method of fat-washing, in which an ingredient is added to spirit, then frozen so that the hardened layer of fat can be easily skimmed or strained away, leaving just the flavor behind.
It’s hard to imagine whether fat-washing will still be on cocktail menus in another decade’s time. But in closer range, it feels like a natural off-shoot of the increasing bond between kitchen and bar, and likely has miles to go before it tires out. De Soto, for his part, certainly isn’t fatigued. He recently broke out the sous-vide machine to melt coconut oil into gin mixed with pandan leaves. The resulting fat-washed gin is a key ingredient in his Coconut Oil Negroni, which will debut on Danico’s menu in June.
Beyond that, he’s also experimenting with flavors from moussaka, a meat and dairy dish built on beef and béchamel, which would potentially require an over-the-top mix of washing and infusion techniques. “I could use that to infuse a drink,” he says breezily. “We have a lot of options.”