The Cocktail World’s Man Behind the Curtain

From sewing his own Muppets to infusing mezcal with marijuana to inventing "fat-washing," Don Lee's intellect and curiosity have become legendary. Leslie Pariseau on the cocktail world's one true renaissance man.

Before he drank his first proper cocktail, Don Lee possessed a résumé requisite for becoming the cocktail world’s only true renaissance man.

In high school, he was a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo and took up swing dancing on the weekends. At graduation, Lee applied to West Point in hopes of becoming a cadet, but two ACL injuries deterred him from serving for “duty, honor, country,” as he (and West Point) puts it. With no specific goal in mind, he attended Columbia University and ended up studying photography, thanks to a notoriously tough professor who admitted him to a coveted 14-person seminar he attended as a favor for a friend. Eventually he became an IT Administrator.  And then he started drinking.

He may be little known outside the insular boundaries of the cocktail world, but inside it, Don Lee is a legend. His background status is partially due to the fact that he’s rarely found behind a bar, or serving cocktails at all. He’s more likely to be juicing lemons or perfecting the art of marijuana-infused mezcal in the privacy of his own home. But his influence is everywhere.

Ever heard of bacon-infused cocktails? He invented fat-washing, the technique of infusing spirits with lipids. Stop by New York City’s famed cocktail bar PDT, and you’ll see his original Benton’s Old Fashioned, which has been fixed on the menu since its creation in 2007. Now, bars all over the country have their own versions of pork-spiked this or prosciutto-smoked that. But before he started putting lard into whiskey, Lee just liked watching bartenders.

After a break-up in the mid-2000s, he broke out of his domestic routine—”go to work, go home, make dinner, watch TV, repeat”—and started sitting at bars. He spent an inordinate amount of time at Pegu Club, Milk & Honey and the bygone LeNell’s in Red Hook. “I was at the right place at the right time,” he says. When Death & Co. opened in 2007 he secured such a regular seat at the bar that he began training for shifts behind it. Lee went on to help Jim Meehan open PDT that same year shuttling bacon fat back and forth from fellow neighborhood restaurant Momofuku, where he eventually landed two years later.

I met Don Lee in 2009, while working as a host at Momofuku Ssäm. I stood next to his bar station each evening as he created the first iteration of the restaurant’s cocktail program—all brown spirits, no vodka, gin (Old Tom) Martinis only. At Ssäm, Lee was one of the few bartenders straining Old Fashioneds over block ice long before it became a craft cocktail bar requisite. He would pick up the day’s order in Queens every afternoon, racing back downtown in a cab before the blocks melted. Guests marveled every time one of the crystal-clear cubes was presented—for $1 extra.

“It’s hard to talk about Don, because he’s only showing you 5 percent of who is he at any given time,” says Meehan. “There are the many faces of Don Lee. There’s the deeply nerdy Don Lee, the studly Don Lee, the weed-smoking Don Lee. He’s NASA smart. While most people stretch to use whatever percentage of their brain that is available to them, Don has way more access to his brain than we do.”

Though a quiet innovator—you’ll rarely see him promote his own work—when Lee picks up two shakers, plants one foot slightly in front of the other and starts rocking back and forth, everyone in the room looks up. His charisma sneaks up on you. One minute he’s tinkering with a centrifuge and the next he’s doing the Charleston at a Kentucky Derby party.

Lately, Lee has been perfecting Jell-O shot recipes as the interim beverage director for Golden Cadillac, a ’70s themed East Village bar, in between his day job bagging ice and delivering juice for Cocktail Kingdom’s logistics service (a professional barware and bar book company). But true to his polymath character, he’s itching to take improv classes, has become obsessed with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (he has a drone he plays with in his spare time) and has been thinking about the intricacies of traditional tile work. Friend and bar owner Alex Day recently spotted him on a flight reading a book on body ergonomics. Don Lee as classic renaissance man incarnate is not such a leap.

“It’s hard to talk about Don, because he’s only showing you 5 percent of who is he at any given time,” says Meehan. “There are the many faces of Don Lee. There’s the deeply nerdy Don Lee, the studly Don Lee, the weed-smoking Don Lee. He’s NASA smart. While most people stretch to use whatever percentage of their brain that is available to them, Don has way more access to his brain than we do.”

Between his casual trivia knowledge and neuroscientist-level intelligence, there’s an effortless, but fierce curiosity that fuels it all. “Don Lee loves the puzzle that is the world,” says Day (partner in Death & Co., Nitecap and Honeycut) who remembers forming his first impressions of him through eGullet forums where Lee was an active voice.  At one time, Lee, Day and I were on a beta-Google Hangout regarding the average number of dashes in a bottle of Angostura bitters. Lee asked the obvious, yet entirely existential question, “What is a dash?” After weighing 5000 dashes across four different bottle types he concluded, “It depends.” (But, he adds that if you consider a 16-ounce bottle of Angostura the “standard” bottle, then on average there are 41 dashes per ounce). This is the type of simple and upending question Lee is prone to asking. And then answering. (He’s now designing a dasher bottle using a 3D printer.)

Lee’s way of explaining the world lacks even a hint of condescension or pretension. This is partly why Lee has been such a boon to the media. A Google search for his name and “bartender” turns up a vast trove of advice and counsel. In fact, his media presence is the reason Lee, a second-generation Korean, finally admitted to his parents he was working at a bar. A year into PDT, he’d appeared in both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, and thought it best to come clean before they caught wind of his extra-curriculars. “They never understood why I’d leave a stable corporate job with a pension plan to be a bartender,” he says, “but they accepted that it makes me happy.”

A consistent amusement in the industry, Lee’s fabulous head of wavy hair has inspired memes, including a T-shirt sold at Cocktail Kingdom. He once sported a full head of cornrows and, more than once, a forehead sloping bouffant. Don Lee can pull it off, and without the ego or swagger of an attention-seeker.

“I think Don Lee can do anything,” says cocktail historian David Wondrich. “And that includes have a sense of humor about himself. Most people who can do anything don’t have that.”

Lee’s brilliance sneaks up on you over a series of interactions or a period of years. Suddenly he’s not only a resource, but the resource—seemingly unbiased in his logical analysis of any singular problem: finding the best Jell-O shot recipe, the most efficient way to squeeze limes, where to get soba at 2:30 a.m., how to define the “dash.”

Curiosity has led Lee to master everything from sewing his own Muppets to Korean drumming. Likewise, simply by being curious, Lee has lit-up a new path for the still-nascent cocktail community. Where, previously, old wisdom and mentorship have prevailed as the standards for teaching and the handing down of tradition, Lee has upended conventions simply by asking new questions. And then finding the answers.