This Is How Fat-Washing Happened

“For the Record” traces the milestones of modern cocktail culture. This round, how the Benton’s Old Fashioned launched a viral technique.

Upon its opening in 2007, Please Don’t Tell (PDT) was one of the first breakout bars of the New York craft cocktail scene, and the enigmatic Benton’s Old Fashioned was its breakout drink. A classically constructed bourbon Old-Fashioned laced with maple syrup and infused with the flavor of hickory-smoked Benton’s bacon from Tennessee, it introduced the term “fat-washing” to the cocktail-drinking public. In the 12 years since the debut of the Benton’s Old Fashioned, fat-washed cocktails have proliferated, slipping the flavors of nuts, chorizo, olive oil and more into classic blueprints; meanwhile, the original specimen has found its way onto the menus of cocktail bars around the world, while remaining the most ordered drink at its East Village home—PDT serves approximately 1,500 annually.

That the drink should emerge from the sliver of a bar on St. Marks Place came as no surprise. From its early days, the subterranean speakeasy with the phone booth entrance epitomized the many advances in the art of craft cocktails of the time. It was also proximately positioned to borrow inspiration from nearby hotbeds of mid-aughts culinary creativity, including David Chang’s burgeoning Momofuku empire and Sam Mason’s short-lived Tailor, the SoHo bar where bartender Eben Freeman debuted many new ideas, including smoked cocktails.

To track the story of the cocktail’s conception, PUNCH spoke to its inventor, Don Lee; PDT’s founding beverage director, Jim Meehan; early PDT bartender John Deragon; bartender Eben Freeman, whose work at WD-50 and Tailor influenced Lee; and David Chang, whose restaurant Momofuku Ssäm Bar provided a critical assist in the form of a steady supply of Benton’s bacon fat.

Origins

Don Lee (opening bartender at PDT, 2007 to 2010): “The technique they came up with at WD-50—it wasn’t Eben [Freeman], it was a guy named maybe Tona [Palomino, at WD-50]. He may have started on the pastry side, not on the bar side. He had looked up enfleurage, the perfume technique, where you take a sheet of glass, press an oil on it and then press flowers between the two pieces of glass, with oil on each side. You’d lift them up and the flower essence would get transferred into the oil. He had taken that idea and used peanut butter on a sheet pan and then poured a thin layer of alcohol over it, let it sit overnight and then poured it off to get the peanut butter flavor into the alcohol. That was the first fat-washing technique I had ever heard of, and I remember Eben telling me about that.”

John Deragon (opening bartender at PDT, 2007 to 2010): “I can’t remember the exact date, but I know the moment when we first learned about fat-washing. It was when Don and I were sitting at the long-closed Tailor with Eben Freeman behind the bar. He was telling about how he was doing some fat-washing at Tailor and taught us a lot about the enfleurage process.”

Eben Freeman (bar director at WD-50, 2004 to 2006, and Tailor, 2007 to 2009): “I remember Don talking to me about it. I do not remember Don being a customer at WD-50. Sam [Mason, pastry chef at WD-50] was playing around with brown-butter Jameson there, but he was not giving it to customers, and I doubt Don had it there.”

Lee: “In the early days of Momofuku Ssäm Bar, I remember going there one day and—I don’t remember the specific dish—but it had these fat lardons of Benton’s bacon. I’d never had anything like that before. I thought, ‘This is the best bacon I’ve ever had.’ As a joke, I remember asking [chef] Tien Ho, ‘What do you do with all this bacon fat?’ He’s like, ‘You wouldn’t believe it, I’ve got so many quarts of this stuff. I can’t get rid of it.’ I said, ‘Hey, can I have some of it?’”

David Chang (owner and chef of Momofuku Ssäm Bar, 2007 to present): “It wasn’t going to waste. Momofuku was sort of built on Benton’s fat in the sense that . . . we put it in everything, but we were producing so much fat and if you just cook directly in Benton’s fat, it’s too much smoke.”

Lee: “Originally, I thought I’d go home and cook with it. Then I thought, ‘What if I put this into alcohol?’ And I started thinking back on that fat-washing technique that Eben told me about.”

Chang: “Don would always ask for things. He was just a curious individual.”

Research & Development

Jim Meehan (bar director of PDT, 2007 to present): “Don, John Deragon and I workshopped all the menu drinks after the opening together. I don’t recall when [Don] first suggested it, but it was definitely his idea, and not something we focus-grouped.”

Lee: “Looking at American whiskey and the other food traditions of that area, smoked meats [were] a part of that. The first spirit I tried to make the Benton’s Old Fashioned with was Dickel, because Benton’s is based in Tennessee, so I wanted to use a Tennessee whiskey. But, at that time there was some issue, [and] it was impossible to get Dickel. I ended up switching to the Four Roses Yellow Label.”

Deragon: “I remember some early versions where we were trying different amounts of fat . . . We had some pretty horrible ones when you pushed the fat too far. It basically became a smoke bomb. Also, there [were] some variations with garnish, size of orange twist, and also testing with lemon.”

Lee: “When I first told [Jim] the concept, he was wary. Jim has never been a technique first kind of guy. He’s always been a classics kind of guy.”

Meehan: “I remember . . . worrying how much time it would take for our barbacks to cook the . . . bacon and whether they’d be able to nail the infusions consistently with everything else they had to do, so I told Don he’d have to do all the infusions himself if he wanted to put them on the menu. In true Don Lee fashion, he did.”

First Reactions

Freeman: “Pretty sure that Don gave me a sample of the Benton’s Bourbon first, and I must have had it at PDT soon after. Don used better bacon and a jelly bag to make it clear, unlike my version. Don’s version was better, and I was impressed.”

Lee: “All of my early experiments happened on Mondays with John Deragon, so certainly he would’ve been one of the first people to taste it . . . I’m pretty sure the reaction was, ‘This is just stupid. And it’s stupid how good this is.’”

Deragon: “I think we realized very quickly the intense flavor of the Benton’s and the combination of the maple and Four Roses was a winning combination.”

Meehan: “I don’t recall all my initial thoughts, but we put them on the menu, so I must have approved them both despite my initial reservations.”

Lee: “I remember [bartender] Giuseppe González came in. I remember he had way too many of these in a row. I’m like, ‘Dude, you’ve got diabetes. This is not good.’”

Chang: “That was my local bar. I basically lived there for five or six years after service. I drank it and I remember it tasted a lot like Scotch to me . . . That flavor is so distinct, that hickory. I was like, ‘Wow, I just left work where I smell this all day in the food, and now I’m drinking it.’ So, it wasn’t necessarily something I drank all the time, because it reminded me of work.”

Lee: “Most of the time when Dave came, I would run across the street and get a six-pack of Miller High Life and put that on a bucket of ice. That, and neat pours of bourbon.”

Meehan: “While the infusion gets a lot of credit for the drink’s success, a lot of people forget that the large ice cube was also a popular novelty back then. Milk & Honey and Little Branch used hand-carved ice, then Eben Freeman was the first in the city to use large ice cube molds at Tailor. We adopted his method.”

Legacy

Deragon: “I think during this time Tailor was doing a ton of really cutting-edge cocktails, and we ended up sending a lot of people over to Tailor to check things out, so I think in a way the two bars fed off each other, as we were trying to push some boundaries on drinks back then . . . I think it sort of took off by word of mouth, and within a month we were selling a ton of it.”

Meehan: “It checked all the trend boxes, from heritage ham/bacon, large ice cube, American whiskey and an old-fashioned cocktail, and people kept asking for it long after it was taken off the menu.”

Lee: “Bacon’s just a thing where everyone loves [it]. Everyone wants to know what it’s going to be like. I don’t think people really cared about the technique.”

Lee: “The funny thing now, you know the [environmentally conscious cocktail organization] Trash Tiki folks, they were talking about sustainability, and they mentioned the Benton’s Old Fashioned as a sustainability thing. I guess you could say that. But that certainly was not what we were thinking when we made that drink.”

Meehan: “It’s a brilliant drink . . . It’s three ingredients, easy to make after the infusion, and cost-effective minus the 75-cent ice cube. With that said, it never ceases to amaze me that every week—whether it’s 90 and sunny or below freezing and snowing—it’s our most popular drink.”

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