There’s something to be said for a bar that serves a mean hot dog, one of life’s great guilty pleasures, to be sure. And there are few pleasures I find greater than unwinding after a night behind the bar in New York at revered cocktail haven PDT (Please Don’t Tell). Wylie Dog in hand (created by the city’s famed molecular chef Wylie Dufresne) and washed down with their ethereal Benton’s Old Fashioned. Stopping at one is impossible. Resistance is futile.
It takes its name from the famed Benton’s pig farm in Tennessee, a cult purveyor among Manhattan’s best chefs. But now bartenders are also digging their swine. PDT’s ode to one of the world’s great whisky cocktails uses bourbon (Four Roses Single Barrel) that has been ‘fat washed’ with some of the cooked bacon fat. It’s a rather new technique in the bartending world that was pioneered by the highly talented Eben Freeman while he was Dufresne’s cocktail guy at his eponymous Lower East Side restaurant WD-50.
“I first got the idea from Sam Mason (the pastry chef at WD-50) when he was infusing brown butter into milk to make ice cream”, he says. “I took this idea to make my brown butter-washed rum (Flor de Cana 7 year) for my Crumble cocktail. I then started playing around with the bacon idea which Don Lee from PDT refined and used it in an actual cocktail”.
A buttery, unctuous mouthfeel with the suggestion of swine
The process itself is very simple: Take about ¾ of a pound of bacon, cook it on a high heat until all the fat has been rendered. Remove the bacon and while still hot, pour the liquid fat into a sealable container with a litre of bourbon (or any other spirit). Leave it in the fridge overnight. The fat rises to the top, solidifies and the next day, it is scraped away and strained of any remaining solids. What is left is a bourbon with a buttery, unctuous mouthfeel with just the slightest suggestion of swine.
“The Benton’s Old Fashioned came about in the early days of PDT”, says Don Lee, “mostly due to sheer ignorance and a little curiosity. I found a lot of inspiration from what was happening in restaurants at that time. ‘Fat washing’ was a technique that was being discussed in the context of modern food and so I began trying to manipulate that into a cocktail.
How the Benton’s Old Fashioned became that fat washed drink was due to being introduced to the famous Benton’s ham and bacon at Momofuku Ssam Bar. It was by far the most flavourful bacon that I had ever tasted and cooking with a little of the rendered fat went a long way to imparting its distinctive smokiness to anything it touched.
When done correctly it can become more than the sum of its parts
Another huge influence at that time was LeNell Smothers, her liquor store in Red Hook was a temple of American whiskey. And as anyone from the South can tell you, pork and bourbon are a natural match. So now that we had bacon-infused bourbon the next question became: What kind of cocktail to make with it? A Manhattan was tasty but not great and a Sour was just odd. The Old Fashioned as a category has always been a favourite of mine in the simplicity of how it showcases each ingredient and how when done correctly it can become more than the sum of its parts.
I believe that through food and cocktails it is possible to evoke emotions in people by tapping into their olfactory memories. The trick is to look for an experience that is universally shared by people. Bacon is most commonly a breakfast item thus in looking for a sweetening agent for the Old Fashioned I turned to maple syrup. Who hasn’t poured a little more maple syrup than they should have over pancakes and gotten some on their bacon? This was before the bitters boom we’re seeing now so the options really were only orange, Peychaud’s or Angostura. Angostura gave the drink more structure and balanced out the maple syrup”.
Even down in Australia, one of that country’s finest talents, Linden Pride, has been experimenting with fat washing other spirits such as tequila – with chipotle in a wondrous Margarita – and cognac washed with almonds in a rich Sidecar. He is the bar genius behind Neil Perry’s growing restaurant empire and his Year of the Tiger cocktail at Sydney’s Spice Temple is a doozy.
“In creating the Tiger we used roasted pistachio nuts cooked in butter to combine with Compass Box Oak Cross. The floral sweetness of this whisky combined with the buttery nuttiness from the pistachio created the ideal flavour profile. Bound with yellow Chartreuse, house made orgeat syrup, egg white and bitters – this drink gave texture, mouth feel and a great subtle whisky hit. Delicious”.