Fat-Washing Is Fabulous

Bartenders experiment with a technique that brings savory flavors to spirits and cocktails.

Fat-washed spirits add complexity and texture to cocktails. In Seattle, Pennyroyal Bar’s Follow the Map drink (pictured) features duck fat–washed rum, ricotta cheese, lemon, ginger and honey.
Fat-washed spirits add complexity and texture to cocktails. In Seattle, Pennyroyal Bar’s Follow the Map drink (pictured) features duck fat–washed rum, ricotta cheese, lemon, ginger and honey.

While nutrition experts have long encouraged people to remove fat from their diets, drinks trends are going in the opposite direction. Bartenders are embracing fat-washing, which enhances spirits with flavors from fats like bacon, butter and olive oil. The technique allows bartenders to extract flavors from products that are difficult to work with in the drinks world, creating distinct tastes and textures for cocktails.

“In fat-washing, the alcohol acts as a solvent, extracting flavor from the infusion material,” explains Keith Villanueva, a bartender at Sazerac restaurant in Seattle. “Fat-washing picks up desired flavors from the fat while adding a bit of body to the spirit.”

The process involves heating the fat and then combining it with a spirit, such as whisk(e)y, rum or vodka. The mixture is shaken and placed in a refrigerator or freezer for several hours, until the fat solidifies and rises to the top of the container. The fat is then scraped off, and the spirit is strained to remove any particles.

Villanueva notes that high-proof spirits are better for extracting flavors. “Whisk(e)y works well in fat-washing because the vanilla, oak and spice flavors harmonize with the fatty richness,” he explains. Sazerac’s Whiplash cocktail ($13) features the 100-proof Rittenhouse rye whiskey that’s been fat-washed with butter, along with Punt e Mes vermouth and a house-made syrup of cinnamon, brown sugar and cherry. Villanueva notes that customers are intrigued by the process. “Many have never heard of fat-washing, but with a quick explanation, they have little trouble understanding it,” he says.

New York City–based mixologists Eben Freeman, Sam Mason and Don Lee are credited with being the first to apply the fat-washing process to cocktails in the mid-2000s. In 2007, Freeman and Mason made a drink that incorporated brown butter–washed rum at the now-closed Manhattan restaurant Tailor. The technique took off soon after when Lee created a bacon-washed Bourbon for the Old Fashioned at East Village bar PDT. The cocktail remains one of PDT’s top-sellers today.

“If you try to cook bacon into a spirit, it will taste burnt, but fat-washing allows you to get flavors previously unavailable in spirits,” Freeman explains. “The technique is especially helpful for animal products and provides a textural quality to drinks.” He adds that darker spirits like rum and Cognac offer savory and culinary applications.

At Pennyroyal Bar in Seattle’s The Palladian Hotel, head bartender Chad Phillips washes Flor de Caña Grand Reserve 7-year-old rum with duck fat for his Follow the Map cocktail ($11). The drink also incorporates ricotta cheese, lemon, ginger and honey, topped with freshly grated nutmeg. Phillips says the cocktail attracts attention because it’s so unusual.

Vodka can also be used for fat-washing. Dominick’s restaurant in Los Angeles sells a Caprese Martini ($12), made with extra virgin olive oil–washed Green Mark vodka, Dolin Dry vermouth and tomato water, topped with a spritz of balsamic vinegar and garnished with a basil-wrapped mozzarella ball. “Fat-washing allows us to bring Italian flavors into our cocktails,” notes head bartender Gracy Ramirez.

Bottlefork, an upscale cocktail bar and kitchen in Chicago operated by Rockit Ranch, offers a weekly fat-washed spirit special. Head mixologist Adam Kamin uses the drippings from the restaurant’s smoker to enhance a variety of products. One recent drink ($14) mixed smoker fat–washed Grey Goose Le Melon vodka with Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, lime juice, ginger syrup and egg white, garnished with ancho chili powder. “The fat-washed melon vodka is surprisingly pleasing,” Kamin says. “The process creates a cocktail with deeper complexity.”