The thought of drinking a glass of fat probably brings to mind the episode of Friends where Ross agrees to drink a hearty portion of an unspecified greasy substance in order to be forgiven by on-again, off-again, off-again girlfriend Rachel. The act as portrayed in the episode is quite disgusting. But in 2007, Don Lee—former bartender at Manhattan’s Please Don’t Tell—made the idea of drinking fat delicious by combining it with one of America’s favorite pastimes: liquor. Thanks to the innovations introduced by Lee and his colleagues, the concept of fat-washing had arrived on the New York food and drink scene, and in turn, the rest of bacon-and-butter loving America.
Fat-washing, at its most basic element, is a technique of infusing a fatty flavor into an alcohol, based on the historical French technique of effleurage, used to make essential oils for early perfumes. The actual process is a chemical reaction of the alcohol to the oils in the fat, relying on the boozy component mixing with both water and oil. Even Lee isn’t sure of the lineage of the concept of fat-washing—he learned from former Tailor (New York) bartender Eben Freeman, who may have gotten on board through pastry chef and OddFellows Ice Cream main man, Sam Mason—but there is no doubt that Lee that popularized the technique with two famous cocktails at Please Don’t Tell: the bacon fat-based Brenton’s Old Fashioned, and the butter based Cinema Highball.
Lee was toiling in IT when he was changed careers and began work at Please Don’t Tell (PDT, to those in the know), brought in by head barman Jim Meehan. On their Monday nights together, the two mixologists would attempt all sorts of bizarre cocktails. The idea of food memory particularly intrigued Lee. “Food and drink have the opportunity to remind you of something you already know,” he says. “It can take you back to a moment that is emotionally charged. I think of it visually like a Venn Diagram. If I can combine the right ingredients, it will remind you of a thing that you experienced in your life.”
Lee’s original fat-washed cocktail was The Benton’s Old Fashioned. Made with bacon-fat infused Four Roses Bourbon and Deep Mountain Grade B Maple syrup, the Benton’s is meant to recall eating breakfast with friends and family, particularly the tasty accident that occurs when the maple syrup from your waffles or pancakes overflow onto the bacon. The Benton’s cocktail led Lee to his butter-based Cinema Highball, and butter—while arguably second banana to actual fat (usually bacon) in the world of fat-washing—is the order of the week.
Having sampled a shot glass of Wylie Dufresne’s popcorn soup at New York’s legendary avant garde (and now-shuttered) restaurant wd~50, Lee thought if Dufresne could turn popcorn into a soup, he could turn it into a cocktail. When thinking of popcorn as a sense memory, “obviously it’s a movie theater,” Lee says. “You smell popcorn, you think of a movie theater. What do you have at a movie theater? You have popcorn and a Coke. That’s such an emotionally charged thing.”
As far as how Lee decided to match butter with rum, he explains that it just seemed obvious. “Then you’re like, ‘How can I make this alcohol?’” Lee says, returning to his Venn diagram concept. “Rum and coke works, buttered rum works, butter and popcorn works, popcorn and coke works, so I combine all those things and you get the drink,” Lee says. With fat-washing, it’s not about the texture of the drink, but the flavor. When done properly, the liquor should not be greasy, but simply flavorful. Once all the ingredients are mixed together, the focus is not on the fat-washed liquor itself, but the cocktail as a whole.
Food memory—and popular culture—continues to inspire mixologists from coast to coast looking to create memorable fat-washed cocktails: like onions at a ballpark, coconut from vacation, and Southern Comfort from the time you swore off drinking. When Katie Emmerson, manager of the Walker Inn in Los Angeles, was developing cocktails for its Wet Hot American Summer-themed menu, she looked back to her childhood. “The first thought was: ‘What is summertime and summer camp to us,’” Emmerson told Chilled in 2017. “Obviously there’s campfires and s’mores, and that led us to the fat-washed bourbon in The Campfire cocktail.” Inspired by Lee’s technique, Emmerson used the fat-washing method for her Campfire Cocktail, infusing graham crackers—which contain a lot of butter—with bourbon and skipping the freezing process for more texture.
Infusion has become a popular cocktail technique for the masses: Chili’s features a Blueberry Pineapple Infused Margarita on its menu; Seattle’s Bakon brand vodka is a popular choice for Bloody Mary enthusiasts. Savory flavors have been part of drinking culture as long as peanuts have been served in barrooms, and while they’re not made by fat-washing, several craft beers are in the same wheelhouse, flavor-wise, like Funky Buddha Brewery’s Maple Bacon Coffee Porter. But fat-washing remains a relatively cultish phenomenon, even among bartenders and mixologists. Lee admits that it’s probably because “it’s a pain in the ass,” involving specialized ingredients (fat-washing with butter requires clarified butter) and an extended process, freezing, straining, and bottling the final product over the course of several days. “Most bars are too lazy to squeeze a fresh lime,” Lee says. “Most places are too lazy to make their own simple syrup, and that’s literally water and sugar.”
For those of you who can’t make it over to Please Don’t Tell due to the restraints of time and space, or maybe you’re just feeling froggy, Lee and Meehan offered up the recipe for the Cinema Highball to try at home. It’s perfect for any impending Oscars parties, and you still have plenty of time to prep.
Recipe by Don Lee
- 4.5 oz. Coca-Cola Classic
- 2 oz. butter-infused rum (see recipe below)
Build in a chilled Collins glass filled with ice cubes.
60 ml clarified butter
750 ml white rum
Melt the butter over medium-low heat (do not brown). Combine the butter and rum in a nonreactive container and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours, then freeze for 3 hours to solidify butter. Fine-strain and bottle.