Fat-Washed Cocktails Make a Comeback
Your next drink might involve foie gras and a centrifuge
You're forgiven if you aren't already familiar with "fat washing." Without context, you might envision soaping up in the shower with a stick of butter, or perhaps saturating your hair with fistfuls of lard. Thankfully, it's not a bizarre beauty trend (good riddance, brow crowns) but rather an age-old technique for infusing cocktails, and several local bar programs are revisiting the craft where science and creativity collide.
Fat washing is a fairly simple process first attributed to the perfume industry as a way to extract essences hard to distill by traditional methods. Ethanol has the unique ability to dissolve both oil- and water-soluble compounds, which then deeply infuses the base with aromas and flavors. A quick freeze solidifies the fat, which can then be strained off, leaving a savoriness and rich mouthfeel without any oily residue. This process was used to make the legendary duck-fat sazerac circa 2012 at the now-closed Haddingtons, but bartenders are taking the technology, and their ingenuity, to new heights.
The Roosevelt Room's bar team uses a centrifuge to merge (and then separate) foie gras-washed St. Germain for their Silver Meadows cocktail. Can we please pause here for a moment? House-made foie gras at a cocktail bar? A frickin' centrifuge? The filtered elderflower liqueur is then added to unfiltered saké, pisco, and smoky blanco tequila, as well as grapefruit and lime juices (also clarified by the centrifuge) and a sweetgrass tincture. Roosevelt Room co-owner Justin Lavenue says the resulting crystal-clear martini is "the most labor-intensive cocktail that [co-owner] Dennis [Gobis] or I have ever put on a menu, but my lord is it worth it." We absolutely agree.
A few miles west, Clark's Oyster Bar is using milk to wash their cocktails – a process that dates back much further than fat washing. Milk washing was introduced as a way to remove the harshness of poorly made spirits in the late 15th century, but as McGuire Moorman Hospitality assistant beverage director Alex Holder explains, the method adds "a roundness, making a creamy, high-proof cocktail you can bottle." These shelf-stable batched cocktails allow bartenders to have an exquisite (and elaborate) recipe at the ready during a busy service.
For Clark's, Holder created the Clarified Pisco Punch. "I wanted to showcase the spirit outside of what people know, which is a pisco sour," Holder says. The punch starts with citrus (orange bitters and pineapple) and spices (star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg), which are mixed with a coconut green tea and finally pisco and Herbsaint. "Nuances are minimized with a milk wash," says Holder, explaining why you want to start with a much more complex base. The mixture is slowly added to a large pot of scalding milk. This ensures every drop of punch comes into contact with the milk proteins, which bind to any bitter tannins and astringent flavors. When the milk is strained out, you're left with a sophisticated drink that imparts all the flavors but none of the unpleasant mouthfeel of ground spices or oversteeped tea.
Holder has enjoyed creating a more traditional rum-and-brandy milk punch for Clark's more casual cousin, June's All Day. June's Punch is made with light and dark rums, brandy, absinthe, clarified milk, green tea, spices, and pandan. Pandan, also known as "the vanilla of Southeast Asia," adds a vegetal quality and a starchiness that is smoothed by the milk. "It's fun to explain to folks," says Holder of the fact that the recipe calls for a gallon of milk, but nearly two gallons of curdled product are removed. The process also strips a lot of color out of the spirits. The result is a translucent, lightly golden elixir that is poured tableside over a two-by-two ice cube – a dramatic presentation when you know what the ingredients have been through to get to your glass.
Other washed cocktails spotted around town include the Goma Fashioned by bartender Whitney Hazelmyer at Otoko (rye whiskey fat-washed with sesame oil, vanilla liqueur, turbinado simple, and bitters); the Du Monde Manhattan at Elizabeth Street Cafe (bourbon, vermouth, bitters, and coffee, all washed with milk); and the Junior Jr. at Garage (brown butter-washed Maker's Mark, lemon juice, grenadine, and apple bitters). The opportunity to use foods that would otherwise be challenging to incorporate into drinkable liquids renders the culinary breadth of craft cocktails practically limitless, and we can only assume (and hope) that more of this delicious wizardry will appear on bar menus around town.
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