The Intoxicating Allure of Fat-Washed Cocktails

It’s a busy Wednesday afternoon as delivery trucks trundle up to LBM, a cozy Lakewood corner bar with a Viking aesthetic. Inside, bartender Vinnie Salls rattles ice into the well and totes in cases of Stroh’s, while server/partner Merandia Adkins slaps silverware into a jet-black cutlery bin to prepare for the evening rush. Overhead, The White Stripes wail.

LBM’s tattooed and chipper founders, John Gibian and Eric Ho, seem unfazed, even lulled, by the rush around them. John sips a sarsaparilla and Eric opts for cold water from a coffee cup. Their calm demeanor disguises their unyielding drive: here’s a crew prepared to frenziedly “smash the blood out of pomegranates,” if it means making a signature version of a commonplace syrup like grenadine.

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It’s a gleeful, postmodern spirit—a melding high and low, rudimentary and sophisticated—and it applies to LBM’s fascination with technical processes like fat washing. This curious technique, Eric tells me, emerged from the tradition of milk washing tea used in Old World cocktails. The lipid-rich dairy acts as a natural filter, removing the tea leaves’ bitter residue.

“It was [discovered] by happenstance,” Eric says. “If you put egg whites or milk wash in a drink, it will pull astringency out without compromising the flavor of the drink.”

As Eric totes out a plastic container full of sloshy brown liquid, John explains that fat washing can bring liquor an added protein, flavor, or textural element. It can turn an everyday drink into something magical.

“[Fat washing can begin with any] kind of fat,” he says. “Could be butter, could be sesame oil.”

As expected, each fat yields a different result. With animal fats, cocktails tend to become intensely savory and smoky, with a bigger, fuller mouthfeel. With nonanimal fats, the flavors are subdued, but the profile of each addition remains as a ghostly aftertaste.

On one occasion, John and Eric fat washed Bombay Sapphire East gin with sesame oil, using the resulting liquor to produce a gimlet that was sweet, refreshing, and surprisingly nutty.

Today, they’re fat washing 100-proof Old Grand-Dad bourbon. I watch as Eric pours some of the bourbon into a rocks glass and reaches for his mixture. When he opens the lid, the smell is warm and umami-forward.

“This is rendered duck fat,” he says. The rendering process involves slowly boiling pieces of duck in a skillet with water until the water evaporates (an hour should do the trick). Strain the resulting mixture out of the skillet and voilà—you’re left with liquid duck fat.”

This particular duck fat comes from local ducks. Bartender Vinnie’s aunt runs Saucisson, a meat market that provides not only duck, but other meats that make their way onto LBM’s menu.

Carefully, Eric dribbles the duck fat into the Old Granddad. When it hits the bourbon, the liquid transforms into quarter-inch opalescent globules that float in a dense mass near the glass’s surface. They’re oddly beautiful, these otherworldly bubbles.

“Once you add the fat to your base liquor, you agitate it,” John explains.

Eric begins the process. Agitating is a bit like stirring but with more of a flourish, tilting the spoon at a 90° angle to cup the fat and spin it. Eric’s hand acts as a low-tech centrifuge.

To the naked eye, the fat and the bourbon don’t appear to homogenize. Instead, the fat forms a creamy head on the top of the glass, giving the drink the appearance of a foamy lager. Eric assures me, however, that the fat is now making its way into the liquor, lending it a distinctly meaty flavor that will accentuate the bourbon’s natural sweetness.

“[Once you] get all that fat incorporated into the liquor, you put it in a really cold fridge or, ideally, a freezer,” John says. “Let it sit a couple hours or a day, and the oils will have created a pretty thick film on the base spirit. You scrape that off, you strain it out, and you have a fat-washed liquor. It gives you a velvety texture.”

This carnivorous concoction can now be used in a variety of drinks. One cocktail soon to be on the menu at LBM and bearing the snarky sobriquet, “You, On A Spit,” calls for duck fat-washed OYO bourbon, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, pear syrup, balsamic vinegar, and a St. Elizabeth Allspice rinse.

If this sounds delicate for LBM’s Viking sensibilities, Eric also mentions his desire to one day craft a turducken Old Fashioned—incorporating turkey, duck, and chicken fat with Old Fashioned standards like muddled bitters, sugar, and oranges. He’s not sure how it would taste exactly, all of those birds’ essences blurring.

John laughs. “It would be a Thanksgiving dinner in a glass,” he says.

This is the LBM way. The bar reshapes and remixes almost everything, constantly surprising themselves as well as their patrons.

Gracing the menu recently alongside duck-fat drinks were red peppers for poutine morphed into Bloody Mary mix. Elsewhere, pickled beets lent themselves to charcuterie and an incarnadine drink ominously called “The Blood Eagle.” (John suggests readers do not Google it).

“We don’t want the same 10 or 15 cocktails,” John says, “We want to challenge ourselves every time we make a [drink].”

The fat-washed cocktails certainly do that for bartender and customer alike: savory and vibrant if slightly strange, their flavor is a force to be reckoned with.