Why Vegan Fat-Washed Cocktails Will Be Big This Year

Bartenders are using coconut oil, peanuts, and avocados to make richer, vegan-friendly drinks.

Photo courtesy of Sky Bar
Photo courtesy of Sky Bar

If you love spirits but can’t imagine sipping on duck-fat-infused bourbon, you’re in luck. Bartenders are creating vegan fat-washed drinks as an alternative to previous eras’ experimentations with drinks made with animal fats. It’s an inclusive innovation that mirrors how culinary culture is evolving across the United States.

To fat-wash a spirit, you infuse it with something oily or fatty, and then freeze the mixture. The fat solidifies and accumulates on the surface of the liquid, and then gets scraped off. What’s left is a light-bodied but flavor-infused liquor that can be sipped neat or used in mixed drinks.

Some bar historians link the origins of fat-washed cocktails to New York City speakeasy PDT. As the story goes, in 2007, esteemed PDT bartender Don Lee served bacon-fat-washed bourbon in a drink called Benton’s Old Fashioned. Lee, however, credits the technique to another New York City bartender, Eben Freeman, who made drinks with brown-butter-washed rum after watching pastry chefs extract flavors from fat.

Benton’s Old Fashioned at PDT
Benton’s Old Fashioned at PDT | Photo by Eric Medsker

Either way, the Benton’s Old Fashioned was influential, inspiring bartenders nationwide to create drinks infused with pork, duck, and beef fats. Their efforts mirrored the meat-forward culinary fashion of the time. In the aughts and early 2010s, restaurants like New York City’s Momofuku Noodle Bar prided itself on offering no substitutions for its pork-heavy noodle soups, and Los Angeles’ Animal and Bestia celebrated all things offal.

But times and trends change. According to some researchers, in 2022, one in 10 Americans identified as vegetarian or vegan. Over the last 20 years, plant-based proteins have grown from a fringe or specialty grocery item into a $7.3 billion business in 2021.

Given these shifting demographics and preferences, bartenders are wise to bring more people to the table by creating spirits washed with plant-based fats. “With the popularization of the vegan diet movement, many restaurants and bars have incorporated their vegan alternatives at various stages of cooking and bar menus, and vegan fat washing is no different,” says Emily Bryant, lead mixologist at Poppycocks in Traverse City, Michigan. Bryant makes fat-washed cocktails with coconut, sunflower, or sesame oils, as well as almonds, peanuts, and walnuts. She’s also experimented with cacao butter, and “once infused bourbon with macadamia nuts,” she says. “It has an exceptionally rich flavor and leaves a soft, sweetness to the palate in any bourbon to which it's infused.”

Austin Hay, bartender at Sky Bar
Austin Hay, bartender at Sky Bar | Photo courtesy of Sky Bar

She’s not the only one. Austin Hay, a cocktail curator at Sky Bar in Aurora, Colorado, fat-washes Cognac with Biscoff cookie butter, riffing on a recent TikTok food trend. He combines the spirit and fat in a 10:1 ratio, leaves it to infuse overnight at room temperature, and then strains out the solids. Then, he repeats the process but stores the mixture overnight in the fridge, so that “the cold will help congeal the fats that weren’t strained out the first time,” he explains. The process highlights “the flavors of the spirit and infuses a nutty layer to the drink.” He is currently experimenting with peanut-fat-washing as well.

Brett Lander, manager of Boom Plant Based Kitchen in Chicago, believes these drinks appeal to cocktail fans because they combine specialized technique and familiar flavors. “Once, I had a margarita that had an avocado-washed tequila in it,” he says by means of example. “That was possibly one of the best drinks I ever had. It was good because it took something you eat regularly and put it into a cocktail.”

One challenge of vegan fat-washing is potency. While bacon and other animal fats create strongly flavored infusions, “several types of vegan oils or fats are too subtle to yield a spirit that can hold up and shine through in a cocktail,” says Brian Sturgulewski, a partner and vice president of Bonhomme restaurant group. However, he found success with sesame fat-washing, using it in a drink with bourbon, Thai bananas, and fermented honey. He also used coconut oil to fat-wash mezcal, and served it in a cocktail with yuzu ponzu and lemon.

While vegan fat-washed cocktails are certainly a subset of an already small category, their emergence points suggests ours is an era of increased creativity and inclusivity in the bar space. Like the sustained growth of non-alcoholic cocktails and products, drinks made without animal fats mean more people can sidle up to the bar and raise a glass.

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Sonal Ved is a Thrillist contributor and the author of Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine and Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? Her work has appeared in leading publications such as The GuardianSaveur, and Food52, among others.