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The Benton's Old Fashioned at PDT in NYC

Welcome to a Cocktail Week-themed edition of Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy cocktails.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Sometimes credited with starting the modern speakeasy boom, PDT in New York City is known for its innovative and unexpected cocktails. One of its most famous drinks is the Benton's Old Fashioned, a deceptively simple drink made from bourbon infused with bacon from famed producer Allan Benton, a bit of maple syrup, and little else. Don Lee, the drink's inventor, says the drink was "a product of what was happening in New York City at the time" in 2007. Inspired by a burgeoning interest in the American craft whiskey scene, his experiences eating Benton's hams at Momofuku Ssam Bar, and a technique called "fat washing" he picked up from wd~50, Lee set about creating a cocktail that, looking back, he says shouldn't have worked.

Lee explains that the success of the cocktail is not just about combining the two great ingredients of fine bourbon and fine bacon. Rather, the cocktail is all about the balance in choosing the right bourbon, offsetting the smoky flavors of the bacon with a twist of orange, and keeping an eye on the sweetness of the drink. Lee credits that balance with why customers can drink three or four in an evening without "blowing out" their palate.

"An old fashioned is like a haiku," Lee says, "having a rigid form helps me refine what I want out of that drink." In the case of the Benton's Old Fashioned, Lee wanted to combine the "uniquely American flavors" of bourbon, bacon, and maple syrup to evoke memories of a breakfast where maple syrup mingles with bacon. Fast forward some six years later, Lee is no longer behind the bar at PDT, but the Benton's Old Fashioned is still a mainstay on the menu and one of Eater NY's most iconic cocktails. Below, the elements of the Benton's Old Fashioned:

1. The Bourbon

The Benton's Old Fashioned begins with Four Roses Yellow Bourbon. Lee says that he was initially looking for a Tennessee whiskey to use in the cocktail (since that's where the ham is from), but he found Kentucky-made Four Roses was a better fit. The label had recently relaunched, and Lee liked that it was made from a blend that included a "high rye style" product. Lee notes the importance of the bourbon's "spicy backbone" and says that its sweetness and roundness make it a great mixing bourbon.

2. The Bacon

The signature component of the cocktail is fat from Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Lee first had the ham at nearby Momofuku Ssam Bar, calling his first bite an "aha moment." PDT actually receives the bacon fat in quart containers from Ssam Bar. Lee likes the exceptionally smoky character of Benton's bacons, and says that they are instrumental to the success of the drink.

Using a technique he picked up from the experimental NYC restaurant wd~50, Lee "fat washes" the bourbon to create a bacon-infused spirit. Fat washing, he explains, works on the principle of polarity: Fat won't dissolve in water, but it will dissolve in ethanol, which is a component in alcohol. In a ratio of one ounce of liquefied fat to one bottle of bourbon, the two components are mixed together in Cambro containers, which allow for more surface area contact between the alcohol and the fat. The ingredients are left to infuse for four hours, and are then put into the freezer for 12 hours. The leftover oils from the fat freeze, leaving behind alcohol infused with the bacon's flavor. The bourbon is then strained. The drink uses a two ounce shot. Lee explains that the bacon scents in the bourbon arrive retronasally, with the scent hitting the nose from the mouth in the moment a drinker breathes out.

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3. The Maple Syrup

With the idea of breakfast in mind, Lee chose to add a quarter of an ounce of Grade B Maple Syrup to the drink. PDT has used a number of maple syrups in the Benton's Old Fashioned over time, but the Grade B rating is non-negotiable. Lee explains that the darker Grade B syrup adds flavor to the cocktail without adding too much sweetness. He points out that "maple syrup and bacon are just a great combination" and also adds that maple syrup helps evoke the emotions and sense memories he is trying to access with the cocktail. Because he uses maple syrup, Lee does not add sugar, a traditional component in an Old Fashioned.

4. The Bitters

As in a standard Old Fashioned, PDT uses two dashes of Angostura bitters. Angostura bitters are distilled in Trinidad using a closely held secret recipe. Lee says their bitterness and herbal flavors add structure and shape to the drink. "Old Fashioneds would be too thin without bitters," he explains. He also adds that bitters were originally considered medicinal and their presence in the Old Fashioned was a part of the cocktail's history as a morning drink for field workers. The history of the Old Fashioned as a morning drink also ties into the breakfast theme of the Benton's Old Fashioned.Lee finishes the drink with an orange twist. The twist is mostly for aroma, Lee explains. The citrus helps keep the nose of the drink from being too smoky and is another nod to breakfast flavors. The twist is rubbed along the rim of the glass, rind-side down, so that the oils stick and make it to the drinker's mouth.

5. The Assembly

The drink begins with a well-chilled Old Fashioned glass. He adds a large, clear ice cube first (it won't melt because the glass is chilled). He prefers adding ingredients in order of expense, so he begins with the bitters, then adds maple syrup, and then bourbon. This way he loses as little of the most expensive ingredient to dilution as possible. He stirs it until it reaches the proper temperature and dilution and then, after rubbing the orange twist along the rim of the glass, he gives the orange twist a squeeze over the drink before placing it on top of the ice cube.

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