Every once in a while something that sounds crazy in a cocktail actually works, if you are open to the idea. One such concept is Bacon Infused Bourbon. It's seems ridiculous at first, but when you consider sweet caramel and maple syrup flavors sometimes characterize a good bourbon, you start to think about breakfast and how a side of bacon tastes so good next to your pancakes! Does it still sound silly? Well, maybe if I break it down a bit, it will make a little more sense. What we are talking about is neither sweet nor sour, not salty or bitter—it's the fifth fundamental flavor that the Japanese call umami.
Umami, or savoriness, is considered by eastern cultures as an important component of taste in their cuisine. It is the flavor produced by amino acids such as glutamate that we normally associate with beef, mushrooms or that "rich" character found in stews and some fermented foods. Although it isn't often discussed in regular western culture, umami is widely recognized as a flavor descriptor in the culinary world. Naturally, ideas born in the kitchen can be carried over to the bar, and that's what we are doing here.
In addition to capturing rich meaty flavors, the smokiness that typifies cured bacon is equally important in our infusion. That is why I recommend finding an extremely smokey bacon to start out. You can pick any bacon that you like, but the stronger the flavors the better. Benton's Smoked Country Bacon is supposed to be very good for this. I used a delicious smoke house bacon I found at our local farmers market. It's a thick-cut, organic product that is absolutely wonderful as a breakfast side, in an egg casserole or sprinkled over fresh salad greens. Whatever you use, plan to eat a good, healthy portion of bacon, because all we need is the fat!
That's right, the process of infusing umami into bourbon is called fat-washing. The idea is simple. Cook your bacon as you normally would and reserve the rendered fat. You need about a third of a cup of fat for the process. Place it into a jar while it's still hot, and fill the jar with bourbon. Let it cool, then freeze it for 24 hours. Filter it and you are done. It's that simple.
Bacon Infused Bourbon
.33 cup of rendered bacon fat
3 cups of bourbon
Cook a pound of bacon and reserve the rendered fat. Add .33 cup of hot fat to a jar and fill with bourbon. Seal and allow to stand until it reaches room temperature. Place the jar in the freezer for 24 hours. The fat will solidify but the bourbon will remain in a liquid state. Open the jar and pour off the bourbon, straining through a coffee filter or cheesecloth to remove any loose fat particles. Bottle it and slap on a cool label.
If you've done other infusions with vodka, the basic principles are the same. The high-proof spirit draws flavors from the fat into the alcohol. Over the course of a few hours, the cooling fat solidifies and allows complete separation from the booze. Using the freezer is a neat trick because the alcohol works as an anti-freeze for the bourbon making the separating process even easier. There are a few tricks I learned that can streamline the process.
First, don't shake the jar while the fat is cooling. This will create an emulsion and the fat will have trouble coagulating. It will separate eventually, but there will be microscopic droplets that will make the bourbon cloudy, and even freezing and filtration will have a hard time clearing them out. Second, it can help to tip the jar on its side. This will make it easier to pour off the bourbon later so you don't have to break through a solid fat cap. Finally, don't worry so much about the proportions. You can use as much fat as you like. In fact, if the flavor isn't strong enough or you picked a mild-flavored bacon, you can run the bourbon through the process multiple times to improve it.
Benton's Old Fashioned
2 oz bacon-infused bourbon
.25 oz maple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
In a mixing glass filled halfway with ice, combine all ingredients. Stir, then strain into a tumbler with one large ice cube. Garnish with a twist of orange.
I have also used Urban Moonshine's Maple Bitters in this drink to good effect, but Angostura has a wonderful clove-like component that makes me think of glazed ham. If an Old Fashioned is not your thing, don't be afraid to experiment. It's hard to separate the idea of salt in your mind when you ponder ideas with bacon, but think about how well ham pairs with spices—or with sweet flavors like honey and brown sugar—and you will start to see its potential. Perhaps a variation on the Manhattan is more to your liking. This one is especially good if you used a very smokey bacon in your infusion. It also contains Pimento (allspice) Dram, which is a liqueur made from allspice berries (not red pimentos!). The liqueur used to be impossible to find without making a drip to Jamaica, but thankfully, St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram is becoming more readily available. If you have a choice, buy the small bottle. The spicy flavor is potent, so most recipes call for small amounts.
2 oz bacon-infused bourbon
1 oz sweet red italian vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash pimento (allspice) dram
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice until chilled (30 seconds). Strain into chilled cocktail glass and serve.
For another version of a bacon Manhattan, check out the one Nick Kosevich created for the Town Talk Diner.