On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy chats with Jeff Bell, owner of PDT In NYC. The two break down the bar’s well known Benton’s Old Fashioned, a PDT riff on the classic cocktail that incorporates fat-washed spirits in the drink. This process — and PDT’s speakeasy concept — have since become pioneers in the industry. Tune in to learn more.
Jeff Bell’s Benton’s Old Fashioned Recipe
- 2 ounces bacon-infused Four Roses bourbon
- ¼ ounce maple syrup, such as Deep Mountain Maple
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Garnish: orange twist
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice.
- Stir until cold and strain into a chilled rocks glass with a large, clear cube of ice.
- Garnish with a small orange twist.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” So a man walks into a bar. But before he gets there, he first walks through a classic New York hot dog stand. And then a phone booth. At least, that’s the case if we’re drinking at the iconic bar of today’s guest, Jeff Bell. Jeff, thanks for joining us, man.
Jeff Bell: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
T: Very happy to have you in the studio. This is the new VinePair studio that we have. And if we’re going to keep rolling with that scenario, I’m going to assume that person is probably ordering a Benton’s Old Fashioned. Am I right in thinking that’s your most popular drink at PDT?
J: There’s a high probability if you’ve been to PDT, you’ve had that drink.
T: Yes. This is the one that people come for, among others. You have one of those classic associations where this is the drink that you have at the bar, and then you have other drinks.
J: I found it’s very helpful for the bar to have that and for any bar to have something like that, or a restaurant to have a signature dish. It’s like a one-line signoff to people. “Oh, you’re going to New York? You have to go to this place and get that.”
T: Yeah, exactly.
J: You should go to this new place. It has this really inventive list. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s like overload, because they have this itinerary that they have to accomplish. You need a really sharp cadence for each place.
T: Exactly. You go here, you have this thing. Or, “What do you mean you went to PDT and you didn’t have the Benton’s Old Fashioned? What’s wrong with you?” It’s one of those things, and I think that is probably good from a tourist or people-visiting-town perspective for yourselves. Because like you say, it’s an easy callout. OK, you’re going to New York, you have to do this. You have to have this drink there.
J: It’s great. Exactly. And before my time at PDT, they used to do a seasonal flip where they would change the entire menu. And they stopped doing that because they found that even the regulars would be like, “Wait, you took that off the menu? I want to have that again.” So it’s about keeping a few items that are always there, so people have that safe thing.
The History Behind Benton’s Old Fashioned
T: You gotta do it. You gotta have those on there. This is a pioneering and iconic drink that we’re talking about today for a number of different reasons. I think most of all, popularizing the concept of fat-washing. So we’re going to dive well into that. But first of all, can you tell us the backstory behind this drink and also your journey into arriving at PDT yourself?
J: Absolutely. If we were on the record in Fairfax, Va., what I’m saying might be stricken from the record because it’s hearsay. Because I wasn’t in the room when it happened.
J: But I’ve heard the story many times. I started at PDT in 2010, and the Benton’s Old Fashioned predates me by a year and a half or so. And the opening bar at PDT was very dope. Everyone’s finding themselves in the industry and what they’re going to do because it was the frontier. There were great bars like Angel’s Share, Employees Only, Attaboy, Flatiron Lounge. Death & Co. had just opened. I’m forgetting some. I’m just listing some of the key ones that had already been well established before we opened. They were trying to figure out what direction they were going to go in and find their own identity and move it forward. Because no one really thought of it as like a whole part of the industry that could exist or or become what it is. From my understanding, Don Lee, who created this drink, and Jim Meehan didn’t see eye to eye on it being a good idea. Jim told me, “I just told Don, ‘Fine. Work on it, but do it in your house.’” So Don was like, “OK.” Don worked on it in his house and brought it back to Jim, and it was ready and delicious. And Jim had to eat his hat. He was like, “Wow, this is very good.” Don’s a very creative, technical person. He’s always learning, always kind of coming up with new ideas, new techniques. You’re not going to stop a person like that because they’re always going to be doing that. He had a good idea, and it worked.
T: And the idea was?
J: The idea was to infuse Benton’s Bacon into bourbon. And Benton’s bacon specifically was kind of coming into vogue in the U.S. at the time. David Chang was a big proponent of Virginia hams and other American cured meats. Benton’s is from Tennessee, but at Ssam Bar, they used to carve Virginia hams like it was prosciutto and serve little meat plates with American ham. So he was shining light on American cured meats. They used to make a dashi out of it for the broth, one of the ramen dishes at Noodle Bar. So it was something that became this really flavorful dish enhancer. And so Don was like, “Let’s try getting it into a cocktail.” So he basically cooked the bacon on low for a long time in its own fat. So you never strain it. You use it in a pot. What happens is the bacon will start becoming crispy and it’ll start to cook itself, not from the pan, but from the fat itself.
J: And then once you get to that point, the bacon is super crispy. It would be on a perfect BLT. And then you strain it out and you have this liquid fat. When you’re a kid and your parents make bacon for breakfast, that goes straight into a tin can or whatever and goes into the garbage. But that’s the consommé, that’s the flavor. So you mix an ounce and a half of that with bourbon and you let it sit for 6 hours at room temperature and then you put it in a freezer. That way, the six hours or so that you let it sit in the whiskey, it’s liquid. It’s just moving around, it’s interacting and flavors are rubbing off and that kind of thing. When you freeze it, fat rises and then it hardens at the top. And then you just pull it off like a little fat cap, toss it, and then you take the remaining whiskey. There might be some little fragments of it, but you do it when it’s cold. That way when you put it through a really fine mass strainer, all the remnants of fat don’t go through. Because if you wait until it’s room temperature again, the fat will just go through and you’ll have an oily bourbon. So you don’t want that. And that’s kind of the trick to it, is making sure it’s ice cold to get it out so that on the other side you don’t have a super-high caloric thing or something that’s going to make the glass oily or whatever.
J: Before the show, we started talking about Martinis and things like that. They need to be perfect and they need to be clear. And if you don’t do those little bits right, it’s going to ruin that drink and it needs to be pristine.
T: Yeah, it’s that texture. And it really can feel, as they say in the food world sometimes, kind of flabby. Or in wine, too, too much fat and not enough acidity or something that’s going to pierce through that.
J: Yeah. It’s really going to be a distraction because it’s going to be adding a sensation, a textural sensation, that’s not pleasant.
T: That’s going to take away from the flavors, too, I would imagine. So Don Lee came up with this process. I believe, or I may have read, he had to do it at home first. Like you said, Jim probably wasn’t too enamored by the idea, but then Jim likes the concept, he likes the final drink, and they put it on the menu.
J: It was a funny thing for Jim, too, because he comes up with this concept for this bar, and then the bar becomes known for a drink he didn’t create. He always got a kick out of that. But it’s one of those things where it’s admirable of Jim to be like, “This person on the team came up with this. It helps define what this bar is. That’s good for the bar.” It’s not like an ego thing of, “I’m going to take it off the menu or it’s going off in the next cycle because I need it to be my drink or whatever.” It says a lot about Jim being a great operator, knowing to set ego aside. This is a great drink. It’s going to help move us forward. And that drink’s been on the menu for over 12 years. We serve it at PDT in Hong Kong. Anytime I do a pop-up or we’ve done pop-ups in Hong Kong, Barcelona, Tokyo, or Melbourne, we all travel with some vacuum-sealed bacon fat. We make it all over the place because it’s nice to have that one signature. We like to do seasonal, local, try to get other products involved that make it relevant. But we always like to bring a taste of New York with us.
J: It’s really nice to have that secret weapon. And people like to have that. It’s part of bringing the PDT experience to them when we go on the road.
T: What’s it like getting bacon fat through customs? Is that something you do declare, or maybe not?
J: The only time I was concerned was when I was going to — was it Dubai or Israel? Either one, because they’ve got very tight security at the airport. It might’ve been Israel because in Tel Aviv you’re supposed to go like three hours early. They do multiple screenings and they basically unpack your entire suitcase in front of you. So I was a little concerned about that, but it’s never been a problem. It’s always just a weird thing. It’s a weird thing for a regular person. And then for somebody that works for whatever country’s equivalent of TSA, to explain to them that it’s bacon fat that you’re going to put into a drink.
T: That’s wild. So you just joined PDT maybe a year and a half after this drink goes on the menu. I wanted to speak about something that’s related to this, too, which is PDT becoming known for that but is also known as the speakeasy. It’s not the only one at the time; I guess you mentioned Angel’s Share and you could argue maybe Milk & Honey or Attaboy later. It’s similar concepts, but none that take it to the level that PDT does. I think that concept has just grown so popular since then. What was that like working then, and why do you think it proved to be such a hit?
J: I moved to New York in 2009 and probably within the first two months or month that I lived here, my brother, who had moved here before me was like, “You gotta go to this bar through a phone booth.” I was 25 or something and was like, “Yeah, we got to go there.” And my friends and I were probably drunk and we were like, “Oh, I think that bar’s around here. Let’s go check it out.” And then we go in and then no dice; it’s full. I already had this understanding of PDT as being this unique, exclusive place. But back then, my idea of exclusive was Bungalow 8. Oh, it’s gonna be like a cool place to go where the stars go or something like that. I was bright eyed. And then, once I got involved in there, it felt very special. I went to college, I graduated, I bartended the whole time. And I just didn’t really want to go into the professional field that I signed up for after school. I was like, “I’m just gonna keep on bartending.” I did that. And this is 2005 or 2006. Not that I really cared too much about what my parents thought, but in general, the perception was that you’re going to go be a bartender, and then what? What’s the next thing? Because it wasn’t a glamorous job. I mean, it’s fun. Like, that’s a cool thing. I wish I could do that once, not until you’re 60. Because you don’t have too much of an outlet after that. This is a job. You’re going be on your feet. You’re going to be dealing with young people for 40 years. Is that what you want to do? So I was on that path, but I was enjoying it. And I enjoyed it because I just enjoyed the job. I enjoyed dealing with people. I liked making drinks. I love that. I love the energy. Once I was able to get a job at PDT, I was so proud and I was so excited. This is special because this is so different from anything I ever imagined my occupation would be. I’m passionate about. I could actually do something more with it. I started at PDT in 2010. They’d already won World’s Best Bar at Tales of the Cocktail. So people referred to it as the World’s Best Bar. I’m like, “I work at the world’s best bar.”
T: That’s wild to think about that.
J: Yeah, it was really a trip. That process was really fun. And I never took it for granted when I was involved. I really bought into the system, but I started as a barback. So I was in charge of making the Benton’s batch. So I was on fat-washing detail.
T: You’re very familiar with this entire process
T: You mentioned that your brother first brought up the bar to you. It’s funny, I think everyone who’s ever heard of PDT or has been to PDT, probably has that story. I remember myself, I was still based in London working as a chef and one of my close friends and a colleague of mine had just been to New York. I’d never been to New York. And he came back with all these stories of Katz’s Deli, you went to this place, you went to this. I think this was 2012. He’d been to Williamsburg. This was 10 years ago. And he told me about this one bar that he went to where they went through the phone booth. And he was like, “It’s the most incredible thing.” And I was like, “Oh, my God, I gotta see that one day.” Do you know what I mean? Hearing about the fact that that was 10 years ago and I can still remember the first time I heard about that says a lot about PDT and the speakeasy movement that followed.
J: Yeah, it definitely was a lightning in a bottle kind of moment. From the outset, the style of the design of bars becoming speakeasies doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes it’s just theatrics. In New York and other cities like Tokyo, London, or Paris, really any older city that has a lot of character to it, is kind of ideal for a hidden bar. Because if you have a dense population, it’s almost like you don’t want to have that sign outside. That big red sign that says “bar” on top. We don’t want everybody to come in because we want the people that want to come in to come in. The way buildings are designed and how expensive commercial real estate is, in small spaces, sometimes you have to go up through a little alley or up a flight of stairs to get to a thousand square feet. Some landlords are like, “OK, you can have this price and OK, so open a bar there.” Now we have to figure out how to get people from the street to here. People open them all over the place. People love that transformative experience of going from one space to the next. When you go to PDT, you’re in the East Village, so St. Mark’s is an amazing street. It’s funky, it’s insane, it’s full of characters. It’s always been like that. Every generation thinks that it’s dead, but that means you’re too old and the new generation has taken over.
J: It’s the new personalities; the new captains of that street. So you walk along St Mark’s, which is always an experience, and then you go down into a hot dog place. It’s loud music, people crushing High Lifes and smashing hot dogs. And then, you go into a phone booth and the wall opens up and you just get a little glimpse of a diamond- tufted leather banquette and a brick wall — and taxidermy. Then you turn the corner and you see the bar. There are two bartenders that are just shaking cocktails and stirring or moving because it’s busy. You go through these three environments and it’s just cool to have that experience.
T: You feel like an insider.
T: You cross that door and you’re like, “There are so many people around here that don’t know what’s going on in here. But I’m here.” This is cool.
J: This is a tangent, but last summer we — we’re doing another one this summer too — took advantage of the open streets in NYC and created a new concept to do on St. Mark’s place. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday they close it to auto traffic. But we were able to set up a bar. We set up and break it down every day. It’s a real hassle. But we did one out there last summer called PDT Tropical and it was Caribbean-style cocktails. It was a lot of fun. I worked pretty much every shift out there, which was such a departure from the previous 10 years where I was working Friday and Saturday nights inside. I work every night in NYC. I only see this little segment of the drinking population. So then last summer I was like, “This is what happens out here?” Every weekend. I was inside. It gets wild inside. I mean, you get some interesting characters. But outside is…
T: A whole different story.
J: It is unfiltered.
T: That’s really crazy to think about that. I mean, that’s essentially the job, isn’t it? You’re committing to, like you said earlier, those Fridays and Saturdays. And if you’re working in a place like yourself, not seeing the sun go down. You go to work and then you get out.
J: It’s dark and then you see the sun come up.
How Bacon Is Used in the Benton’s Old Fashioned
T: You see the sun come up, though. You mentioned Thursday’s fat-washing duty. You talked us through the process before. I wonder if we can just dial into it a little bit more, because this is, of course, something that’s a template. It can be used for different fats. But we are talking about bacon fat-washing for the purposes of today’s episode. So you really want to make sure you’re avoiding burning the bacon at all.
J: Yeah, low heat. Low and slow is important. If you go high, it burns. I don’t know what the burning point of baking grease is. I should know. But I know if you cook it on high for a long time, your kitchens smell like smoke. Smoke is very powerful, so it doesn’t take much to overcook the bacon and to taste smoky. And not smoky in a pleasant way. You’re not controlling the level of smoke that gets into the liquid. At that point, it’s going to taste burnt. So that’s not good. So low temperature. We used to get the bacon fat in quart containers pre-rendered for us from Momofuku, but they don’t do that anymore. So now we buy the bacon direct from Benton’s and they ship us like eight pounds at a time. I haven’t done it in a while. The last time it was maybe September, because I have a good handle on a lot of that prep. I would say it takes about 45 minutes.
T: Oh, really?
J: But that’s like eight pounds?
J: It’s in a huge kettle. I just put the kettle on a flat top, and that way it’s going to stay even lower. You’re not going to undercook it. So I just do it that way.
T: It’s low and slow.
J: Stirring it all the time.
T: OK. When removing that bacon, by the time you take it out, it will very soon crisp up just by nature of being out in the air or whatever. But yeah, it’s crispy.
J: It should taste like perfectly cooked bacon when done.
T: What do you do with the bacon after?
J: We do some Benton’s egg and cheese tarts. It’s an off-menu verbal special. Instead of bacon, egg and cheese, it’s Benton egg and cheese. Do that with American cheese and a fried egg on top of tater tots.
J: I’ll do that until the bacon runs out.
T: One and a half ounces would be what, for 750 [milliliters]? And am I right in thinking it’s the Four Roses yellow label that you use or was originally used?
J: As long as I’ve been there, it’s been the Four Roses yellow label. I’m pretty sure that was the first one. Four Roses is a unique bourbon because it’s 40 percent ABV, and most bourbons that are really good aren’t. There’s a few Basil Hayden’s at 40 percent, but I’m not gonna mention the ones that I don’t like that are 40.
J: I can’t remember everything at 40. But bourbon typically tastes really great at 45.
J: You get some of 50 that are great and then there are some wizards out there that can make it taste great at like 63. Booker’s is 67 or something like that.
T: I think Elijah Craig is another one that comes to mind that’s barrel-proof.
J: Yeah, it’s hard to find good ones at that strength. But 45 percent seems to be that sweet spot. And every category kind of has that sweet spot.
T: Yeah, for sure.
J: That always kind of stuck out to me, and it happens to be the one we use for it. But I never have asked why. The next time I see Don, I’ll have to ask him.
T: I wonder whether it’s the high rye content just bringing that spice. Because we’re adding luxury, or decadence maybe is a better word, with the bacon fat. I just think that the rye spice of Four Rose’s is maybe like a seasoning.
J: Yeah. Maybe like a perceived strength or something like that. So it’s an ounce and a half of bacon fat for 750, and a quarter-ounce of Deep Mountain Maple. And they’re at the Union Square Greenmarket every Friday and Saturday, and they’re amazing.
T: This is fat-washing?
J: No, sorry. I have gone beyond the fat-washing. This is the rest of the recipe.
T: OK, we’ll jump into that. I’ve got a few final questions before we do, though. So you talked about the process. I’m assuming Four Rose’s, then, is also an already chill-filtered bourbon. I don’t know this off the top of my head, but I imagine it probably would be just for the price and the ABV that it is. If you’re really geeking out about this, you might get to a point where, if you’re using non-chill-filtered bourbon and then you’re freezing and you’re passing off the solids, you’re going to pass off some of the oils from the whiskey itself.
J: Yeah, you might lose some flavor. So that’s a good point.
T: Another great reason for using one, which is that it’s an entry-level bourbon in that line.
J: Yeah. And American whiskey is just a great category, especially the classic brands, because they’re very inexpensive for what they are. Bourbon is a pretty high-quality tier for the price point it’s at. We’re lucky it’s staying that way. You can get really expensive bourbon, obviously, but you spend $25 and get a phenomenal bottle of bourbon. I don’t know any other category where you can get something phenomenal for $25 that’s been aged for six years.
T: Yeah, 100 percent. It really is a marvel. You mentioned some ones that freeze. Are you freezing that in open containers? Because you mentioned peeling away the fat and then straining it. What are we thinking when it comes to that? To back up a little bit, you’re leaving it to infuse at room temperature for roughly how long?
J: I said six. But it’s like four to six hours.
T: Four to six hours? Are you stirring that in through that time, or not really?
J: You’ll just see when you do it. I always pour the bourbon out first and then I pour the fat into the bourbon.
J: It’s like if you were to smoke pot or something, it might be really fun for you to watch because of the way the liquid looks. If you’re on any sort of substance that would make it look kind of funny, it might be a nice experience. But it makes for a good video. A lot of people do things just for Instagram or for TikTok or whatever. So if you want to do it, it’s nice to look at. But yeah, you pour the fat in. It reminds me of how if you fly over the North Pole or if you go to Asia and you fly over the top of the world, you look down, you can see the Arctic Circle or whatever. You see the cracks in the ice. Or like a desert, too, it’s the same kind of thing. That’s kind of the pattern it has on top, which is kind of cool.
T: Very cool.
J: Because it kind of starts to separate on its own. You let that sit and then freeze it and then it turns into a thick layer.
T: Wonderful. What are you straining it through once you’ve peeled off that thick layer?
J: For lack of a better word, we use a shinwa, which is a very fine strainer. It has a screen that has triple the density of weaving. Have that in a kitchen towel or a cheesecloth or something just to layer it so that nothing comes through. It takes a little bit of time for the liquid to get through, but you just don’t want any of the bits.
T: And from a health perspective, is this thing shelf stable at room temperature? How long will it last? Or we don’t need to worry about any of that stuff?
J: We haven’t done a test for the duration of time beyond what we know. We make a batch a week, and it’s definitely good for a week.
T: How many bottles is that?
J: We do about 18 bottles a week.
J: So a case and a half.
The Ingredients Used in a Benton’s Old Fashioned
T: Yeah. That’s incredible to think about that. Then talk us through the next ingredients. We’ve spoken about bourbon here. Of course, maple is the next one that you’re using. I think you were mentioning a specific brand.
J: Again, I think it was something that we pressed upon in the early days. Or maybe I’m just thinking of my experience with maple syrup, maybe because I’m from small-town America. It’s working class where maple syrup never had any maple in it, like Mrs. Butterworth’s or something like that. I don’t think maple is actually involved in that process. I think it’s high-fructose corn syrup.
T: And flavors coloring.
J: What is it called? Oh, my gosh. There’s this herb, it’s a Persian herb that they use for artificial maple production. I can’t remember. I’ll figure it out offline. But that’s what my experience was, and I feel like that might be something that was more common 20 or 30 years ago. That was when the whole world became more about mass-produce efficiency and that kind of thing. But now, using real maple syrup is a bit more ubiquitous. Vermont is kind of the source. There is great maple from upstate New York and in certain parts of the U.S. that you can get it. But Vermont, we think, is the best. We know the family that owns it. And this guy, Lee, is one of their representatives. He works the stand every week and he’s just an amazing guy. I like to go there and buy it from him directly. We go through a gallon and a half gallon a week, maybe something like that.
T: And it makes sense. It just ties back into the whole idea that you’re looking at it from an American point of view, the maple and the bacon, rather than using a different sweetening agent for this.
J: Absolutely. Brown sugar would be great, too. There’s always candied bacon because bacon always tastes great with some sort of sweetness. But with maple, you just think of this all-American breakfast with perfectly cooked bacon, some eggs, hash browns, and maple syrup on pancakes.
T: A glass of bourbon as well.
J: A glass of bourbon as well.
T: I’m sure many of them did. But I think there is one president who was famous for drinking Old Grand-Dad, and he used to take a glass of bourbon with his morning walk. I forget who it was, but that information is out there somewhere. But yeah, classic American breakfast. Final component of the drink, of course, is bitters. This is an Old Fashioned. Are you keeping it classic for this?
J: Yeah, Angostura.
J: I don’t want to speak too much on what Don was thinking at the time, but I’m looking back to the availability of what else is out there. And I always think of how you create something or buy something if it does something that another product can’t do. I’m trying to think of what was commercially available in 2007-08. It wasn’t too much. You had to make your own. And you already have the best bacon in America, best maple syrup in America, one of the best bourbons in America. Should we then adulter this by just throwing a bunch of herbs and grain alcohol and some sugar and seeing what happens now. Let’s take the best bitters in the world. Angostura is great. I saw somebody repost a drink the other day. They said, “Oh, make the drink with two to three dashes.” And I was like, “two to three?” People love to get bitters-heavy, and I feel like there needs to be a threshold of salts and things where it’s serving its purpose until it’s stealing the spotlight. And three dashes of Angostura is too much in that drink. But I like to use it because you start getting that bitter feel in your tongue from that spice that is distracting you from the other thing. So it’s two dashes if you put it in the writing form.
T: I think that’s one component of this cocktail that, when it’s in the right amount and when you can taste it, it does call back to the classic Old Fashioned. Because we’re changing the format of the Old Fashioned here. We’re tweaking the other ingredients. So I think it’s nice to have that very slight baseline of something that’s familiar and always pulls you back to the classic form of the drink.
J: Absolutely. And this is a great drink just to show the way a bartender’s mind works in a bar that creates a lot of drinks. What you’re doing is you’re adding flavor to things that already exist in that drink. So instead of sugar, you’re using maple, which is a more flavorful sweetening agent. You’re enhancing the bourbon. Not enhancing it to make it better, but you’re altering the flavor of the bourbon by infusing something into it. So it’s a nice way to make a drink that exists. It’s slightly more complex. I’m not a huge bacon fan. It exists. It’s good. I have it from time to time. I think it’s exceptional, but it’s not a major part of my life. Things are like buzzwords for some people. Like, “Oh, I gotta have it.” What it does is it adds this difficult sensation to describe, but like a umami or some savory component.
T: That said, this is a great point because if anyone listening hasn’t tried this drink, I should have clarified early on, this is not a drink that tastes specifically of or strongly of bacon. How would you describe the quality that it adds? You were saying umami there.
J: Yeah. There’s a little bit of smokiness from the bacon, but not like peat. Not an Islay Scotch, not like a young Islay Scotch. As a young Islay, because I love Scotch whisky from that region that’s 18 years old or 25 years old. Because I feel like the peat kind of wears off a little bit. It’s a bit more approachable for somebody like me. But you get this savory sensation and a little hint of smoke to it. It’s not like you can make this with Scotch in place of bourbon. It’s just very different. And the way the maple rounds it out, I love maple and cocktails. It’s a great ingredient. I always think of old-fashioned stirred cocktails — Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Martinis — to have a spherical flavor. I want it to be around. I really wanted to have these textures, that’s a really important part of those drinks. The texture is enhanced by the bacon infusion and it’s not fatty, it’s that texture that you get when you put a bottle of gin in the freezer. And it has like this oily, viscous texture where, once it hits your palate, it takes more time for it to cover the rest of it. That’s what I love about this drink, is it does that more so than a classic great Old Fashioned does.
How To Make PDT’s Benton’s Old Fashioned
T: 100 percent. So can you now talk us through as if you were making this drink for us here in the studio today? Can you talk through the preparation, including the quantities of ingredients as you’re doing so?
J: Yeah, absolutely. If anybody was listening earlier, you’d really have to have taken notes.
J: I’ve got a little tangential with it. But the important things are a rocks glass, ice, a mixing glass. Any sort of vessel will do. You can have a nice one from Cocktail Kingdom or you can get one from Bar Time Store in Tokyo, which ships to the U.S. and makes really great ones. Just some sort of vessel to mix with. You need Angostura bitters, an orange, maple syrup, and the bacon-infused whiskey. I recommend Benton’s and you can buy it directly from them. You can call them, there’s a lovely woman named Deborah. She’s a Southern woman and I call and order from her and they ship it out that day. So it comes within a few days. It’s a nice treat. And then you can use some for this and then you can make breakfast Sunday morning or Saturday morning and eat the bacon and have this for the nice byproduct to have around the house. So you lay out your ingredients. The typical way to build is smallest to largest, so that way you’re not wasting your precious bourbon at home. If you’re in a bar, you’re not wasting the most expensive item. That’s two dashes of Angostura bitters, a quarter-ounce of maple syrup, and you want to make sure all that maple gets out because it’s very viscous. Let all those drops get in there. And then 2 ounces of the bacon-infused bourbon. Add ice and stir. And then I like to keep my rocks glasses in the freezer behind the bar. We have a glass chiller at PDT, most bars have that. And we use big cubes. We buy them from Shintaro Okamoto in Long Island City. They are not essential, but they look great and they’re perfectly clear. I think an Old Fashioned looks really great on a big cube. Can you make it on Kold Draft ice from your freezer? Yeah, absolutely, it’s fine. Add ice to your mixing glass, stir it for 30 seconds. Keep the rocks glass in the freezer until you need it. Take the rocks glass out of the freezer. Add ice to that and then strain the drink into the rocks glass and give it a little twist of orange. So we cut the orange. I use a knife and do disks the size of a quarter. I don’t do a big peel. And then all I do is I just squeeze it to express a little bit of the oil over the top. I don’t rub the rim of the glass or get all crazy with it. It just needs a hint of it. I find that citrus oils in abundance become quite bitter and distract from the drink itself. So I like it to be quite simple. And then I just set that little orange peel coin on top of the ice cube. That way you have a little bit of an orange aromatic as you drink. And this helps, it adds a little color pop to a brown liquid in the glass.
T: Very nice. And then we’re ready.
J: And you’re ready to drink. And drink quickly, not recklessly fast, but it’s not going to get any better. Within the first 10 minutes, it’s going to be good.
J: Probably the first five. I’m not advocating to…
T: Go wild?
J: But if you want to really enjoy it, the longer it sits in ice, the worse it’s going to get. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a table to pull glasses thinking they’re done and they’re like, “I’m still working on that.” I mean, there’s no ice left in the drink. It melted them all. It’s just 90 percent water, 10 percent cocktail at this point, and that can’t really be that good. But yeah, I’m a fan of eating hot food, drinking cocktails cold, and talking about them afterward instead of sitting for 45 minutes with the same cocktail in my hand, whether it’s served up or on crushed ice or anything. Do you drink your coffee when it’s hot? Temperature is a very important part of any sort of great food or drink. Sparkling water is best from the fridge. Tea’s best when it’s hot. Acknowledge that, and drink it that way.
T: Fantastic. So before we jump into the next part of the show, any final thoughts on the Benton’s Old Fashioned, Jeff?
J: Oh. It’s also my favorite drink to have ordered. There was one night years ago where we were going for a sales record, and these eight guys came in. Our biggest booth holds eight. It was like 20 minutes to the last call or maybe 30 minutes to the last call. We were so close. And they sat down and there were eight Benton’s Old Fashioneds. We started talking about last call. They were in good shape. They’re in a place where they can have multiple drinks in succession. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have done that. But they take their first sip and are like, “Damn, these are good. Let’s do another round.” This one table had 16 drinks in 30 minutes, and that got us over the hump. So I’ve always loved making it; it’s a fast build. It goes out quickly. People love it. And it’s nice to have some softballs for the bartenders to make you. Sometimes it makes the job a little bit easier.
T: It’s important to note that we were actually having this conversation and in a recent episode with Toby Cecchini about the Cosmo; it is important to hear from the guest perspective that you guys don’t mind making these drinks that you’re kind of known for or that have become classics. I feel sometimes, people can almost be a little bit apologetic.
J: Oh, yeah, I don’t get it. I mean, if you are at the Buena Vista Cafe and you don’t like making Irish coffees, then you should find a new job.
J: Sorry. I never really got that.
J: Maybe it’s because I have kids now or something, and I don’t have much of an ego about that. But there’s this thing sometimes where bartenders put off this energy that the person ordering from them is wasting their time. No, I think the other way around.
J: You’re giving them out. You’re wasting their time spending money to be there. I like to make people whatever they want. I like to steer them in a direction that I can help them. This is probably a great drink for you, but if they have a firm opinion on something else, by all means. If the Benton’s Old Fashioned isn’t sweet enough, sure, here’s a little maple to add to it. I don’t care. Because if you don’t drink alcohol normally, this might be too strong for you. Or if you like sweet things, we’ll add a little bit to it to make it for you. There’s not an absolute with these things. I think it is from my perspective when I’m consuming them because it’s what I’ve done for 20 years. But for a regular person coming in, they’re in there to have a good time to be with their people, and let’s make it as nice as we can for them.
Getting To Know Jeff Bell
T: Yeah. They’re going to PDT and they’re having the Benton’s Old Fashioned. Nice to come full circle there to our opening. But we are going to jump into the next part of the show here where we are going to get to know you a little bit better, Jeff, with our five weekly recurring questions.
J: All right.
T: Let’s do it. Question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
T: Would you say those are the two that get most often called out in terms of buy to sip or to shoot?
J: Yeah. We deplete most of that from people just ordering them. When I first started, we had a ton of different amari and stuff like that on the bar and we would sell it and use it in drinks. Three or four years ago, I was like, “We should have more brandy, more Calvados, more Cognac, Armagnac, American brandy.” I put a bunch up there, and there are just some beautiful bottles that no one ever touches. The only time they do is if I’m like, “You gotta drink this. You have to have this Paul Beau 30-year-old Cognac.” We get it for $100 wholesale. It’s exceptional. It’s some of the best Cognac you could ever have. It just sits in the back bar, and nobody touches it. So I’m waiting for the trend to oscillate into the brandy area because you can get some great Calvados, Armagnac, and Cognac.
T: And it’s a field you’re very familiar with.
J: Yeah, I’m quite familiar with the American Brandy field. There’s great stuff out of California. It’s an exceptional category; it’s just not having its moment yet for the general public. Bourbon and mezcal are definitely there. Scotch and Japanese whiskies just sell themselves. We have Yamazaki on the back bar or Hibiki.
T: The popularity of those is wild. Question No. 2 here for you: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
J: Oof, the most undervalued tool. What makes this hard is that our tool kit is so small. I can go to a house and make drinks without any of my tools. I would say, undervalued would be a hand citrus press. That’s my final answer. Because how the hell are you going to get juice out? That’s if you want to make drinks for five people and you’re at someone else’s house and don’t have a citrus press.
T: That is a pain in the ass.
J: Yeah, you can use a knife to serve a drink. You can use a pint glass to make a drink. You can use a teaspoon. There’s all sorts of things you can find in the kitchen. We were on vacation in Puerto Rico, and I was making Daiquiris or something for my in-laws and we didn’t have a shaker, so I just took the Yeti. The one that has the attachment you can drink out of and I just put the Yeti on, I shook it, I was it’s actually quite good. You unscrew the cap and then it already has a little bit of a filter. So the only issue is the cocktail shaker. I have really nice tools, but that’s just a luxury. I like to have good equipment to work with, but they do very simple things. Bartending is like that, you’re doing this or doing that.
T: I’m so with you in the press. Not too long ago, here at the VinePair office on Cinco de Mayo, I think it fell on a Thursday this year, and I was like, “I’m going to make Margs for the office.” It’s classic. And I went across the street to the deli to get some limes. Their limes were terrible. They were pretty hard. Obviously, limes are expensive at the moment with everything that’s going on there. At least I got together, maybe 12 or 13 limes, and came back. There were 12 of us in the office at the time, I think, and I was taking orders from people. I go to make the drinks and have everything laid out. Where’s our citrus press? Oh, someone had taken it to a photo shoot a couple of days before and hadn’t returned with it yet. I was squeezing these hard limes by hand.
J: It’s the worst.
T: It was so bad, and I was getting maybe a quarter or half an ounce of juice out of some limes max just because of how bad they were.
T: It was terrible. So as soon as you said that, I am with you on this one.
J: You need to get a good one, too. On their website, Sur La Table has a nice double jointed one. So it really gives you a lot of leverage to get the maximum juice out of it. I would say that’s the most underrated because people don’t think about that one because everybody’s going to have a commercial juicer in their bar. Some bars have a Hamilton Beach press on the bar. But yeah, if that thing breaks, you’re in tough shape.
T: Yeah, it’s rough. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
J: Good question. I don’t know if there’s like one singular piece that has changed the way I thought. I learned a lot from Jim at PDT. I worked with Jay Fleming at McCormick’s Fish House and Bar in Seattle from 2005 to 2009. I was in my early 20s, and he was in his late 40s, early 50s, and he’d been doing it for a long time. Those two people taught me so much. Jay taught me a lot about how to deal with people. How to cut people off, how to organize your bar station, how to be efficient working from one side of the bars to the other instead of just walking from one side of the bar to the other. He was a great teacher. He was very tough on me, which was probably good for a 22-year-old. It kept me in line. But I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve done today if I didn’t have that kind of training. That’s how to manage the bar. The physical part of a bar is very difficult and it’s something that’s hard to train. Because bartending is a trade in that way. Think of it like an apprentice, you get better over time. You get more skilled at that thing, that kind of intangible thing. You’ll see it. You’ll see an old-school bartender at certain places around the city and you’re like, “Damn, that person’s great.” They somehow cut that person off, and then they told them a joke. That person just got cut off, and they love that person. How does that happen? That’s a skill. You have to be very firm and diplomatic. That’s difficult. Of the act of bartending, Jay taught me a ton of stuff. Jim taught me a lot more into the optics and business of bartending. Like patience, and about putting yourself into this place and helping grow the bar. Let the bar help grow you and have this kind of cohesiveness, like a mutually beneficial relationship with the place you work. Jim was always very good about tempering my ambitions. He was like, “That might not be a good opportunity for you.” It’s a TV show. OK, what’s the cast? What’s the premise? This sounds like a “Real Housewives” situation. I shouldn’t do that, things like that. He’s a very good mentor. When you’re a young bartender, the first bit of attention you get, you’re like, “Oh, man, I’m amazing. I’m gonna go after this.” But not taking a lot of the opportunities was really important. I stayed put, I’ve been at PDT for 12 years. And it’s been great. I could have done other things. I just feel like I have a nice relationship with the business. I’ve always thought the bar is always going to be more famous than the bartender. The only time it’s not is like Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.
J: Jimmy Buffett might be more famous. Dave Chang is super famous. Dave’s got a podcast and he’s done a lot of TV now, so I mean, he might be a little bit more famous. But for a long time, Momofuku still had a bigger name. It’s kind of nice because then you can put in your energy and help grow this thing that’s bigger than you. When your time’s over, working there or being behind the scenes, somebody else can take over and keep it going. You’re almost like a caretaker of something that’s bigger than you. That’s the way I think about PDT. I can create more work on other projects on the side. But my most important thing is to make sure PDT stays on course.
T: You’re a custodian.
J: Yeah, exactly. We have 13 more years left on the current lease. We just turned 15, so we’ll be 28 when the lease is up. So ideally, in 10 years we’ll start talking to the landlord about another extension. And at that point, I’ll be in my late 40s and I’ll get another young person to take the reins and push it into the future. Because I want the bar to be a place for New Yorkers and visitors to exist; it’s a special place.
T: It’s incredible that you had those two mentors yourself and then you’re able to pass those on to the staff and the future custodians right there.
J: That’s the plan. I’m still working on my mentor abilities. It’s difficult; there’s still learning to do.
T: That’s what it’s all about. Question No. 4: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
J: And I spend a long time in that bar?
T: Feel free to.
J: I mean, just one last bar the rest of my life, I want to make a session out of it. Experimental Beach in Ibiza.
T: OK. Tell us about that.
J: So the Experimental Cocktail Club started in Paris. I don’t know exactly how old they are there. They’re probably about the age of PDT, maybe a little older than 15 years old. I should know this. I’m friends with those guys. But they had that bar and that kind of helped change the drinking in Paris.
J: They opened in London, and then they’ve done other things. The Beef Club in Paris was great, too. They’re a very creative group and they started getting into hotels. Now they have locations in Verbier, Venice, Menorca, and then Ibiza. Was it 2018? Maybe about four years ago, I went to Ibiza and just did a shift at that bar and there’s a shipwreck boat. I don’t actually know if it’s a shipwreck or if it’s just a boat that’s been beached. But that’s one of the bars there. But it’s on the west side of the island. It’s on this preserve, far away from all of the craziness in Ibiza. And it’s the most spectacular sunsets you can imagine. The drinks are great, obviously, and then the food’s awesome. If I had one last place to go, it would be there. Bars aren’t just about mind-bending cocktails. It’s about the experience and the atmosphere and how it makes you feel. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be than that beach, at that bar, having a Gin & Tonic.
T: It’s perfect for a good story and a good sunset for good measure.
T: Final question for you today: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
J: I’d probably have a Negroni. But I would have a double. If I could make it for myself, I would put 2 ounces each of gin, vermouth and Campari into a bottle. And I would keep it in the freezer with a little bit of water. It would be a big glass because it’s 6 ounces and change. Put that over a couple of large ice cubes. That would be my last drink.
T: It’s a good way to go.
J: I’m cheating with the devil.
T: No, that’s one drink still. Just a very big one.
J: Yeah, I go with that because I love the Negroni. It’s obviously a very trendy drink, but you can really savor that. Whatever position you’re in, if it’s the last drink, how much do you want to savor that moment you’re in?
T: Yeah, I’d make it big. I think you have to.
J: Yeah. Whatever it is, it’s a double dip. There’s a really great former bartender at PDT, John deBary.
J: He used to have a great order. He would order a double Kansai Kick rocks, no rocks. It’s a sour that he came up with back when Yamazaki 12 was affordable. It was Yamazaki Whisky, Madeira, lime, and orgeat. It’s a play on Cameron’s Kick. It was an exceptional drink. But if you do a double and pour it into a rocks glass with ice, it won’t fit. So it would double Kansai rocks, no rocks. You should have him on here. He’s a great guy.
T: Yeah, a great guy. Also he does a little bit work with myself at the L.A. Spirits Awards there. So shout-out to those guys. Well, Jeff, thanks so much for joining us today. This has been a lot of fun.
J: Yeah, it’s been great. Thanks for having me. Nice to be here. Nice to have these conversations and good questions at the end. Sorry for anyone listening that I paused for a little while, edit that down. But I definitely gave it a lot of thought.
T: Well, thank you very much. Let’s go grab some hot dogs and some bacon-infused bourbon.
J: There we go.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.