How To Fat-Wash Vodka And Make A Cocktail That Tastes Like California Chardonnay

Bryan Schneider is the head barman of New York City's General Assembly. He has created cocktails for some of the city's most acclaimed restaurants and bars, including Daniel, Clover Club and Quality Italian. His drinks have been featured in publications such as the New York Times and Esquire. Schneider recently wrote in to us to describe the painstaking process behind his California Chardonnay cocktail, a vodka-based drink that tastes exactly like, well, a glass of California Chardonnay.

I was inspired to create this cocktail while discussing the flavors of a big, oaky California Chardonnay during a recent wine tasting. In the glass we tasted butter, tropical fruits, toasted oak, vanilla and citrus in the wine and later, I started thinking: "Why not try to incorporate all these wonderful flavors into a cocktail?" What if I could do it in a way where the cocktail actually looked and was presented like a glass of wine? That is exactly what we have done at General Assembly. I warn, however, that this is a long, complicated and time consuming process that takes the better part of a week. But, it is worth the wait.

Butter is the first flavor that I tackled, but not without its challenges. There is a technique called "fat washing," which is the horribly unappetizing name for the method of stirring a rendered fat into a spirit, then freezing for several hours and extracting the fat that has solidified on top. While I had done this before with dry aged beef fat for Dry Aged Bloody Marys at Quality Italian, the butter did not solidify nicely in the freezer when I tried the process with melted butter. After some experimenting, though, I discovered that after leaving the vodka/butter mixture in the freezer a bit longer – about 72 hours – the butter eventually sinks and solidifies on the bottom. I then simply pour off the now clear butter-flavored vodka.

Bryan Schneider infuses the vodka with chopped fresh mango, whole vanilla beans and toasted oak chips. 

Next is adding the tropical fruit, toasted oak and vanilla flavors. This is simple enough – we do a 48-hour infusion with chopped fresh mango, whole vanilla beans and toasted oak chips that we get from a local homebrew store.

The next step is adding the citrus, which is mostly for acidity. Straight lemon juice, however, would cloud up the drink and we would lose some of the visual effect of a nice clear glass of wine. So, we clarify fresh lemon juice first by adding agar powder, which is a gelatin derived from seaweed. After the gelatin sets with the lemon juice, you can strain off a clear juice through a cheese cloth. A citric acid solution of about 6% would work as well, for all you molecular nerds.

The final step is adding caramel sugar syrup, which gives a touch of sweetness and just the right color. We take sugar and cook it over a medium low heat in a pan until all the sugar has caramelized and liquefied. Then, we add boiling water to make a syrup.

When all is said and done, the cocktail is simple: two parts infused vodka, two parts filtered water, 1/2 part clarified lemon juice and 1/2 part caramel syrup. We filter each batch through a coffee filter to remove any remaining particles from the infusions, then funnel it into empty burgundy bottles. The bottles get chalked up on the outside with a "California Chardonnay" label before we cork them and seal them with white wax.

They sit for another couple days for all the flavors to settle and come together. (I actually have a few bottles tucked into a corner of our wine cellar to see what further bottle aging might do.) We then pour the cocktail straight from the bottle into a wine glass. The final product looks exactly glass of wine and has all the flavors of that big, buttery chardonnay I sampled at the wine tasting, but drinks like a refreshing cocktail.

California Chardonnay Cocktail Recipe

Servings: 1 cocktail

2 ounces butter/mango/oak infused vodka

1/2 ounce Clarified Lemon Juice

1/2 ounce Caramel Syrup

2 ounces water

1. Mix, then strain through chinois lined with a coffee filter.

2. Add immediately to the wine bottles.

For the infused vodka* 

  1. Melt one pound of butter on low heat and whisk into four liters of vodka.
  2. Freeze until all the butter settles to the bottom of the container (about 72 hours).
  3. Strain the vodka off the butter through a fine strainer, being careful that the butter stays at the bottom.
  4. Peel and chop 4 mangos, and add to the vodka. Add between 3/4 and 1 cup of toasted oak chips.
  5. Add 4 vanilla beans (split down the center with a knife) and infuse for 48 hours.
  6. Strain off through a fine strainer.

For the clarified lemon juice

  1. Add 6 1/3 cups lemon juice to a metal container. Submerge container in an ice bath.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 1 1/4 cups water and 1/3 tablespoon agar until boiling. Boil for 1 minute, then whisk into the lemon juice and let set 10 minutes.
  3. Break up the lemon curds, and pour through a chinois lined with a cheese cloth.
  4. Leave to strain until all juice runs clear.

For the caramel syrup

  1. Add 16 cups sugar to a pan.
  2. Stir over low heat until all sugar caramelizes, then cut heat.
  3. Gradually add 16 cups water until sugar dissolves (Do not pour all the water in at once. Start with 1/2-cup increments.)

* These recipes are all written for large batches, which Schneider suggests for bottling (and bottle aging) purposes. But you can scale according to your needs. 

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