You can pair spirits with food. And it works really well.
The subterranean Wine Cellar of Toronto’s Spiga Ristorante was snug and candle-lit. The wine was flowing, and husband-and-wife team of Eyal Liebman and Rebecca Meïr-Liebman (professionally known as Chef & Somm) were doing what they do best: crafting a multi-course bespoke dinner and challenging (or confirming) the conventional wisdom of wine and food matching.
Pinot Noir and beef tartare; a classic match, right? Not exactly. It was a 2013 Marsanne from Niagara’s Kew Vineyards that pushed all the right buttons for me. The cool, viscous, peach/mineral-tinged white wine wrapped itself sensually around the rich, peppery raw beef, offering both a textural complement and a flavour contrast.
Demi Cornish Hen, Grilled Pineapple, Buttery Brussels Sprouts and Rose Jus aptly demonstrated that certain flavours could work admirably with both red and white wine, as this dish did with two Niagara takes on Burgundy: a rich and complex 2013 Wild Ferment Chardonnay from Southbrook Vineyards, and a 2010 Pinot Noir Réserve Du Domaine from Domaine Queylus that was showing beautifully with six years of age.
And would you dare pair a Valrhona Dark Chocolate (Caraïbe) Poppy Seed Cake and Valrhona Cœur de Guanaja Ice-cream with a dry red wine? Turns out that adding a piece of crispy bacon to the mix helped the dessert get along nicely with a 2012 St David’s Bench Vineyard Cabernet Franc from Château des Charmes (proving, conclusively, that for every problem, bacon is the answer).
These were just a few of the eye-opening matches Chef & Somm delivered over the span of the six-course dinner. In this case, all the matches that were designed to work, worked. But the practice of matching wine and food is still somewhat tricky for most of us. Mainly, as Meïr-Lieban pointed out, because of the available options, even within similar wine and food categories. Beyond the usual something crisp and white with oysters and a robust red with meat, the complexities of many of the dishes gracing restaurant menus — or being whipped up in your kitchen — these days leaves the choice of which wine to match with which food a game of chance. Will this red subtly nuanced with pepper and smoke actually complement this lamb tagine? Or will it render the whole effort so much compost?
Now, with the surge in popularity of artisanal, craft varieties, beer is now more frequently being paired with sophisticated dishes. No longer relegated to the realm of cold, bland suds used to wash down pizza during the Super Bowl, the rapidly expanding range of quality brews is being served throughout the meal, from aperitif to dessert. (Interestingly – and in a move well ahead of its time – Labatt, of all brewers, was pushing the synergy between beer and food well over 25 years ago.)
If that’s old news for you, maybe this will grab your interest. Pairing spirits with food is slowly becoming a more popular practice. Yes, that’s right. You might be sipping an Old Fashioned, rather than a New World Cabernet, with your porterhouse. Blame (or praise) the food-spirit matching trend on the cocktail renaissance that’s occurred over the last few years.
“Associating wine and beer with food is something very common because it is a cultural practice — we were educated that way,” maintains Alfred Cointreau, Heritage Manager for the Cointreau Distillery in France. He’s also the great grandson of Édouard-Jean Cointreau who, along with his brother, Adolphe, founded the distillery in 1849. Its eponymous triple sec (orange liqueur) is today the most imitated spirit in the world in both packaging and content.
“Every culture has its own codes and rules regarding eating and drinking practices,” Cointreau explains. “In Europe and North America, our traditional way of associating food and beverage is through wine and beer. In other cultures, like Eastern Europe and Asia, the focus is more on spirits. I try to encourage Westerners to break with conventions and share new experiences with spirits and food.”
Chefs and bartenders seem to be on the cutting-edge of the convention-breaking game, and are leading the spirit and food pairing movement. Jacob Wharton-Shukster, the owner/chef/bartender of Toronto’s recently revamped Chantecler bistro, contends that the concept of matching spirits with food stems from our “natural inclination to combine.” He cites the examples of a gin and tonic with snacks before dinner, and whiskies with a cheese course after, as things we might not specifically view as “pairings,” but that we do as part of the dining routine.
The process of pairing food with spirits is pretty straightforward. If you’re dubious thanks to the fact that you never quite got the hang of pairing food and wine, there’s no need to fret. Nicolas Villalon, Edrington Brand Ambassador (The Macallan, Highland Park, The Famous Grouse) is the expert to ask. Villalon has hosted a number of well-received dinners where food and spirit pairings are very specific, including an exotic Chinese New Year’s dinner at Susur Lee’s Luckee restaurant that saw various incantations of The Macallan single malt (neat or in cocktails) matched with a range of intricately-crafted Asian dishes. In Villalon’s view, the key to embracing the marriage of food and spirit is to open yourself to some expert guidance.
“The pairing of spirits with food is not as instinctive as, let’s say, a wine pairing, so I recommend such a pairing be initiated by a professional. Then, as you become more educated, this sort of pairing will gradually become more natural and ‘mainstream’.”
When it comes to pairing wine and beer with dishes, you typically look for complementary flavours happening between the solids and the liquids. The same approach is often followed in food and spirit matches.
“I think some generalizations can be made,” says Wharton-Shukster when asked about specific marriages of spirits to cuisine. “Seafood dishes and lighter flavours pair better with light spirits or light spirit cocktails; citrusy drinks and ceviche, for example. “Darker spirits like brandies and whiskies go great with more robust flavours, such as strong cheeses, game meats, or rich seafood or shellfish dishes.”
Incorporating the spirit right into various dishes can certainly up the chances of the food and drink playing nicely together. Cointreau describes his grandmother’s summer family dinner – a “Cointreau dinner” through and through.
“We start with a tomato salad with a Cointreau vinaigrette,” he reveals. “Then we move to a main course of monkfish with Cointreau sauce paired with a white lady cocktail featuring Cointreau, gin and lemon. Dessert would be a Cointreau Soufflé with Cointreau on ice as a digestif.”
Rather than complement, Villalon prefers what he calls an “anti-pairing” (what most of us would probably call a contrast). “This is when you are looking for flavours to play off of each other rather than create a synergy of flavours. For example, pairing a bitter flavour with a sweet spirit or cocktail … or a sweet dish with a drink with smoky or woody nuances.
One might suspect that cocktails might work better throughout a meal than “neat” spirits. There is some consensus among the experts here. “It is indeed easier to pair cocktails rather than neat spirits,” Vilallon contends. “A well-made cocktail will be well balanced, and the sweet component won’t pose a problem.”
“You have a lot of different categories of cocktail flavours,” Cointreau points out. “Bitter, dry, sour, fruity, acidic … I am sure there are more cocktail variations than red and white wine combined!” The key to a blissful cocktail match, in his eyes, is the skill of the bartender combined with the best ingredients.
Wharton-Shukster sees sugar as less of a problem. “Previously, I might have agreed that high sugar content in cocktails could clash [with food]. This is less and less an issue. As chefs draw more influence from world cuisine, they are cooking with more sweet and sour components. The balance of flavours can work really well with well balanced cocktails.”
Zak Doy, Casamigos Tequila Brand Ambassador and Lead Mixologist, feels that cocktails present an easier match. “You can add as many elements needed to elevate the base spirit and complement a food pairing. Cocktails don’t necessarily have to be sweet. I enjoy tart cocktails such as margaritas without a trace of added sugar. That’s the beauty of cocktails; they can be whatever the creator wants them to be, the best of them being those that show off the base spirit.”
Not everyone is over the moon about this trend. Way back in 2007, I asked whisky guru Jim Murray (the author of the Great Crown Royal Northern Harvest Ryeproclamation) his thoughts on trying to pair whisky with food. His response was characteristically subtle: “No.”
“I think more pretentious rubbish is written and spoken about this than any other factor concerning whisky … It’s a load of crap.” (Incidentally, if you want to read the full interview, it’s here: www.quench.me/drinks/jim-murray-whisky/).
Of course, one person’s load of crap can be another’s man’s pot of gold.
The process of pairing food with spirits is pretty straightforward. If you’re dubious thanks to the fact that you never quite got the hang of pairing food and wine, there’s no need to fret.
My personal experience with matching spirits and food has been something of a mixed bag. I’ve been lucky enough to have attended a number of spirited feasts — led by experts — with libations that included whisk(e)y, rum, tequila and a myriad of cocktails (not all at the same dinner, mind you probably a good thing).
These events were pretty well unanimously fabulous. Pan-Asian cuisine paired with cocktails featuring Mount Gay rum. The launching of the Thor and Freya expressions from Highland Park. The Bacardí Paladar Cuba-inspired blowout. Alberta Distillers Dark Horse dinner at Toronto’s (now closed) Turf lounge hosted by Canadian whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux. A dinner centred around Boulard Calvados at a swanky boîte in Toronto’s Yorkville nabe. A few tequila-laced meals in Mexico (where I ate crickets) courtesy of the Patrón people (the meals, not necessarily the crickets). And more than a couple Robbie Burns dinners (the last featuring the trifecta of Auchentoshan Lowland Single Malt as well as Bowmore and Laphroiag Islay Single Malts and, if memory serves, some Glen Garioch Highland Single Malt snuck in there as well).
The only issue I found with many of these events was that although the libations were terrific and the food top-notch, pairing the two together didn’t typically result in mind-blowing synergy. This, however, changed at the launch of Casamigos Añejo tequila at Toronto’s Valdez Restaurant.
George Clooney’s Casamigos brand has been around for a while in the form of a Blanco and a Reposado tequila. Having aged a bit longer, the Añejo made its debut in what was probably the best spirit/food match I’ve experienced. Not surprisingly, Chef Steve Gonzalez is big on Casamigos, and big on the idea of spirits and cocktails with food. The matches he offered opened with Casamigos Blanco paired with grouper ceviche (with grilled pineapple, yucca, tomato, tajin, lemon and avocado) a Columbian-style beef empanada with the Casamigos Reposado and, finally, a banana flambé with the Casamigos Añejo.
While each pairing worked beautifully, the Blanco/ceviche combo really did it for me (Doy went with the dessert match). Something in the way the gently herbal, mildly peppery and slightly viscous white spirit wrapped itself around the herb and citrus-infused, melt-in-your-mouth fish just screamed, More! Any doubt that a spirit could tango with a dish was swallowed with a second mouthful of this combo.
I had to ask Casamigos Tequila Director of International Markets, Thor Richardson, why tequila in general — and Casamigos in specific — has such an affinity with certain dishes.
“The notes in each expression — be it the floral vanilla notes in the Blanco, the salted caramel in the Reposado or the spicy oak of the Añejo — are so complementary to food flavours that they make for fantastic pairing with a wide range of dishes. Casamigos adds these flavours to the palate and heightens any dish — this is especially true in comparison with grain-based spirits, where the spirit winds up killing the flavour of the food, not complementing it.” (As an aside, I might suggest that tequila has a bit of an advantage in that can be at once a white spirit, amber spirit and brown spirit, thereby opening up more matching possibilities.)
Spirit and food matches are definitely becoming more popular, and the best way for those new to the game is to heed Vilallon’s advice and let the experts guide you. If you’re in Toronto, check out Rush Lane & Co., and let Doy be your guide. Or visit Valdez. You can’t go wrong with a chef who signs off with, “Spirits and cocktails definitely have a place in a meal cooked by me!”