For those of us who frequent cocktail bars, we have noticed that not only has the once-declining interest in cocktails been reversed, but also the bartenders have become mixologists.
At the same time, while the traditional relationship between the kitchen and the sommelier continues unabated, there is an important new relationship that has edged its way into a position of prominence, namely the pairing of cocktails with food. Yes, the mixologist and the chef share a similar relationship to the sommelier and the head of the kitchen.
The objective, not unlike wine being paired with food, is to present cocktails in a way that does not compromise the taste of either the drink or the dish.
Simply speaking, and to state the obvious, cocktails work best with intensely flavoured food. And of course this depends on the style of restaurant, but small-sized cocktails work particularly well with bite-sized presentations of food. Here is where flavours tend to be forceful and incisive. The idea is to stay away from the ineffectual combinations — dishes that are bland or particularly subtle simply don’t work well.
It is not a big leap of faith to deduce that piquant foods such as Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian favourites will pair with citrus-forward cocktails such as margaritas and caipirinhas. These present the best balance because the tartness is a particularly good contrast to the spices in the dish.
There are of course some natural combinations, and the one that likely springs to mind is a minty, citrus cocktail with lamb. But it is even more interesting to add a touch of fruit in a drink when you’re, say, pairing with fish or pork. One popular New York restaurant blends rum and bananas and serves the drink on the rocks and with pork dishes.
If there’s anything to avoid, it’s cocktails that contain a carbonated ingredient. They may taste good for a few minutes, but the carbination fades and becomes rather negative.
Desserts can be either easy or quite finicky to pair with. The most natural choice is a sweet, creamy cocktail, like one that contains Bailey’s Irish Cream. Or have ice cream as your dessert and serve it with a splash of Drambuie, Cointreau or even cognac — or all three.
Whether the cheese course precedes the final course or, as is becoming popular again, is the final course, cocktails based on whiskey, Scotch or single malts are ideal because their smoky notes infiltrate the cheese and pierce through its saltiness and fattiness.
But the cocktails-and-food challenge is not limited to the restaurant; there are lots of ways you can experiment at home. Particularly when you’re using herbs and spices like garlic and black pepper. You can make intensely flavoured food that just calls out for a specific kind of cocktail.
There is a flexibility to pairing food with cocktails that just isn’t possible with wine. Once the wine is chosen and opened, you’re pretty much stuck with that taste. But with cocktails, you can tweak and adjust the recipe so that it nicely matches or contrasts with the dish being served.
So here are some basic tips for tweaking your drinks.
The first is clearly logic. You don’t have to be an experienced mixologist to pair flavours. Think about just one of the flavours and what you associate with it. If, for example, you’re working with a butter sauce, then perhaps have a vanilla flavour in your drink. A dish using olive oil, like a fish dish, calls for something with lemon.
If it’s food on the barbecue, why not use bourbon, which enhances the smokiness of the meat? Or let’s say you’re using something that’s really hot and spicy like a tuna roll. Then choose a drink with cooling agents.
Adding herbs is a particularly good way to bond cocktails with food. The best example is mint, such as any form of mint julep; the mint adds an extra layer of complexity to the food. Rosemary works well in this way too, and for many, sage is wonderful blended with tequila. It’s important, however, not to be heavy-handed with herbs. Often just a dash or a sprig will give the extra aromatic touch you’re searching for.
One thing not to do is have a cocktail that will overpower the dish. Taste beforehand. It’ll be easy to tell if the drink is going to wash out what is being served, particularly if it is a simple dish.
Remember that when mixed with juice and other ingredients, the spirit is diluted and loses some of its flavour and potency. These kinds of cocktails obviously have less alcohol than the liquor served straight up. Nonetheless, a cocktail is more powerful than wine, so small quantities are the order of the day.
And keep an open mind when it comes to dessert. There is no rule that calls for sweet cocktails with chocolate desserts. The lighter, more acidic tang from cognac or a single malt whisky would also work very well. Often we use sweeter cocktails to temper tartness.
But all things considered, really there are no hard-and-fast rules. Without doubt, some experimentation will be necessary (and loads of fun).
So try on something new for size. Here’s a wide range of ideas assembled from a disparate group of home chefs. The pairings have all been tried and tested, and the chefs are pleased with the result. Take a look through the list. It should inspire you — the mixologist and chef — to do some experimenting at home.
Recently, to finish off dinner at a really lovely restaurant, my wife ordered pecan pie, and I decided on the Cragganmore. Imagine our delight on discovering that a bite of pie followed by a sip of whisky made both of them taste even better.
Many of us have been long-standing fans of a dry gin martini with a burger and fries. The gin cuts through all the fat and cleanses the palate for the next bite.
And what about cooking with cocktail ingredients? How about porcini mushrooms reconstituted with rye, sautéed with fennel and bitters?
One day a friend was enjoying the Maritimes. With steamed clams in hand, she tried drinking cider where white wine might be the usual recommendation. It was a success. After she mentioned this, my mind moved to thoughts of clean and bright cocktails you could have with clams. Have a go with a few gin-based possibilities like the White Lady, Corpse Reviver #2 and the Obituary.
So, the door’s now wide open. Give your imagination a try.
Matches to start you off
Scotch with peanut butter. Exquisite.
Champagne with potato chips. Preferably cracked-black-pepper potato chips. In fact, most cocktails go best with fried, salty snacks.
Pineau des charentes with foie gras.
Grand Marnier with strawberries.
Port and chocolate, of course.
Yonge genever with smoked fish.
Vodka and caviar. Or any salty dishes. (Gin is in the same category as vodka.)
Single malt with brownies.
Single malt with smoked salmon.
Smokier and heavier single malts with steak. (Laphroaig, Ardbeg or even slightly smoky/malty Cardhu.)
The sherry-finished Scotches with desserts that aren’t obscenely sweet, such as crêpes.
Bourbons with pecan pie and grilled foods like pork chops and sausages.
Cognac/brandy/Armagnac with heavy cheeses.
Tequila with any Southwestern dish or spicy Chinese. An interesting pairing.
Peaty Lagavulin or Bowmore with rack of lamb.
Dirty vodka martinis with shrimp cocktails or oysters.
Bombay and tonic with Szechuan Chinese.
Maker’s Manhattan with artisanal cheddar.
Ouzo with gyros.
Retsina with grilled calamari.
Calvados with foie gras.
Alvaro Palacios Priorat with Twix candy bars.
Whisky, including peaty malts, with firm cheeses (English cheddar, red Leicester and the like) and with smoked cheeses (even better). Also with smoked meats and unsmoked ham — but good ham, cut from the bone. Ham sandwich and a glass of Scotch, please.