By Rebeccah Marsters
Whether James Bond’s martini, Carrie Bradshaw’s cosmo, a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby, or a snifter of brandy by the fire, spirits in our culture have come to signify far more than the sum of their parts, and it was only a matter of time before they started moving into the culinary arena. In the past, spirits – both mixed and straight-up – have traditionally filled the niche of pre-dinner libations; whether at home or out on the town, spirits effectively enable us to pass the time until your table or meal is ready. Wine and beer often accompany the food itself, but the stronger stuff is generally relegated to the roles of apéritif or digestif. Luckily, trends are changing the perception of spirits’ ability to pair effectively with food.
Up until now, perhaps the only situation in which we are accustomed to mixing liquor and food is the cocktail party, where drinks are accompanied by hors d’oeuvres and other small bites. The higher alcohol content of mixed drinks is the perfect foil to the typically rich and salty foods passed around at these soirees and this may well have been the seed for the concept of food and spirits pairing that is growing steadily today.
While both spirits and food have been parts of our daily lives for ages, there exist no real examples of thoughtful, intentional pairings of the two. Whatever the reason for this, the trends arising in restaurants and bars today have created a favorable environment for this concept to take off. Blame it on the ADHD generation, but the direction of food has been away from the idea of one big plate containing the triumvirate of meat-veg-starch for dinner. Rather, it has transitioned towards a dining experience where guests can taste many things; whether tapas, mezze, sliders, or amuse bouche, food is getting smaller and more varied. This more informal ‘small plates’ style of eating is comparable to the aforementioned hors d’oeuvres and thus similarly conducive to less-traditional beverage pairing.
In the beverage arena, the overwhelming trend is looking to the past. There has been a renaissance of classic cocktails, from “the Sidecar” to “the Aviation”, and terms like pre-prohibition and artisan liquor are being thrown around like yesterday’s cosmopolitan and appletini. American palates are becoming more sophisticated and adventurous, with less demand for the fruity, sweet, pastel sippers that were sucked down so voraciously in the past. Not only are cocktails growing less sweet, but some are even savory, and there has been an influx of food-related ingredients being used. From muddling fresh herbs and garnishing with cheese-stuffed olives, to the more-adventurous use of bacon and hot peppers, almost nothing is off limits. These savory drinks are a natural match for food, evidenced by the fact that several actually have food in them. Some restaurants have jumped at this opportunity, hiring what’s known as ‘bar chefs’, and even constructing their own tasting menus with cocktail pairings. Whatever the impetus was, recognition of this novel concept is setting in, as ‘culinary cocktails’ are amongst the hottest restaurant menu trends.
Despite this promising forecast, there are inherent challenges in pairing food and spirits. In discussing these, it is helpful to use wine pairing as a comparison, as most of us are somewhat familiar with the principles behind it. Super-sweet wines are rarely paired with food because there is disconnect with the predominantly savory flavors found in most meals. Sugary cocktails present the same problem, and although we are seeing bartenders dial down the sweetness, this must be kept carefully in check to make a good food pairing. Another potential issue is the high alcohol content of spirits. Too much alcohol can burn the taste buds, rendering the palate numb to the food that follows. Thoughtful blending of spirits with other ingredients is the key to ensuring a cocktail is balanced. A third issue concerns the temperature at which different beverages are served. Most cocktails are meant to be drunk ice cold, whether frozen, on the rocks, or shaken over ice, and not only does this extreme temperature further debilitate the taste buds, but there’s little chance of the beverage staying at the intended temperature throughout the meal. Wine can be swirled, sipped, kept at room temperature, or kept in an ice bucket and poured little by little, but a cocktail will either be slowly watered down by melting ice, or flaccid on the palate due to warming up.
Given the possibility of disaster, why would one bother with such pairings when wine is a less risky crowd-pleaser? Despite the challenges, there are certain qualities that can make pairing food with spirits quite propitious. The elevated alcohol content of spirits, while potentially dangerous for the palate, actually works symbiotically with food. Whereas wine can coat the mouth, spirits seem to absorb the fat in food, effectively washing the palate. In return, the richness in the food softens the taste of the alcohol. This give and take keeps us coming back for more. Another undeniable advantage is that with wine, ideal food pairings may be found, but with cocktails, they can be made. Wine pairing is something of a gamble because if it turns out that a match is not harmonious, only the food can be altered – wine is a constant factor. It may not have enough acid to stand up to a dish, or too much tannin for another, but little can be done to remedy this. A cocktail, on the other hand, is a recipe which, if unharmonious, can be altered. Not enough acid? Add a squeeze more citrus. Too dry? Up the vermouth ratio. In this way, the beverage is fully customizable to the food’s requirements.
While food pairing should be fun, a few guidelines are helpful when attempting it. Perhaps the most indispensable principle is to consider what wine would pair well with the food, and go from there. Think about the acid level, mouth feel, predominant fruit flavors, body, and sweetness of an appropriate wine, and extrapolate those qualities to a cocktail. As with wine, the two main routes you can follow when thinking about food and drink are to match flavors or to contrast them. Sometimes rich, salty foods need something sweet and fruity to temper them, but often an intense, tannic or bitter option can be equally successful.
Another approach is to think about food and alcohol pairings that are already familiar. We’ve all eaten food with spirits before, even of we don’t realize it – maybe it started with the olive in a martini, a stick of celery in a bloody Mary, or the cherry in a Manhattan, but it goes beyond mere garnishes as well. In cooking, spirits have been used to complement the flavors of food for decades, and components that play well together on the plate also play well when one is in a glass. Take penne alla vodka, and think about how a clean, fresh, vodka-based cocktail would pair with a creamy, tomato-based pasta dish. Or consider steak au poivre with cognac sauce, and instead pair that steak with a smoky, heady, brandy-based drink. Some other combinations that come to mind are pork chops with calvados, tequila shrimp, rum-raisin ice cream, or venison with juniper – a central component of gin.
Finally, another effective method of pairing is to think regional, matching the origin of the spirit with that of the cuisine. Tequila makes a natural partner for Mexican foods like chorizo and ceviche. Campari plays well with Italian- think prosciutto and melon- and vodka could have no better mate than blini and caviar. There is a reason these pairings are somewhat stereotypical: they work!
Despite this basic information, there are truly no rules to pairing spirits. It’s not hindered in tradition, thus many things haven’t been tried, and what seems like an unlikely success may work beautifully. One bar chef claims that scotches from Islay and sushi are a match made in heaven, as the peatiness goes beautifully with the oils in the fish. Heck, if this can work, just imagine what else might? Spirits pairing is still flying under the radar for the most part, but it may be time for cocktails to bridge the gap into the dinner hour. The wine bottle will always have a place at the table, but given the current trends in both the food and liquor industries, it may have to share elbowroom with martini glasses pretty soon.
After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina. After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.