How to Pair Cocktails and Food

Crab and cream cheese dip on prawn crackers next to a mango cocktail
Crab and cream cheese dip on prawn crackers next to a mango cocktail. Sian Irvine / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Why are we concerned with a marriage of food and drink? It is simple: we digest both and often do so at the same time. The right drink can enhance a dining experience and the wrong drink can ruin an entire meal. There is a science behind pairings that has to do with all sorts of scientific things from physiology, psychology, and sociology, but we won't get into (most) of that. What I want to do is help you break a common barrier: the fear of drinking cocktails and mixed drinks with a "high class" meal - or any meal for that matter.

Wine and food have always gone together and it is becoming more popular to explore the combinations of beer and cocktails with different dishes. There is a special knack to having a successful food and drink pairing and it can get complicated. It gets even more so when we start working with cocktails because the flavors are more complex, however, the experience can be a lot of fun because flavors are nearly endless and can result in some fantastic results.

I have been experimenting with cocktail pairings since I took that first plunge into mixology. We all tend to do so, even if we don't recognize it. A Dry Martini with a seared sea bass or a French Martini with a chocolate mousse for dessert being two of my favorites. Yet, it wasn't until I met Melkohn Khosrovian and his wife Litty Mathew, of Modern Spirits and Tru Organic Spirits, in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail that I began examining pairings in more detail.

The couple built their spirit lines around pairings and actually began creating alcohol to take to dinner parties with friends and family. Years of experimenting with their vodkas, gin and liqueurs have given them a great understanding of how food and spirits work together and they repeatedly work with some of the best chefs to explore creative food-spirit pairings.

The following is an attempt to relate the most important information from their expertise. You can take these theories home and use them for the next dinner party you host.

Spiriting Up Your Dinner Party

If you have attended Tales of the Cocktail, you may have attended one of the event's signature Spirited Dinners. This experience is the ultimate in food and cocktail pairings, with full course meals at some of New Orleans' top restaurants. For each course a mixologist and chef have worked together in the same way sommeliers and chefs have for years, matching flavors of food and drink together. That concept is a little extreme and not for the average dinner party, yet it is a fun experience and highlight during the annual cocktail conference.

While a cocktail with each of five courses sounds like a great way to start an evening, it is a lot of alcohol. Serving sizes for full-spirit dinner pairings should be a little smaller because of that fact and a 2-3 ounce cocktail is a good goal. Your table setting will also look better with petite, old-fashioned cocktail glasses instead of those 6-ounce styles we are used to today.

If a pairing scheme that is more subtle is what you are looking for, Khosrovian suggests mixing up beer, wine, and cocktails on the menu. Maybe you will serve a nice aperitif cocktail with the appetizers, a refreshing beer with a course or two, and a select wine with your feature dish, going back to a delicious dessert cocktail to top off the evening.

The object of the pairing is to compliment (although that often comes as a contrasting pairing) the food and allow that to be the feature - the drink is a backup singer, she can be off-key and ruin the biggest star's performance, or she can be back there with the perfect "Doo-Whop" that sets the tone. Cocktails happen to be ideal for this because your options are endless, the key is to choose an appropriate compliment without taking away from the food.

Also, we do not have to step far from the traditional when thinking about cocktails at dinner. Cocktails, in most instances, also include mixed drinks and many that wine, instead of high-proof liquor, is always a safe option. If you desire a wine pairing, these wine cocktails are a nice alternative, even ones as simple as a White Wine Spritzer or a Kir can add that little touch of "special" to the meal.

The beauty of a cocktail pairing is that you can match bold flavors with subtle foods and vice versa. Khosrovian suggests that if you are working with a soft-flavored duck or fish, pull out a strong, flavor-filled cocktail. On the other hand, if you have a spicy Asian dish you will want to go with a light, airy, refreshing cocktail. The mixed drink can be tailored to fit the need.

You will win some and lose some when it comes to pairing no matter what beverages you choose. The thing to remember is to have fun, think through your taste buds, and "don't match, compliment."

Cocktails vs. Wine

We have been pairing wine with food for a long time and most of us have a good feel for it. Cocktails are a different story, mainly because there is a misconception that cocktails dull the palate and overwhelm the food it is paired with. However, it is just the opposite. Khosrovian points out that wine will coat the palate, where spirits actually absorb fat and “wash the palate.” This is especially poignant with rich, fatty foods like foie gras because the higher alcohol content actually cleanses the palate and prepares it for the next bite or course.

With wines, you need to have extensive knowledge of styles and characteristics of each of those to properly pair. Sure, we know that Riesling is the most versatile and red wines tend to go toward red meats but beyond the basics, one needs to understand a particular wine’s properties to create a truly spectacular pairing. When we talk about cocktails, we have the ability to pair individual (and background) flavors with elements in the food. You cannot (usually) find mango, blackberry or tea in a wine, but you can easily create a cocktail with any of those. I like to think of the drink as an extra garnish for each dish and this is typically a complimentary flavor that I am looking for which is far easier to obtain in a bolder form via mixed drinks.

When I was growing up our family concentrated on the typical Midwest "meat and potatoes" diet ("potatoes" encompassing vegetables, breads, and other vitamin-filled foods that filled you up). You got the substance you needed to energize the body and mind for the next task of the day or to replenish after a hard day's work and, ultimately, to get you rested for the day ahead. Dinner was dinner. Conversations about the family's days with some everyday food were the highlight, but we were definitely in a routine of normal sustenance that fulfilled a dietary need and that was it. It is far different today (for the most part and I will not even get into the "fast food nation" aspect, we're talking about "real" food).

Today, those belly-filling portions that always made dad fall asleep in the recliner are not as popular as they were. Sure, we seem to be more health conscious when it comes to home cooked meals, but our portions have trimmed down and there is an influx of smaller, complimentary dishes, especially when we dine with others. Tapas and mezze-style dishes are becoming the norm whether you know it or not, and these styles lend themselves perfectly to modern-styled pairings.

When we are thinking of modern pairings we want to think smaller, well-defined matches to what we eat. Even in the every day, we can pull this off by simply playing off experience. I like to take an old favorite such as white grape juice (in a Cran Dandy Shandy) and pair it with a Greek favorite such stuffed grape leaves. There are two variations of the grape in this pairing, a dark and light, yet it is that contrast that I play off of with other mixed drink options being a non-alcoholic Apricot Gingerini or a more spirited Dancing Belly. Light meets dark with the same flavor background. Whereas for something like any of the sushi rolls, I like to keep the signature flavor of sake in the drink but can spice it up with a cocktail like a light-sake'd Blushing Geisha, which happens to work well if you love wasabi with your sushi.

With cocktails, it is important to think smaller portions for smaller dishes. These are often richer, more flavorful (and concentrated) foods and your cocktail flavors can be more concentrated and fine-tuned to the individual dish.

It is also essential to pair cuisine with spirit origin. In the sake example, I have adapted Japanese drink to fit Japanese cuisine. Likewise, I would think first to tequila with any Mexican-inspired meal and brandy with any French cuisine. However (yet another exception that complicates everything) some things are universal, with vodka, whiskey and rum being good bases for most international pairings as long as the complimentary flavors do just that, compliment.

Explore Your Pairings Silently

Your first cocktail dinner can be intimidating and you don't want to fall flat on your face in front of the boss, a client you are trying to win over, or the in-laws with a home cooked meal. That is why we use experimentation in everyday life.

I attempt pairings on a small scale first then bring them out for larger groups, so almost every meal my husband (he's the chef in our family) creates I attempt a unique cocktail pairing. If we don't like the match between food and drink I have not lost anything and can refine it, with the ultimate goal being a showcase to friends, family or business associates.

You can also use your restaurant dining experiences to experiment. You may not always (hopefully this is not the case) get the hand-crafted cocktail experience you want, but it will give you an idea of tastes, flavors, and pairings. Anytime you are at an authentic ethnic restaurant of any kind, browse their cocktail menu and if they do not have one ask a waiter what they would drink with this food or what the chef would recommend for an authentic pairing. Take this insight home to create your perfect pairing.

When in a Brazilian restaurant in the US I always sample cachaca or pisco cocktails, if it's an Irish pub I want to see what they're doing with an Irish whiskey. If the people at the restaurant really know their ethnic cuisine they will also know the drinks to compliment it. Note: Don't let the Irish (I'm one so I can say this) reply that "A pint of Guinness will work with anything" - challenge them: "I want whiskey and I want it mixed. What can you do?." There is sound knowledge and experience in the food and drink of different cultures that should be adhered to and once you know that you can use that to play around.

On the flip side, if you are at a non-ethnic restaurant, challenge conventional tastes with your own cocktail database. This may be where you will find pairings that are out of the norm or have no specific origin. For instance, I love the pairing of steak with apples and will often serve an Apple Sour with thyme-smoked shoulder cuts or the pear-orange taste of my Dafne Martini with lemon pepper chicken breast for a sweet-sour experience.

Using these restaurant experiences will enhance your knowledge of pairings without costing you more than a meal you are already paying for. Your local chefs may also appreciate the feedback of a successful (or not-so-great) pairing.

Given their experience with food and cocktail pairings, I have asked Khosrovian and Modern Spirits to give me a few examples of cocktail pairings that have received rave reviews and those that were a flop. Use these examples as a gauge for your own pairings for the future.

For more pairing advice, check out a few suggested pairings by Modern Spirits (open pdf) and their Principles of Pairing article.

Worked Well

1.

Dish: Curry Coconut Milk Marinated California Bass, coconut jasmine rice, sweet and spicy Thai sauce, mango relish

Paired with: Modern Spirits Candied Ginger Vodka

(Chef Richard Mead, Sage on the Coast Restaurant, Newport Beach, Calif.)

Why pairing worked: This is one of my favorite pairings of all time because it worked so well and because the chef took an equally big chance that it could have ended in complete disaster. The reason is how the chef constructed the pairing. The dish became increasingly bold, rich and spicy with each bite and built the palate up like a gastronomical score for a crescendo, which the explosively powerful candied ginger vodka delivered like the clapping of symbols! The chef took a big risk by pairing a big, rich dish against an equally big, bold vodka and it paid off because the alcohol and fat levels were perfectly matched and because the flavor combinations were studies in contrast.

2.

Dish: Oven roasted La Belle Farms duck breast, purple Thai sticky rice, baby bok choy, kumquat chili sauce

Paired with: Modern Spirits Three Tea vodka

(Chef Neal Frasier, Grace Restaurant, Los Angeles, Calif.)

Why pairing worked: First -- and this is key -- the vodka at 35% alcohol perfectly matched the richness of the duck. The flavors of the Three Tea vodka, which are based on black, green and oolong teas combined with dried flowers and fruit, fit in with the ingredients of the dish like pieces of a mosaic. No duplication. Just balance and harmony.

3.

Dish: T-Bone of organic lamb au poivre with whipped Gorgonzola

Paired with a cocktail made with Modern Spirits Black Truffle vodka, veal demi-glace, and roast sage leaf

(Chef Larry Nicola, Nic's Beverly Hills, Beverly Hills, Calif. -- served at The James Beard House, NYC, Sept. 24, 2007)

Why pairing worked: This was a tough one to pair because it was rich in its fat content and bold in the flavor profile. The alcohol level of the cocktail at 30% worked well with the rich lamb and cheese. But the flavor of the cocktail components cliched the pairing. Bold and complex black truffle infused vodka, meaty veal demi-glace, and roast aromatic sage offered just enough flavor and alcohol and balance this powerfully built dish.

Didn't Work Well

1.

Dish: Green bean salad with duck prosciutto and caramelized tomato

Paired with: Modern Spirits Celery Peppercorn vodka

(Chefs Chefs Govind Armstrong and Andrew Kirschner, Table 8 Restaurant, Los Angeles, Calif.)

  • Why pairing missed the mark: Salads and high alcoholic drinks just don't mix. There was just not enough fat in the dish -- even with the duck prosciutto -- to need or be able to handle a 35% alcohol pour. As a result, whatever chance the flavors had to work with each other was overshadowed by the mismatch of alcohol to fat content.

2.

Dish: Chocolate zabaglione cream trifle

Paired with Modern Spirits Chocolate Orange Vodka martini with espresso and crème anglaise

(Chef Michael Mishkin, Élevé Restaurant, Phoenix, Ariz.)

  • Why pairing missed the mark: While the strength of the drink worked well with the dish's richness, the pairing missed the mark because the flavors were redundant. Rather than enhance each other, the chocolates merely covered each other over and made it seem like one continuous experience rather than a more interesting give-and-take between a dish and an accompanying beverage.