Most people can pair wine with food, even if you awkwardly use the overly simplistic “red wine with meat, white wine with fish and poultry” rule of thumb. Beer pairing followed and was a little trickier but reasonably easy to accomplish with a few lagers and ales on hand.
But the pairing game isn’t over — now it’s time to pair hard liquor with food.
What? Can’t I just have my martini while I’m waiting for the app, drink wine with my meal, and have a nice snifter of cozy warm Cognac to wrap up the evening? No, not if you want to be the trendsetter you’ve convinced your friends you are. But it’s not as daunting as it sounds.
Think of a few cocktails people order with certain types of food. Margaritas don’t just happen to be served with spicy Mexican food because tequila is associated with Mexico. The tartness of the juices in the drink, along with the bold tequila flavor, complements the spiciness of traditional Mexican dishes while cutting through the richness of the conventional cheeses in recipes, and has a physically cooling effect.
If your face uncontrollably contorts when you take a sip of a cocktail during a meal, that’s a bad pairing. Even if you love Kahlua on the rocks, if you pair it with a fudge brownie, both the drink and the dessert suffer and neither the sweet coffee or chocolate flavors will be rich or satisfying. Similar to the sweet/salty combination that is so popular, each taste should enhance the other, compelling you to repeat the process over and over: a bite, a drink, a bite, a drink…
One of the easiest ways to pair mixed drinks and food is with herbs. Garnish a simple gin and tonic with a sprig of fresh rosemary when serving it with herb-roasted lamb. The rosemary won’t add much flavor to the drink but the aroma kicks in the olfactory system, which is bonded to your sense of taste. If you’re serving an Italian feast, add a few basil leaves or a sprig of oregano to savory cocktails.
The body of the cocktail is also crucial for successful pairing. The mouth feel should complement the texture of the food. Bloody Marys are good bacon-and-egg breakfast cocktails because they have a bit of thickness, and the spices pair perfectly with the delicate flavor of the food. Conversely, if you have a stack of pancakes for your morning meal, a lightly flavored drink carbonated with club soda refreshes without competing with the sweetness and richness of the syrup and butter.
Unlike wine and beer pairing, matching cocktails with food has no hard and fast rules. After you experiment with a few combinations, it gets easier to plan ahead what you’ll serve together. Keep notes on the hits and misses so you can mix and match ingredients for different dishes. And be prepared for a new following seeking your creative expertise.
Whether you’re eating in or out, it’s easy to hook up a variety of foods with whatever you’ve got in the liquor cabinet.
Gin and tonic is ideal alongside the spicy, dry tastes of Thai and Szechuan food. If you like your gin unscathed by carbonation, pair a dry gin martini with smoked trout or salmon or a piquant shrimp cocktail. Rich, buttery shortbread cookies take on new flavors if consumed with a gin martini — try dipping the cookie in the drink for a real treat.
Russians favor vodka with caviar and pickled herring but it also enhances the flavors of marinated mushrooms, baked ham and succulent roast pork. Serve bold cheeses such as brie, Roquefort or sharp cheddar with scotch or whiskey, which also pair well with pork ribs touched with a sweet/hot barbecue sauce. Besides Mexican or Spanish fare, tequila makes lemon chicken a star and also brings out the best in spicy cider-glazed pork tenderloin or garlic shrimp.