You’ve tried creating beer and food pairings and hosted multi-course beer dinners; wine makers have offered your customers their best in person, and your staff knows to suggest sauvignon blanc with that spicy entrée, or stout with a plate of oysters. But are you ready for the next frontier, creating spirit and cocktail food pairings?
It’s not so revolutionary an idea, after all. Until the advent of refrigeration, pasteurization and safe systems of delivering potable water, Americans consumed not only hard ciders, Madeira, beer and ales with their meals, but fruit brandy or applejack-based drinks were also popular mealtime beverages.
And some restaurants have maintained these old traditions. Brennan’s of New Orleans in part built its reputation through its world-renowned breakfast menu, which includes as many as 15 cocktails as suggested dish accompaniments. There you’ll find Brandy Milk Punch, Absinthe Frappe, the Sazerac, and Ramos Gin Fizz among the recommended morning libations. Those cocktails may have more to do with New Orleans drinking habits than the suitability of spirits with food, but it goes to show that a savvy restaurateur can sell more than Bloody Marys with food.
Beyond the obvious bottom line benefit, the purpose of any matching of food with beverage is to bring out the best in both, pairing contrasting or complementary flavors. Also important to diners are appetite stimulation and palate refreshment. Wines and beers most often considered food-friendly are those with refreshing acidity that cleanse the palate and prepare it for more flavor. Aperitifs traditionally consumed before dinner are often bitter, and work wonders to settle the stomach or get the gastric juices flowing before a meal; they can do the same during a meal.
Successful food pairings add flavor, stimulate appetite and refresh the palate, and are fairly easily achieved using white spirits. Since a beverage’s acidity is important, you’ll find that the lightly flavored (vodkas, aquavits, gins, white rum and silver tequilas) and unaged spirits offer good prospects; the alcohol itself will provide a powerful base that can be moderated by mixers.
Start by pairing the spirits with other acids (citrus juices, for instance) to speed the idea process. Cocktails like the Margarita obviously do well in Mexican restaurants before and during dinner, but they can also work well as a match with any spicy dishe.
In general, cocktails served with food will need to be created at the lower end of the proof spectrum, and are probably best served on the rocks and made with a number of ingredients other than spirits. The point is to enhance the dining experience, not intrude upon it or curtail it.
BACK TO THE BLOODY
Look at the most commonly served, food-related cocktail: the Bloody Mary. Many restaurant operators already depend on their Saturday and Sunday brunch crowd for the best day-part of the week, and the Bloody Mary and its many variations are often key to boosting customer count, check averages AND profitability.
Some bars and restaurants have now become destinations due to their Bloody Mary programs, and a number have made an institution of the Bloody Mary bar, those elaborate salad bar-like set-ups that allow customers to assemble their own drinks, mix them as spicy as they like, and top them with such ingredients as sliced pepperoni, blue cheese-stuffed olives, pickled asparagus and okra, shaved cheese, chilled shrimp or just about anything a liberated drinker can manage to hang off his or her king-size Bloody Mary goblet. Selling customers on eating while drinking spirits couldn’t be easier.
Why does the Bloody Mary work so well? In part, it’s so food-friendly because of the high acidity of the mix of tomato and lemon juices, the invigorating and mouth-watering qualities of hot sauce, horseradish and Worcestershire sauce, and the bracing bite of vodka; in combination, these flavors go together with many dishes, especially those on the classic American brunch menu.
If Bloody Marys fit logically with your bar or restaurant menu and you’ve already got a healthy brunch and Bloody business, then consider expanding the program using other spirits. Some Mexican dishes which are not very spicy, especially seafood with light tomato sauces, border dishes like chilaquiles or tamales, might be perfect for a Bloody Maria made with tequila instead of vodka, with a touch more citrus. Do you serve a New York-style brunch, with smoked salmon, lox, whitefish, bagels and cream cheese? Bloodys made with aquavit are a perfect match, as are shots of chilled aquavit.
If you make your own aquavits really only flavored vodkas as does chef Marcus Samuelsson at NYC’s Aquavit restaurant, you’ll find they pair very well with oily fish and creamy cheeses of any variety. Caviar and vodka is another classic pairing, and any bar chef with a creative bent can develop beverages that will enhance the dining experience any time of day. If your smoked salmon appetizer is a popular dinner order, try offering it with a small shot of chilled aquavit or vodka. Make the price fit the size of the shot, or build it into the appetizer price.
There are also the numerous juice riffs on the Bloody Mary adding clam juice (Bloody Caesar), beer broth (Bloody Bull) or multiple-vegetable juices. If you serve seafood chowders or many fish dishes, consider promoting the Bloody Caesar as a match. Find a menu item that pairs particularly well with each variation, and consider listing the suggestion on the menu with each dish.
Other cocktails can also point a similar path. Another breakfast tradition, the Mimosa (sparkling wine and orange juice) has more sweetness than a Bloody Mary, and so pairs well with less savory brunch items, like egg dishes, pancakes, waffles and pastries. The spritziness of the wine will also enhance the acidity and sweetness of the orange juice, making it a good match with slightly more spicy dishes as well. Is another restaurant in your area already known as the Mimosa headquarters? Then try creating your own Mimosa-like specialty to serve, using other juices or a mix of juices cranberry, white cranberry, pineapple or tropical fruit purées.
Talisker and seafood:
White spirits and cocktails based on them have other logical matches. Do you serve roast pork with juniper? Chilled gin or a gin-based cocktail is a sensible place to start. Just as many chefs use tequila in marinades, to cure fish or in ceviches, bar chefs should follow their lead and develop cocktails with complementary flavors to go along with the dish. Light rum is often an ingredient in chicken or pork marinades or desserts; try concocting a drink recipe or altering a classic Daiquiri recipe to go with the marinated dish, or try a dark rum-based drink to go with a light rum-based dessert.
Spirit suppliers have already tumbled to the idea that spirits and food are natural pairs, and that the enjoyment of one doesn’t need to occur only before or after the other.
Last year, when Hennessy decided to introduce three new bottlings of its Cognac to the United States, it brought on chefs to present fine dining pairings with Hennessy Paradis Extra, Private Reserve and Richard Hennessy, introducing the spirits with meals at fine dining locations like Bouley in NYC. Importer Schieffelin and Somerset presented the spirits, not as matches for specific various multi-course meals, but as an opportunity to introduce diners to the various qualities of each Cognac, and to show how it can work with each dish.
Cognac with food may be an unusual idea still in this country, but in Asia, Cognac is often served by the bottle like wine and meant to be consumed during the course of the meal. Cognac’s balance of fruitiness and acidity, its mellowness and mixabilty, make it a perfect brown spirit to accompany food, especially rich dishes. Rémy Martin promotes its various Cognacs with certain dishes: pork fillet in honey is said to pair with Rémy Martin 1738, roast duckling with a sweet and sour shallot sauce is said to match Rémy VSOP, and breast of roasted young pigeon, mashed sweet potatoes and grilled almonds in a bitter orange juice is recommended with Rémy Extra. (Recipes available on their Web site www.remy.com.
Rémy has for years also run a chef promotion benefiting the James Beard Foundation through Rémy Martin Louis XIII. Called the Ultimate Dinner Program, the promo raises funds to support the Beard Foundation’s educational programs. Such restaurants as the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas, and The Firehouse, Sacramento, among others, have offered customers a multi-course chef’s tasting dinner topped off with Louis XIII.
Even the spirit that is most difficult to imagine as a food pairing can be tamed. Earlier this year, Schieffelin and Somerset introduced journalists to the pleasures of single malt Scotch served with classic dishes from Scotland. Chef Valdo Figueirdo at Keen’s Steakhouse in NYC prepared dishes using single malts that were also served with each dish. Glenkinchie was served with lobster bisque, and cut through the creamy bisque. One of the smokiest Scotches, Lagavulin, was a natural to be paired with a smoked filet of beef, but the most remarkable pairing had to be a dram of Talisker with briny oysters.
Even food suppliers can see the wisdom of pairing food with more than just beer and wine. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board is offering operators the Wisconsin Cheese and Beverage Pairings guide, which helps match Wisconsin’s range of cheeses with wine, beer and cocktails.
The same rules that already apply at brunch when it comes to beverages can be applied all through the day. Serve lots of ice tea? Try adding a touch of bourbon or Canadian whiskey to create a tall, sweet drink with a little punch and pair it with barbecue. Is lemonade popular? Then try serving a hard version spiked with nearly any spirit, and offer it with burgers or grilled sandwiches.
Bloody Marys sell in the late morning because they have become part of the brunch culture; you’ll need to do some work to get customers to order any of your new beverage alcohol creations at other meals, so make certain to create an in-house marketing plan. List the drinks with certain menu items as well as on the drinks menu or page, and list them regularly on your chalkboard menu. Let people try the matches by, for instance, sending out a tasting portion with a dish. The opportunities are there.