Pairing food with cocktails can be a little tricky, although there was a time when Americans would sip a Manhattan throughout their entire meal. This utter disregard for how the beverage and food complemented each other was replaced by our interest in matching wine with food. Now the craft beer movement has some beer lovers (correctly) claiming that beer can be even better with food than wine.
Enter the cocktail. Following the pattern established by wine and beer lovers, the cocktail crowd will eventually start trying to figure out applications for them. But cocktails have characteristics that make them great leading men and ladies, but not necessarily ensemble players.
Strength: both of flavor, and potentially alcohol if it’s a stirred spirits-only cocktail. A Manhattan could match well with a few canapés or spiced pecans. But try to match it with fish or chicken, and the flavors of those dishes will run and hide. If, however, your menu includes Beef Short Ribs with a Bourbon Glaze, well then, you might have a match because the richness of the ribs can be matched by the body and power of the Manhattan.
Brightness: In this case, we’re talking about acidity. In the drink, it’s probably from citrus juice and in the dish it could come from a number of sources. If you’re serving a Yellowtail Ceviche, the best cocktail to serve with it should be equally light and bright: maybe a French 75. If it was a small bite during cocktail hour, I might even give a little wink by serving a Lemon Drop alongside.
Sweetness: Whether you know it or not, you have suffered from “Successive Contrast.” In simple terms, it’s orange juice after brushing your teeth. Any accompanying beverage has to be at least as sweet as the food. And think of how much we do to accentuate the sweetness in food by caramelizing onions, reducing sauces and browning meat; the drink needs to match it.
Bridging: In the wine world, this means using the same wine in both the dish and the glass. With cocktails, we have a few more options. Micah Melton, cocktail sous-chef at The Aviary in Chicago says that, “You could use drops of acorn tincture on top of a dark, spirit-forward cocktail to pair with Iberico ham,” because the pigs are fed acorns as part of their diet.
Here are a few last words of advice. An all-cocktail pairing menu can be a little daunting for both the mixologist and guest. Think about using cocktails along with wine and beer.
Also, watch the portions. Seven full-sized cocktails as part of a tasting menu are too much for anyone. And finally, lighter cocktails such as the Aperol Spritz and Sherry-based ones can be more in scale with food flavors as well as easier on the liver.