Before-dinner drinks and post-dessert drams are no longer just bookending meals. Many bartenders and chefs now collaborate on libations that mix, mingle and coax out the flavors and aromas from the dishes on the food menu.
Mizuna, a 55-seat American/French restaurant in Denver, CO, offers ongoing kitchen and bar pairings. One is the “Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em” cocktail ($12), a mix of sweet corn-infused whiskey, quinoa whiskey, basil, smoked lager, black pepper and lemon, paired with Oussua-Iraty cheese from France. “The cocktail is fun, bright, and mildly sparkling, which does well with the mild but nutty nuances in the cheese,” says bar manager/sommelier Austin James Carson.
A Gin and Tonic riff ($12) infuses St. George Spirits dry rye gin with tarragon, basil, thyme, sumac and clarified lime, and serves it with house-made tonic. The drink’s herbaceousness goes nicely with Mizuna’s arugula salad with pomegranate, fromage blanc and white balsamic vinegar, Carson says.
Picking a pair
Where to start when matching cocktails with food? Carson says his experience as a sommelier has guided his philosophy for pairing cocktails with food. “The same rules of thumb govern: Match weight and texture—heavy, flavorful dishes call for heavy, flavorful cocktails; acid and sugar are your friends, and use complementary flavors when possible.”
The 160-seat restaurant Mesa in Costa Mesa, CA, offers a six-course tasting menu each month that pairs a cocktail with a dish. Recent partners include Spanish style mussels ($14), with smoked paprika, chorizo, green onion and white wine, served with a heady Spanish G&T ($12) with Ford’s Gin, tonic, fresh rosemary, grapefruit oil, lime and St. Germain elderflower liqueur.
The restaurant’s signature sip, the Kurosawa ($12), is made with sake, coconut rum, muddled jalapeño and mint. It works well with wild-caught white shrimp sautéed with chorizo, white wine and butter atop Mediterranean couscous. The coconut, spice of the jalapeños and acidity from the sake meld wonderfully, according to Mesa bar manager Julia Arjune and executive chef Niki Weyler, who work in tandem to create interesting, synergistic pairings.
Opening up a line of communication between your bar and kitchen is a good place to begin the process of developing cocktail and food pairings, say Arjune and Weyler. They also advise researching the chemistry of why flavors work together, picking up a copy of The Flavor Bible and doing some experimenting.
Start with small plates
Operators looking to add cocktail pairings to the menu may be best off starting with appetizers, says chef/mixologist Kathy Casey, president of Kathy Casey Food Studios and Liquid Kitchen in Seattle, WA. “Try a few different features with small plates and appetizers, or have a special appetizer paired with a special cocktail,” she says.
The popularity of small plates has helped guests better understand the concept of pairing libations with dishes, Casey notes. She has witnessed several other trends in this realm.
“It’s interesting to have the garnish be the appetizer, like homemade beef jerky added to a Bloody Mary, pieces of smoked salmon for a Martini, or grilled beef or smoked ribs for a Manhattan.” And appetizers—especially seafood—can be spritzed with alcohol, such as Aquavit for oysters on the half shell, Casey says. (See the sidebar “Aw, Shucks!” on pg. 39 for more on oyster shooters.)
When you’re ready to take on a full pairing dinner or menu, select the food courses first and then build the cocktails around them, Casey says. You want to pull out the dishes’ key flavor components by using complementary ingredients in the glass.
For example, Casey onced helped plan a pairing dinner with Martin Miller gin. She matched the Miller’s Golden Martini, with lemon and black peppercorn-infused Lillet and an edible cocktail gelée, with scallops with cauliflower, lemon essence and Almond. Guests who tasted the cocktail without the dish thought it to be pretty potent, Casey notes, but when sipped with the dish, they found the creamy, rich scallops tempered its spirited nature.
Another course at the event paired the Douglas Fir Citrus Sparkle—Martin Miller’s gin with Cointreau, fresh clementine and a branch of Douglas fir—with salmon smoked with juniper. The fresh, piney notes were woven through both the food and beverage elements.
What not to pair
As with wine and food pairing, Carson believes there are some tricky ingredients that are best kept separate—both in the kitchen and behind the bar. “Stay away from overtly bitter bar components in excess,” he cautions.
He recalls an off-the-mark pairing he ordered out one night that matched a libation containing whiskey, bitters and Averna with a shellfish mousseline. In a word: “Awful.”
You should also use caution with acidic ingredients such as capers, citrus-based dressings and certain olive varieties, which can make a cocktail taste even tarter, Carson says. Artichokes tend to be “problem children,” he notes, at least in his experience. “Cynar is great in certain pairings used sparingly, but will overwhelm most food if used liberally.”
Though she eschews old-school pairing rules and keeps an open mind with regard to included ingredients, Arjune is mindful of using those that complement each other. “We try to always keep in mind flavor profiles and try to avoid conflicting flavors,” she says. “Think of finding underlying similar flavors and key ingredients to transcend through both food and drink.”
While Arjune and Weyler shun antiquated pairing guidelines—they have been known to make syrups with coriander and infusing Scotch with ramen broth—there is one ingredient from which they shy away. “IPA served with anything destroys your palate completely, and all you taste is hops, hops, hops,” Arjune says.
Dessert can be tricky to pair with a cocktail, says Casey. “If the drink is too sweet, it’s not good; and if it’s not sweet enough, it comes off tart or bitter,” she notes. “Spirit-forward drinks can be slow sippers.”
For the last course, it might be easier to create the cocktail first, Casey says, and then decide on the dessert recipe.
But when done correctly, cocktail and dessert pairings can be a wonderful way to cap off a night. Mesa pairs its caramel apple tart—Granny Smith apples, caramel and brown-butter ice cream—with the Final Fashioned ($14), which stirs Buffalo Trace bourbon with crème de cacao, coffee bitters and lemon oil.
At Mizuna, the Never Invade Russia in the Winter cocktail ($12) mixes peanut-butter-infused Aviation gin with cold brewed coffee, Honey Nut-Cheerio-infused cream, nutmeg and a whole egg. It’s paired with the sticky toffee date cake, which is topped with banana ice cream, banana “paper” and toffee caramel. “Despite a list of ingredients that sounds sweet, this cocktail is wonderfully balanced with a creamy texture that lends itself to dessert pairing,” notes Carson.
Guests generally do not have the same level of expectation when it comes to cocktail pairings as they do with food and wine, Carson says. “I think people want to be exposed to something different that isn’t combative with the food they’re enjoying, and as long as it’s well thought-out and delicious, it can be a lot of fun.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter or Instagram @kmagyarics
Featured image: Denver, CO-based Mizuna matches its “Smoke `Em If You Got `Em” cocktail (corn-infused whiskey, quinoa whiskey, basil, smoked lager, black pepper and lemon), paired with Oussua-Iraty cheese from France.