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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
Melkon Khosrovian of Modern Spirits presents a Chemistry of the Cocktail seminar at Tales of the Coc

Melkon Khosrovian of Modern Spirits presents a Chemistry of the Cocktail seminar at Tales of the Cocktail 2009

Photo Credit: © Shannon Graham

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 within 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 like a back up 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 loose 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.

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