Pairing drinks with your meal doesn’t have to be complicated, only well thought-out. With wine, if you stick to a few basic rules, pairing can be a cinch. Cocktails are the same in that sense, and I feel pairing drinks with food should be fun rather than fussy. Here are a few basic ideas to use as a guide.
Think about the weight of flavors: Whether you think about it or not, everything you consume has a weight on the palate. Some food and drink is lighter, some heavier. A crisp martini and a seared trout fall into a very different category than an Old Fashioned and a grilled steak. When pairing cocktails with food, be aware of the heaviness of the flavors and try to keep drink and food in the same realm. It very rarely works to pair a heavy cocktail with a light food, or vice versa.
Pick flavors to highlight: Instead of trying to make an exact match between a dish and a cocktail, think about a specific flavor that defines either the food or the drink for you. Pick that flavor and use it as a thread to tie the pairing together.
Don’t be afraid of acid/bitter/alcohol: When it comes to food and drink pairings, I often talk about varying levels of acidity, bitterness, and alcohol. It can seem counter-intuitive to use such strong flavors, but they can be leveraged to pair with food that is fatty or rich. Rich and fatty foods eaten on their own can coat your palate and cover up some of the flavors of a dish, but acidity, bitterness, or simply high-proof spirits can cut through that richness and allow you to enjoy both drink and food further.
Consider complexity of flavors: Some thought should be put into how complex a dish or drink is and you should be wary of pairing two multi-layered items together. Complex flavors in cocktails and food often mean complex or time-consuming preparation. That’s nothing that I shy away from, yet it can be a waste of time and energy if you make a stunning dish and put it together with an equally stunning cocktail. Chances are the subtlety and complexity of one will be lost because both are so complex. Instead, if you have a drink that has multiple layers that you’re proud of and want to highlight, pair it with a simpler dish.
Don’t get wasted: I always discuss with staff at both Hunt + Alpine and Little Giant the responsibility that comes with serving others alcohol. It can be very easy to get caught up in the fun of discovering new drink flavors and combinations and forget that what we’re serving and consuming can really hurt the next day. Be kind to your guests’ livers and make sure to moderate their intake. This can take many forms: half-poured cocktails at each course instead of a full three-ounce drink; low-proof drinks sprizted throughout the pairings; or using beer or wine at a mid-course instead of a cocktail. Note that this doesn’t have to mean you have less fun. One of my favorite cocktail pairing experiences was when Hunt + Alpine had the honor to celebrate Repeal Day at the James Beard House in New York City. We were the first cocktail bar asked to cook the entire meal for guests, along with making and serving drink pairings. We served many of our favorite cocktails, but about half-way through the meal we brought out lobster bibs for everyone and served them steamed clams alongside a can of one of our favorite beers (Bunker Brewing’s Machine Pilsner). Everyone not only appreciated the levity and taste of Maine, but I’m sure the guests were thrilled to have a reprieve from cocktails for a moment as well.
Be whimsical: My final words of advice on cocktail and food pairings is that it truly needs to be fun, not something to stress over. Sometimes a pairing doesn’t work out exactly as you may have hoped, but if you have good food and good drink, it shouldn’t get in the way of a good time.