Features The Next Frontier of Pairing: Cocktails and Food
Food and Cocktail Pairings: A New Cocktail Frontier
June 2009

Mixology is making a name for itself in a big way—the farm-to-bar movement is picking up speed and mixologists are gaining national attention. Here at StarChefs, we’ve come across several pioneers who are adding critical momentum to the cocktail pairings movement, bringing surprising innovation to a trend we’ve seen grow over the years. We’re sure this spike in popularity and visibility is just the beginning of a new frontier in cocktail pairings, as both chefs and mixologists continue to blur the lines between kitchen and bar.

The Argument for Pairing
“It’s one of those things that when [people] see it, then they believe,” says Gaston Martinez, a Milagro Tequila brand ambassador who travels around the country doing seminars, staff training and event planning, including dinners with cocktail pairings.

Martinez argues that creating a cocktail pairing is no different than deciding on what wine to serve with a dish.

“The reason that wine goes so well with dinner is [because] it has so many different flavors,” explains Martinez, whose wine background aids him in creating his cocktail pairings. “When pairing wine with food you take into account the flavor profiles and varietals.”

When he first started pairing cocktails with food, it was easiest for Martinez to begin by thinking about what wine he would serve with the dish. He could then deconstruct those flavor profiles and build them back into a cocktail.

In many ways, matching cocktails with food is easier than choosing a beer or wine pairing since the mixologist can create a drink to specifically pair with a certain food.

“Unlike wine, you can change or tweak the flavor of a cocktail to suit a dish. With a wine, you’re stuck,” says John Kinder, mixologist and national brand ambassador for Mystique Brands, LLC.

Which Comes First…
There are, of course, different schools of thought on how to go about pairing cocktails and food. Kinder argues that “the food should always drive the cocktail”—it all starts with the ingredients and the flavor profile of the dish.

Martinez shares Kinder’s philosophy by also putting the food before the cocktail.

“You either try to complement or contrast the food. If you have a very fatty food, you want something with acidity to clean off that palate, so it creates a chain reaction,” Martinez says. “You want a sip of the cocktail and then a bite of your food.”

On the other hand, Chef de Cuisine Wylie Frank and Mixologist Michele Magidow of Licorous in Seattle start with their cocktail offerings and then build a special food menu around them.

“Michele is the cocktail side of things. She creates a cocktail—usually it’s seasonal and has something to do with an infusion, like an apple-brandy infusion or a black tea infusion. I’ll give it a taste and come up with a few [flavors] to pair with it,” Frank says. “It’s a very collaborative effort. The cocktail is almost a dish in itself.”

At Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA, Chef Tony Maws and Mixologist Tom Schlesinger are happy to prepare tasting menus with matching cocktails on request. They don’t have a set order for which comes first, the cocktail or the food; they both come up with ideas and collaborate to meet in the middle.

No matter the order of your cocktail pairing philosophy, Junior Merino of The Liquid Chef Inc. Consulting Company points out that “balance and harmony are the essential qualities driving the artful execution of the elegant cocktail.”

Strike a Balance with Surprising Combinations
Both Frank and Martinez have found that sometimes a cocktail works so well with a dish, you can’t imagine one without the other. Martinez gives the example of a chicken dish with smoked peppers that he paired with a cocktail containing lemon juice, simple syrup, fig preserve and truffle salt.

“The cool thing is that it’s not a cocktail you would drink at a bar, these are strictly for food,” Martinez says.

Cocktail pairings offer imbibers a brilliant opportunity to sample drinks that may be outside their comfort zones. When making cocktails to go with food, Schlesinger uses fresh ingredients and gets experimental in his creations.

According to Kinder, the best way to introduce people to savory cocktails is with food.

“I think food helps people put savory drinks in perspective because everyone is used to the notion of drinking wine,” he says. “In my experience, people tend to avoid savory drinks on their own because they aren’t able to frame the flavors with anything else.”

Martinez often creates a cocktail that complements a dish by incorporating the same ingredients into the cocktail recipe. For example, he once paired a pasta dish with a vodka and tomato cocktail that was muddled with fresh herbs and finished with a garlic-parmesan rim.

Kinder, on the other hand, avoids using elements from the dish, itself, unless he wants to “highlight and push forward a flavor [he doesn’t] feel is popping up enough.”

Control Your Alcohol Levels
Although spirits are generally stronger than beer and wine, the mixologists we spoke to haven’t had any trouble balancing the amount of alcohol consumed during a meal with cocktail pairings. Just as a meal with wine pairings is served with 2- to 4-ounce pours, the cocktails in a mixology pairing are smaller than average.

At Licorous, Frank and Magidow serve small plates with equally mini drinks. Another option is to carry out “party management” as Kinder does, keeping an eye on guests and making sure everyone is well-hydrated.

“It is important to remember that spirits over a certain percentage of alcohol will burn your taste buds, and you will not be able to perceive all of the flavors of the dish,” says Merino, pointing out another reason why mixologists should be watchful of a pairing’s alcohol content. By lowering the alcohol by volume, “we are making the cocktail more accessible to pair with food,” he adds.

To Pair or Not to Pair
Despite the movement towards gourmet cocktails and mixed drink-food pairings, there are still those who don’t believe cocktails should be served as complements to a dish.

“I think a cocktail belongs before, in between or after food,” says Toby Maloney of Alchemy Consulting and Chicago’s The Violet Hour. “The biggest reason is the temperature. The goal is to get cocktails as cold as humanly possible. Something really cold with something really hot doesn’t do it for me. Wine is served at a certain temperature that works with food, but cocktails aren’t.”

However, despite some resistance, the cocktail pairings we saw were unmistakably well-received.

“The response has been very positive. Most people find it as a nice treat that you don’t find everywhere,” Magidow says.

As restaurants boost their mixology offerings, either through on-site mixologists or with the help of consultants, cocktail and food pairings are only a natural progression of the in-house bar revolution. Also a fantastic revenue generator, cocktails offer guests the chance to push the envelope and bring more than just a wine bottle to the table.