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Expert Guide: Cocktails and Food Pairing Essentials

The perfect drink can enhance any dining experience, while the wrong one could ruin the entire meal. And even though combining food and drinks successfully requires a special set of skills regardless of the circumstances, it can be even more complicated when you’re experimenting with cocktails, as the flavors are incomparably more complex than your usual wine or beer options. However, once you find that ideal pairing that not only works, but also beautifully enhances the flavors, you’ll be able to complement any meal you serve, from a laid-back summer barbecue to a more formal dinner party event.

While there can be some science behind finding the perfect food and drink combination, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a complicated endeavor, particularly if you start exploring all of your options. Because the flavor choices are truly endless, this entire experience can be incredibly fun and enjoyable, and can even lead to some remarkable and unique results. So, before you start mixing up a cocktail for your next meal, here is an expert guide on food and cocktail pairing essentials necessary for a successful combination:

Complementing a dish with cocktails

In order to complement a meal with the right cocktail, you need to either match or contrast the flavors of the dish. To come up with a successful pairing, you firstly need to take the body of the cocktail into consideration. If it’s a heavier cocktail, it would pair beautifully with a lighter, more soft-flavored meal, while a lighter drink might be a good option for stronger and heavier dishes. For instance, you can pair a light seafood meal with a strong vodka or gin cocktail, such as Sex in the Driveway or Stinger, and a spicy Asian meal with a more sweet and fruity drink like a great Mai Tai.

When it comes to matching your drink with the food you choose to serve, it would be a great idea to opt for a shared ingredient in both the cocktail and the dish, such as hints of lemon or lime, as chances are it would make for a wonderful combination that pairs exceptionally well. When choosing a dinner-worthy cocktail, you don’t necessarily need to step too far away from tradition, either. For example, if you want to go with a classic wine pairing, even simpler wine cocktails, such as a kir or a white wine spritzer, can be a great alternative to this timeless alcoholic drink, which adds a wonderfully unique note to the entire meal. No matter which combination you opt for, don’t be afraid to try a pairing that might surprise and delight your guests all at once.

Enhancing the flavor of a meal

While it can often be tempting to shake up a rich chocolate Martini to serve with a chocolate dessert, the meal would be made up of too much of the same flavor, thus taking away from the entire experience. The last thing you want for your food and drink pairing is to be overpowering, or for the flavors to compete with each other. Instead, the cocktail should always be driven by the flavors of the meal, and used to enhance and elevate your dining experience. One simple way you can accomplish this is by thinking about the different tastes and textures of the meal, as well as the things you might eat on the side of the dish.

For example, raspberries usually pair quite well with chocolate, which is why a French Martini with raspberry flavored Chambord is such a great option for a rich chocolaty dessert. As this drink includes a touch of pineapple as well, it’s ideal for bringing in that tart contrast to the meal. Similarly, while you would never serve a whisky-based cocktail with raw oysters, due to its strong flavor, it would be a wonderful option for enhancing the flavor of a rich, heavy steak. Remember, the goal is always to complement and enrich the flavor of the meal with your cocktail choice, because that is the only way to invigorate all of your senses, create an incredibly pleasurable experience, and keep looking forward to every bite of the meal or sip of the drink.

Taking a cue from the pros

While devising new cocktails or modernized versions of the old classics, many professional mixologists pay close attention to the aromas and the textures of the food they would pair well with, in order to provide the best experience for their customers. Some experts in mixology from NYC even invent new and interesting cocktails solely for the purpose of complementing a certain meal.

If you can’t seem to find the ideal cocktail and food pairing, it might be a good idea to take a cue from these professionals and try to come up with a concoction of your own, which will beautifully enhance the flavor of your dish. Of course, if you aren’t an expert yourself, there’s no need to construct anything overly complicated or go into too much detail. Simply adding aromatics to a classic cocktail and using herbs to match similar flavors is a great way of pairing your drink with your chosen dish. While there’s no denying you will win some and lose some when testing out different cocktail and food pairings, regardless of which beverages you opt for, it’s only important to let your taste buds guide you, and have fun experimenting with an abundance of different flavors.

Paying attention to the origins

If you’re lacking imagination, another great idea would be to match the cuisine to the origin of the spirit, as the food and the alcohol that originated from the same region or area typically pair together exceptionally well. For example, a cocktail that is based on sake, such as Saketini, tends to be the ideal choice for traditional Japanese meals, including sashimi and sushi. Similarly, a tequila-based cocktail would be a wonderful fit for Mexican cuisine, especially mole sauce, while an elegant brandy works beautifully with most French dishes.

Of course, there are always some exceptions to this rule, which is why it pays to test out a few different pairings in order to find the perfect one. However, regardless of the origin of the meal, certain things are simply universal. Rum, whisky and vodka are great bases for most food combinations, as long as the complementing flavors do exactly what they are supposed to do – complement each other. When working with cocktails, it’s also incredibly important to be mindful of the serving sizes, as the regular 6-ounce glasses might be too much for a dinner party. Instead, opt for 2- to 3-ounce cocktails, and offer a different drink with every course.

Experimenting for the perfect combo

While you might be an expert at bartending, finding the right food and drink pairings can be a difficult endeavor for anyone who isn’t a professional food connoisseur. So, instead of taking a risk and opting for a combination that might not actually work, take some time to experiment beforehand. A good idea would be to firstly attempt combinations on a smaller scale before you offer them to a larger crowd. For example, you can think of a cocktail to serve at dinner for you and your family, and see whether you enjoy it or not. If the pairing you choose doesn’t end up being a good match, you can always keep experimenting until you find something that truly works. Once you end up with a winning combination, you can confidently prepare it for your next event or a more informal get-together with your friends, and be certain everyone will enjoy the incredible food and cocktail experience.

If that doesn’t go as planned, you could also use your experience of dining at a restaurant to test out the field and do some experimenting. Even though you won’t always receive the hand-crafted cocktails you want and expect, ordering a cocktail with your meal at a restaurant will give you a great insight into different flavors, textures and pairings you might not have thought of otherwise. So, whenever you’re dining out, take a closer look at their cocktail offerings, or even ask the server or the chef what they would recommend for a great meal and cocktail pairing. Then, take their advice home, and create the perfect food and drink combination that’s bound to amaze everyone.

Pairing food with cocktails is not an exact science. Although you will most likely make some mistakes along the way, the most important thing is to experiment whenever you can, learn from your experience, and enjoy the process of making up unique and tasty concoctions. After all, both the food and the drinks are meant to be appetizing and delicious, so don’t be afraid to shake some cocktails up and see how well it goes for you. Once you find your favorite food and drink pairing, you’ll be ready to throw any type of party, whether it is formal or more relaxed, and absolutely wow all of your guests!

 

Diana Wills

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