Pairing food and drinks is one of the essential skills every experienced bartender should possess. While this is an art and a science that are taught around the world in the most prominent bartending schools, keep in mind that it takes time, trial and error, and plenty of innovation and experimentation for you to develop your personal style and your unique way of pairing food and drinks. That said, when it comes to cocktails, things start to get more complicated.
Every aspiring bartender can learn how to pair wine with cheeses and appetizers in general, but given the fact that cocktails boast unique flavor tones and that they can be composed of numerous ingredients, pairing them with food can seem like a daunting task. After all, it only takes one wrong ingredient to ruin the entire experience, which is why pairing cocktails with food and devising the right cocktail for the occasion is a nuanced art form.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial that you learn this skill if you are to become an amazing bartender that bar owners, professional caterers, and clients will fight to book for their events. That’s why today, we’ll be taking food and drink pairing to a whole new level, by giving you the essential rules to pairing cocktails with food and how to innovate new flavors for every occasion, along with some actionable examples to help this information stick. Let’s get to it.
Matching cocktails with food might be an art, but the majority of artwork can be broken down, analyzed, categorized, and given a scientific framework. In other words, you can’t just pair the cocktail with the food, you have to analyze every ingredient to figure out if the individual taste notes it brings to the experience match the dish in question. You can also reverse the process and analyze the dishes on the menu to see if their ingredients match the ingredients of the cocktail. Remember, you have the option to innovate cocktails and food for the occasion, but if you’re just starting out, it’s better to work with something that already exists.
We’ll touch on the subject of contrasts in the next segment, but for now, let’s stick with matching flavors and nuances. Obviously, you can use sweet and light cocktails to complement a desert, for instance, but you have to be mindful of the alcohol content (stick around to learn about that as well) and the amount of sweetener you’re going to put in both. Use the same mindset for savory, zesty, and heavy flavor groups.
Depending on the nature of the gathering, you will want one of the two to be the accent, and the other to be the backdrop. For example, if you’re organizing a cocktail party, then the cocktails should boast the accent flavor, while the appetizers and spreads should add to the experience with their subtle notes – and vice versa.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the contrasts. Typically, it will be the cocktail that will serve as the contrasting accent, because you wouldn’t want the food to surprise the taste palate – your cocktails should achieve that “wow” effect, because after all, you are a bartender. With that in mind, start by analyzing the body of the drink, and the type of food that you’re supposed to serve. If you are working with heavier foods (meats with starchy carbohydrates and vegetables, for example) then go ahead and serve a light, slightly-zesty cocktail to make the meal a bit lighter as well, and allow your guests to stay refreshed and feeling energized.
Following a similar mindset, a good contrast to a light lemon-basil and ricotta spread would be a good old Martini, or a Manhattan better yet – the bitters interlaced with whiskey and sweet vermouth will make the dish a bit heavier and enhance the taste. If you are making spicy food, then be sure to contrast the base flavor with a light cocktail like a French 75, which will perfectly contrast the spiciness with its refreshing lemon zest and a hint of cooled gin.
The sooner you start stripping cocktails and dishes down to their base ingredients, and the sooner you start analyzing all of these subtle flavor notes, the faster will you become an innovator in your field. Sure, people love to see the tried-and-tested cocktails and dishes on the menu, but if you want to leave your mark as a bartender, then you should have a few cocktails in your repertoire that are purpose-made for a specific dish, or a set of entrees. This is something that every aspiring mixologist needs to learn how to do nowadays, because bars and event managers are looking for innovators as much as they are looking for people who know the traditional recipes by heart.
Whether you are based in an overly-competitive market like New York or not, you mustn’t be afraid to innovate flavors. Now, there are a few steps to this process, so tend to the following:
When you’re trying to enhance the flavor of a dish, meaning that the dish is the foundation of the experience and the cocktail serves as a subtle accent, you must remember who is in charge – the dish, not the cocktail. This means that the drink needs to retain a supporting role, so it’s flavor must not overpower the taste of the dish itself.
For example, you wouldn’t want to serve a cocktail that is heavy in its whiskey notes such as a Highball or the overly-complex Vieux Carre with something that has a very specific note such as oysters, but you would want to serve such a cocktail with a good steak. Remember, let the food influence the flavor of the cocktail, not the other way around. Otherwise, you’ll ruin a perfectly good steak.
When in doubt, use more garnish. That was obviously a joke, but there is some truth to the fact that aromatics like herbs and accents such as olives and onions, lemon and orange slices, and the like can help you make a cocktail more interesting and memorable without actually adding any more ingredients. This is a good way to stay on the safe side when you’re innovating, for example, because you wouldn’t want to add an ingredient that will ruin the dining experience.
Instead, you can simply add a raw garnish to the drink, or you can muddle the herbs together to infuse their notes into the base of the cocktail – and by extension, the dish itself. You can also experiment with proprietary aromatics such as sprays and tinctures to achieve the desired effect.
Typically, but it’s not a rule, regional ingredients tend to work wonderfully when paired in cocktails and dishes. An obvious example would be a tequila-based cocktail paired with a mole sauce dish. Both originated in Mexico, so their common geographical origin gives them a complementary taste note – not just literally, because guests will love knowing the fact that you are using regional ingredients.
This is a simple yet effective way to pair cocktails and food, but also to innovate when you know that you have to come up with new cocktails for a themed party, or a seasonal party, like a summer cocktail event, for example. With that in mind, be sure to research the region, and try to use ingredients native to that part of the world.
Last but not least, as a great bartender, your objective should be to inspire everyone to have a great time, not to get wasted. The goal here is to let people enjoy themselves and try as many of your wonderful creations as they can, but without actually ending up under a table in an hour, which is why you need to know when someone has had enough and advise them to try some water for a change. But that’s not all you should do.
As a good bartender, you need to control the alcohol content of every drink. The alcohol in the cocktail is there to give it its unique flavor, not to make it a hangover bomb. If the organizer is serving a five-course meal, and there is a cocktail for each, then your job is to make them as light yet memorable as possible. The easiest way you can control the amount of alcohol people consume, is to serve your cocktails in two or three ounces.
Pairing food with certain drinks may not be that difficult, but pairing food with cocktails can certainly be a challenge even for an experienced bartender. Take the time to digest all of this information and don’t be afraid to experiment and innovate, and you should have no problem becoming the bartender that everyone wants for their event.