Pairing Food and Spirits

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Drink has always been inseparable from food. The right beverage can enhance our enjoyment of food, just as the wrong choice can ruin it. This is ingrained into our eating habits, from milk and cookies to pizza and beer. Here are some simple tips to pull off your own successful pairings.

Pairing food and beverage is at the heart of gastronomy; eating and drinking is a unified experience and can affect people in a profound way. The success of any pairing is judged by what happens when a sip of a beverage interacts with a bite of food on the palate.

How you arrive at a pairing doesn’t really matter, there are guidelines but no concrete rules to the process. It is about trusting your instincts and going through the lengthy process of trial and error. A lot of classic pairings are based on the experience of generations of chefs, winemakers, and sommeliers. But established techniques and flavors are just a starting point. In the modern kitchen, how do you create a pairing if the dish has existed for only an hour?

Experimental cooking is a result of the desire and obsession of modern cooks to explore the increasingly vast range of ingredients, tools, and techniques available. The Internet is a powerful tool in this exploration. One can source obscure spices from far-flung corners of the world or products designed for commercial food manufacturing. The Internet can also provide the science on how to master preparing these new ingredients. But it is passion that drives the progress. As Heston Blumenthal writes, “In the end it is not science that makes food delicious, but people.”

Classical pairing, and the logic behind it, is still the best place to start honing one’s palate. Chefs Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, and Heston Blumenthal, and writer Harold McGee, declared in their collaborative “Statement on the ‘New Cookery’” (published in 2006) that “tradition is the base that all cooks who aspire to excellence must know and master.”

Most classical pairing is based on wine, although beverages like beer, sake, and tea all have cultural relevance. Pairings often start in the kitchen. A sommelier will then deconstruct a dish, analyzing its influences, the ingredients, and the techniques used to put it together. This process is arduous and experimentation is key, but once learned, like riding a bike, you’ll forget you are even doing it.

Be careful not to make final pairing too complex or overintellectualize it to the consumer. Delivery and consumption must be straightforward. Some of the modern techniques we use, such as spherification, can be tricky to explain, so don’t. Much like a good magic trick loses its mystique when its workings are exposed, overtaxing the guest with abstract detail takes the fun out of the experience. People want to be entertained, not intimidated and overwhelmed.

You’ll notice that I am talking a lot about the kitchen, and a fair bit about wine, but have yet to mention spirits. Wine provides excellent guidelines that we can use in pairing spirits, in any form, with food. Straight spirit pairings can be challenging but very rewarding. But you must consider a number of things, the most important of which is to not serve too much alcohol. A lengthy tasting menu with accompanying 80 Proof liquor pairings is going to have devastating effects on the sobriety of your guests.

Much more versatile, then, is the use of cocktails. Ingredients other than the spirit (e.g., juices and mixers, and accents such as vermouth or aromatic bitters) give these drinks length. A well-put-together cocktail is held finely in balance with complex aromas, textural elements, and sweet, sour, bitter, and even salty flavors. This of course provides more potential touchpoints for the dish it is paired with.

The clear difference between pairing cocktails with food, as opposed to wines, is that we can construct a cocktail. A wine already has its own characteristics that we can pair with a dish using different methodologies. A cocktail is crafted so it can be fully integrated with the dish. You are really looking at the solid and liquid parts of the whole “serve.”

Decide what you want to achieve. You don’t have to attempt something worthy of Ferran Adrià’s legendary El Bulli to reward your guests with entertaining pairings. Some of your clients are going to be more interested in your pairing ideas than others. Some will embrace the opportunity to try something new; others will find it too racy. Any understanding of pairing, whether it is with wine or cocktails, will of course enhance your offering, but integrating some of these cocktail-pairing concepts into your bar or restaurant will likely generate some fresh interest and excitement.

As Ferran Adrià explains about El Bulli, which he likens to a night out at the theatre, “Eating well is something you can do at home. The point about what we offer is that it is more than eating; it is an experience.”

If you start with simple pairings using the basic “provenance” method (what grows together goes together) and carefully market them to adventurous clients, you’ll find that the approach of using food and drink as a tool to entertain and delight your guests rather than just feeding and watering them enhances your brand in your market and creates a commercial advantage. Remember that each “serve” is an organic entity and will continue to evolve through trial and error. “No recipe stands still,” writes Heston Blumenthal. “There are always opportunities to adapt, improve, reshape, or even reinvent.”

Do not forward these materials to anyone below the legal purchasing age. Belvedere Vodka is a quality choice. Drinking responsibly is too.