One of my favorite things about my job is the fact that I’m constantly learning. Everyday behind the bar is a new lesson, whether it be a tale in history, a new innovation, interesting flavor profiles, or the fact that no matter how small a paper cut you have on your finger, when you squeeze that lime it will burn like the dickens. The cocktail world is always evolving and always trying to find new things to obsess and geek out about it. Have you ever heard two mixologists elaborate about the many wonders and intricacies of ice? It is crazy. Well, one of the new frontiers bartenders are boldly exploring is the world of cocktail pairings with food. Craft beer has certainly helped loosen the wine world’s monopolizing death grip on the dining experience, and now bartenders are pushing the limits. The best thing about new trends is that it’s like the wild wild west—the only rule is there are no rules. I love to learn from my mistakes (in the bar world I get to drink my mistakes) and in this experiment I get to eat them as well, so double bonus! Here are a couple lessons I’ve learned in my quest for perfect food and cocktail pairings using our current menu along with some tips for cocktail pairings at home.
BURNT CARROT SALAD & THE I.T. ( OYO Honey Vanilla vodka, charred jalapeño simple syrup, lime)
Create complimentary flavors. With the ability to add a vast amount of flavor profiles in a cocktail from savory to sweet to spicy, approach a cocktail pairing as if you’re adding another component to a dish. In the case of our carrot salad which has cilantro, avocado and feta cheese, it would seem only logical to add a bit of heat and citrus. There’s a music metaphor in here somewhere, I’m sure: create a symphony between your plate and glass!
CHARCUTERIE PLATE & ZIGGY STARDUST ( prosecco, grapefruit shrub: cardamom, thyme, red wine vinegar, star fruit sour)
No fear. Don’t be afraid to pair a dish with a lot of complex flavors like our charcuterie plate with a cocktail with an equal amount of complexity. In this case, both the dish and the beverage hit the same areas of the palate: sweet, tart, rich and savory.
WOODLAND FARM PORK & THE ROMAN HOLIDAY (rum, basil, Italian parsley, lemon, soda)
Herbs are our friends. Herbaceous cocktails are perfect to pair with entrees. Our pork dish which has this beautiful piece of meat, gigante beans, country ham and quince is a big plate that manages to not be too heavy on the palate. The Roman Holiday, which is bright and complex, makes for a pairing that’s just right.
GRILLED NY STRIP STEAK & CARDAMARO or BULLEIT RYE.
Keep it simple, friends. Sometimes you don’t need to add much to find a beautiful pairing and a chilled spirit served neat or on the rocks is a far as you need to look. Naysayers of cocktail pairings will say that the high alcohol content of cocktails scrubs the palate but when serving a rich dish like steak something like a chilled shot of rye will stand up to the food without overpowering it. If the thought of drinking rye with dinner is a frightful thought, think of pairing steak with a Cardamaro, a delightful amaro made with cardoon and blessed thistle, with subtle hints of oak that would pair delightfully with our steak which is cooked in the fireplace.
HOMETENDERS: At your next grill out, boldly go where you’ve never gone before and try to pair cocktails with the food you’re serving. If you’re afraid of over serving your guests with booze-heavy cocktails (nobody wants to see Uncle Tony face down in the potato salad) try making cocktails with aromatized wines like Lilet Blanc or apertifs like Aperol, served chilled with some citrus or as spritzes. Either would pair well with cheese boards, bruschetta and other appetizer type courses. You can also make cocktails using beer or wine, like in sangria or shandys. Try to avoid making cocktails that are overly sweet, so instead of a super fruity sangria or shandy swap out some of the ingredients with herbs, spices and vegetables. A grilled steak would be awesome with a rosemary, citrus red wine sangria. Try using unusual spirits in place of regular vodka or gin. A Pimm’s Cup with mint and cucumber would be brilliant with a heavily spiced grilled lamb.
Alternatively, you can skip the pairing part completely and just combine your food with your booze. Below is one of my favorite recipes to make for my friends over the summer. A great dessert or a delightfully cooling treat for whomever decides to man the grill.
TIPSY WATERMELON BALLS
1 personal sized watermelon ( yields about 40 watermelon balls)
1/4 cup St. Germain
1/4 cup cucumber infused vodka (you can make your own infusion at home or buy vodka that is already infused with cucumber)
Cut watermelon in half, and using a melon baller make about 40 watermelon balls. Place watermelon balls in bowl, and pour St. Germaine and vodka into the bowl. Swish bowl around making sure you get the booze into all the little crevices of the watermelon. Let the watermelon sit for 5 minutes and then pour out excess liquid. Transfer watermelon to a freezer safe container with an airtight lid and freeze for at least 2 hours. Pull out of the freezer when ready to serve. You can serve them in cocktail glasses or even use them as tipsy ice cubes in fun lemonades. On a hot summer day by the lake or a pool these are dangerously easy to consume—you’ve been warned!
So dear friends, I hope next time you’re having dinner at the bar you’ll allow me the pleasure of pairing your meal with a cocktail. Or better yet, you can invite me over to your next grill out and we can make cocktails together! Don’t worry…I’ll bring the watermelon balls!
Here’s to the summer…cheers!
Your neighborhood bartender,