by Larry Sterner
For Frog Commissary’s recent Westworld party, the clients specifically requested that we select spirits to match with the food. I have a long and happy history with fine spirits served solo and in cocktails, but I never had the occasion or inclination to match them up with serious food. Given the assignment, I embarked on some “in-the-field” experimentation and notation.
I began by tasting matches of pure, unadulterated, or minimally adulterated spirits with various foods and found some intriguing combinations:
Gin (my personal favorite spirit)
This clear spirit infused with juniper and an intricate layering of botanicals plays well against the briny sweetness of a classic shrimp cocktail, chilled seafood platter or grilled prawns. Recommended: Hendricks, which exhibits a subtle hint of cucumber.
Russians have been pairing vodka with food for centuries, serving the pure spirit icy cold, with caviar, smoked fish, herring and other “zakuski” (Russian appetizers). Vodka is often infused with flavors for a kick and horseradish or black pepper work best with savory food.
Dark and profound, America’s whiskey can hold its own against barbecued meats. Have that big slab of smoky baby-back ribs or smoked brisket with a glass of small-batch bourbon or a well-made Manhattan. Also, straight sipping bourbon from a top producer is very agreeable with chocolate—preferably a bar that’s 70% or higher cacao.
Made in an incredible array of styles, whiskey can step into Cabernet Sauvignon’s shoes as an accompaniment to steak. The beef should be marbled and well-aged; the whiskey smooth and smoky. Take it neat.
A lighter golden rum with lime squeezed into it cuts right through the salt and fat of roast pork and suckling pig. A mojito made with Brazil’s cachaça does the trick, too.
Shots of blanco (clear, unaged tequila) pair well with guacamole or queso fundido (melted cheese). A darker, more complex añejo (aged a minimum of a year) is brilliant with mole that has a touch of chocolate in it. A margarita straight up (no salt on the rim) is a better match with ceviche or tacos.
The smoky Islay single malts redolent of peaty smokiness pair wonderfully with steak and smoked barbecue.
This Scandinavian clear grain spirit is flavored with caraway seed and, depending on the recipe, spices such as cardamom, cumin, coriander, fennel or dill. Those flavors make icy shots of it a natural with smoked salmon, gravlax and cured fish. I even use Aquavit to cure my salmon.
Cocktails and Food
My go-to cocktail for 30 years, alone, or with almost any food, is the negroni. The sweetness of the vermouth paired with the bitterness of the Campari fortified by the alcoholic and botanical punch of the gin is, to me, the perfect combination
It might seem more complicated to pair mixed drinks with food, because there are more elements in the finished product. But actually it’s a bit easier, because mixed drinks tend to have more aggressively specific flavor profiles. Also—you can tweak mixed drinks to match your food, meaning if you want something light and acidic to go with, say, a crudo or sushi or tempura, you can actually build a cocktail from the ground up.
Mainly, you’ll want to pay attention to things like acidity and sweetness and any distinct flavors from the drink or dish. Neither the food or drink should be ridiculously complex if the other isn’t. It’s also wise to match textures—meaning, don’t serve a heavy, sweet or powerfully alcoholic cocktail alongside a lighter dish, and don’t serve a light, refreshing cocktail alongside something like a porterhouse steak. My best advice: Use your palate as a guide.