The New Pairing Paradigm
Cocktail and food pairing: the next flavor frontier.
“What the hell is olive oil-washed gin?” I thought as I gazed at the gently golden hue and glistening gossamer beads of oil on the surface of the clear liquid in front of me—and is it something I really want to drink?
As it turns out, I do. Taken neat, this flavor-altered gin offers the expected juniper, coriander, and citrus notes, but with the added appeal of a gently herby olive overtone that adds weight and roundness, which in turn softens the sharper tones of the gin without diminishing its character.
Olive and gin—it’s a natural. But, this spirit is not intended to be sipped all by its lonesome. Instead, it is an innovative cocktail component specifically crafted by bartender Lance Mayhew to complement a dish prepared by Chef Jenn Louis, who synchronously created the recipe to pair with Mayhew’s cocktail.
This symbiotic culinary creativity is typical of a new trend in flavor exploration: the pairing of cocktails and food. A growing band of innovative Northwest bartenders, chefs, and distillers is presenting a new pairing paradigm that challenges the old-school conception that spirits have no place at the table.
Cocktail and food pairing is the next frontier for foodies willing to stretch their palate’s perspective.
As with any good culinary trend, it starts with the ingredients: in this case, artisanally distilled spirits.
“There’s a whole new movement of craft distilling where people are focusing on making culinary spirits, and from these great ingredients people are paying attention again to cocktails,” says Lee Medoff of Portland’s House Spirits distillery. Medoff is also president of the Oregon Distillers Guild, the first artisan distiller group in the country.
“It’s all about flavor,” he adds. “The whole conception of craft distilling is to produce flavor for a culinary experience—the point of artisan spirits is to drink them with food.”
Since Prohibition, Americans have tended to treat spirits and the drinks made from them—cocktails—solely as “social lubricants,” or more basely, agents of inebriation divorced from any meaningful relationship with food.
Yet there was a time when we had a culinary tradition that included spirits. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and into the first two decades of the twentieth, bartending was respected as a skilled profession, and the cocktails they crafted were
considered a normal aspect of fine dining. Great bartenders, then, were as celebrated as great chefs.
Prohibition killed that culture. In its place, spirits became booze and cocktails devolved into woozy three-martini lunches, or constantly topped-up tumblers of blended scotch and soda after work. Fueled by a liquor industry that prized volume over craft and potency over flavor, most Americans have come to see the idea of spirits paired with food as a non sequitur.
Not anymore. The Northwest’s resurgent cocktail culture has strong culinary roots, and is colluding with a chef community and a willing public to make spirits and cocktails integral components of the dining experience.
“What is so great about the cocktail is that it can be formulated on the spot to fine tune a fit for food,” says Medoff. “You can create a cocktail to have just the combination you want to balance what is going on in a dish.” Wine is wonderful, he adds, but in terms of customizing it to a dish, you can’t do it. “What comes out of the bottle is it—you can’t add tannins or sugar to a wine to make a better match. You can with a cocktail.”
To help make his case, Medoff brings chefs into his distillery’s “Cocktail Boutique” where he can show them the range of flavors that spirits offer. “We speak the same vernacular,” says Medoff. “We talk about balance of acid, sweet, or astringency, and of aroma, body, and texture. So when chefs start tasting what’s possible, they get excited.”
Culinary-conscious bartenders approach their cocktails the same way a chef does a dish. “We take raw ingredients and develop them into something else,” says David Nelson, bartender at Seattle’s Spur Gastropub. “Working from a vision of what we want, we combine different ingredients to create a whole taste experience in a drink instead of a dish.”
When the taste experience in a glass complements the flavors put on the plate by the chef, the results can be greater than the sum of the parts.
At Crush restaurant in Seattle, for instance, cocktails have become as much a part of the cuisine as the James Beard Award-nominated cooking.
“We approach cocktails and spirits in the same way we approach our food,” says Andrew Lanier, sous chef at Crush. “We look for pure flavors that you won’t find elsewhere, and present them with a modern culinary sensibility.”
At Crush, cocktails are created to match the food. “Great cocktails, like great dishes, are all about balance,” says Lanier. So, for instance, when the menu included a foie gras dish with a sauce made from apple cider and verjus roasted quince with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and clove, they used some of the same ingredients to create their own cocktail, the Quince 75. A take on the classic French 75, but with roasted quince infused into reposado tequila, their cocktail provided a perfectly balanced pairing for their foie gras dish.
Realizing that cocktails can offer a myriad of flavors to pair with food, more chefs are collaborating with bartenders and distillers to create cocktail and food pairing dinners—much as they have always done with wine and food pairing dinners.
Chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, of Spur Gastropub in Seattle, worked with their bartender, David Nelson, to create a unique approach that demonstrates the culinary potential of this new pairing paradigm.
Their menu was designed to pair with the flavors of a single spirit: Bulleit Bourbon. “We wanted to play up the different elements of flavor in the raw spirit with our dishes and our cocktails,” says McCracken. The team first tasted the spirit by itself, then dissected the elements they found: cherry, vanilla, smoke, oak, honey. “With a traditional wine pairing you’d try to balance each dish with the wine,” explains McCracken. “Here our idea was to pull out a single element and enhance it for each course with the food and the cocktail.”
To highlight both the smoky quality and smooth texture of the bourbon, the chefs prepared a dish of prawns on a bed of semolina pudding with a smoke foam on top. Nelson created a drink he called the Smoking Gun. He sprayed the inside of the glass with simple syrup, filled it with aromatic smoke, and sealed the top to “temper” the glasses. Just before serving he filled each glass with the bourbon, lemon bitters, and absinthe. The combination of food and drink accentuated the smoke theme in the spirits without becoming overbearing.
One of the factors that makes wine so food-friendly is that wine is relatively low-alcohol. Aren’t spirits and cocktails too “hot” and alcoholic to go with food?
“That’s a bit of a misconception,” says Medoff. “Good cocktails aren’t all alcohol. Other ingredients, including juice, ice, and water, help dilute the alcohol.” Medoff has done tests that he says show the actual alcohol in many drinks gets reduced to a percentage on par with a glass of port or Madeira.
“When you’re building a drink to go with food you do need to take into account that the heat that goes along with the alcohol needs to be tamed,” says Nelson. “You need to groom the spirit with other elements to complement the food rather than overpowering it. Ice, for instance, and the application of water in a cocktail are incredibly important.”
So, are spirits the new wine? Hardly. Pairing cocktails with food is not for the faint of palate—it is still an unfamiliar concept, especially for those who think wine is the only respectable alcohol for the table.
But the proliferation in the Northwest of new artisanal distilleries, the renaissance of craft cocktail-making, and the growing excitement of chefs and food aficionados means that cocktail and food pairing is gaining ground with gourmets.
As David Nelson explains it, “A cocktail isn’t just a bunch of booze. A good cocktail is refined and sophisticated with many flavors—it is something you’re going to enjoy as a whole experience that you can engage in, in the same way you’d enjoy a good glass of wine. You sip it, contemplate it, and dissect it—it is an interactive experience. Put it with food, and you have an even broader experience to savor.”
By Cole Danehower
From our January/February 2009 issue.