Can Food and Cocktails Really Pair Well?

Cocktail programs at restaurants have become ubiquitous, so why are cocktail pairings still relatively rare? Dan Saltzstein on the challenges of matching food and cocktails, and how to navigate them.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I had dinner at Rouge Tomate, the health- and flavor-focused New York restaurant, then on East 60th Street (now in the process of moving to Chelsea). We asked for the tasting menu and were offered wine pairings. My wife accepted, but I could not; red wine doesn’t agree with me, and I haven’t had a glass in almost a decade. I lean toward cocktails, even over the course of a long meal.

Not a problem, said Pascaline Lepeltier, the endlessly creative beverage manager. They offered cocktail pairings as well. At the time, my daughter was about six months old and I was functioning on little sleep; I pictured myself stepping out of the restaurant and pitching face-forward onto the sidewalk. Not to worry, I was told: the drinks were modestly sized and not overly boozy. I rolled the dice and went for it.

By the time we finished our meal, I was pleasantly buzzed but not drunk—and definitely satisfied. And yet, I have not duplicated that experience elsewhere. Very few restaurants do cocktail pairings; Rouge Tomate appeared to be an outlier and I wondered why.

“It’s something that’s just generally not a good idea,” says Eamon Rockey, general manager at Betony, in New York. (Rockey is a cocktail tinkerer who’s created gin infusions using an immersion circulator and fermented his own root beer with fresh ingredients.) “Things that have a high level of alcohol, acidity, sweetness and bitterness are not the most food-friendly.”

But, Rockey added, “It can be done.”

The numbing quality of boozy cocktails is one barrier, to be sure, as is the intensity of flavor that Rockey notes. But those challenges are not insurmountable.

So what are the guiding principles to pairing cocktails? And how can they be applied to restaurants that don’t offer pairings—or, for that matter, at home?

One way (perhaps more reasonable for the professional than the home bartender) is to create an arsenal of elaborate tools and resources. Rouge Tomate, for example, was founded with a strong commitment to serving seasonal, health-conscious food; it has an in-house nutritionist, and Lepeltier works with a team of bartenders on three available pairings: wine, non-alcoholic drinks and cocktails. Booze-free drinks mean there’s always a rotating selection of fresh juices, herbs, infused syrups, consommés and teas at the bar’s disposal.

The next principle in pairing cocktails: Find opportunities where wine simply won’t work. Cameron took chef Matt Lightner’s first course of fluke with rosé vinegar as a particular challenge. Vinegar, says Cameron, “is the enemy of wine,” and so he turned to a cocktail. A Martini riff appealed—it plays off the ritual of the cocktail as a pre-meal drink.

An example from late last winter: a dish of bay scallops with chicken jus, roasted chestnut and celery root purée was paired with a housemade violet tea-infused gin, guava consommé, lemon, lime and two kinds of bitters. The sweetness of the guava is meant to match that of the scallops, Lepeltier says, and the gin and violet’s vegetal and floral notes, respectively, help offset the celery and chestnut. The citrus and bitters add splashes of acidity and spice to cut through the richness of the jus.

The work Lepeltier and her team put in pays off in part because diners know they are in for a heavily curated meal—they are generally willing to go for an elaborate ride. “We already [have] a demanding menu,” she says. You couldn’t come to Rouge and have French fries. Or Bailey’s.”

At Atera, the ambitious restaurant in Tribeca, beverage director Scott Cameron pairs a 24-course tasting with about 16 beverages, a few of which are cocktails. Like Lepeltier, he starts with what’s on the plate. “The dish is complete,” he says. “How can I compliment it?” That generally means wine, but “there are profiles that deserve a cocktail.”

Often, these are desserts, which are usually some combination of rich, sweet and tart—all of which can be mirrored in a cocktail, so that both sides of the equation are amped up.

At Atera, the menu always features a sorbet that changes with the season (rhubarb in summer gives way to citrus in colder months), and is generally bright and crisp, with a drizzle of black licorice. The accompanying cocktail combines wormwood-infused white rum and genepy—both of which elevate the licorice—as well as two levels of modest sweetness, agave syrup and moscato d’Asti,

The drink needs to be at least as sweet as the dish, Cameron says, or “the sweetness of the dessert will crush any character in the cocktail.” But they also need to tempered as not to be cloying he says, and the acidity of fruit helps.

Sam Levy, the bartender at the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, pairs a chocolate and cherry tart with a brown butter-infused bourbon drink that also features two kinds of cherry liquor; he’s fond of layering like flavors to create nuance—another method to keep in mind when pairing. Cherry will always taste good with more cherry. (It should be noted, though, that Levy says he prefers pairing savory dishes.)

The next principle in pairing cocktails: Find opportunities where wine simply won’t work. Cameron took chef Matt Lightner’s first course of fluke with rosé vinegar as a particular challenge. Vinegar, says Cameron, “is the enemy of wine,” and so he turned to a cocktail. A Martini riff appealed—it plays off the ritual of the cocktail as a pre-meal drink. And so Voyager gin, from Washington State, is infused with arctic rose, then blended with vermouth blanc, which ups the sweetness a bit from the dry variety. He gives it some extra stirs for an additional chill and dilution.

If 16 beverages sounds like a lot of booze—it is. (Though, not all drinks are alcoholic.) Which leads to the next guideline: Go for central ingredients with low ABV, like sherry, beer or vermouth.

At Betony, the pairing semi-skeptic Rockey often takes this approach. “When I’m looking for a drink to pair with a dish, I try to spot ingredients like cider, Champagne, vermouth, herbs and citrus that keep cocktails fresh and flexible without necessarily bringing too much alcohol into the equation,” he says.

For wintery dishes like meat ragus or simple charcuterie, he created a shandy from a dark porter, honey smoked with pipe tobacco, a tincture of white whiskey and some malt vinegar. The combination “gives you effervescence, a controllable amount of acidity and bitters, and a lower alcohol content,” he says, both matching the richness of the dishes and lifting the flavors.

The amped-up approach might find its best iteration at brunch. And indeed, it was when I talked to Michael Lay and Jared Hooper, chief bartender and wine director, respectively, at Faith & Flower in Los Angeles. It was then I realized that a most common cocktail pairing had been sitting in an overly garnished mason jar right in front of me: the Bloody Mary. Faith & Flower does their version with harissa and berbere, spice mixtures that also appear in the king crab toast it’s served with.

It’s an appealing match, but like most of the professionals I spoke to, Lay does not offer a full cocktail pairing option. It’s simply too challenging, without enough demand to make it worthwhile. But for cocktail lovers like me, it’s not impossible—it’s just best to keep it simple. Cameron recommends pairing things that “have power behind them”: a Martini with oysters and a mignonette; a whiskey cocktail with a hardy steak or rich stew; a rum drink with something braised.

And if all that is still too tricky, simply go with what sounds like the most logical match, because not overthinking may just be the most important unspoken rule in cocktail pairing.