The Shift of Restaurant Pairings: From Wine to Collaborative Craft Cocktails
With the explosion of craft cocktails being introduced into restaurants, it’s no surprise that there has been a new and competitive surge of pairings. From casual pizza cafés to modern, refined restaurants, cocktail pairings are rapidly growing, and diners are forfeiting wine pairings for craft cocktails. Restaurants are hiring experienced and trained mixologists to bring a new element to the establishment in order to keep a competitive edge. This skilled and trained generation of craftsmen are working closely with chefs of all calibers to create co-existing, collaborative menus. As a result, the dining experience is being heightened and the diner has additional options that will entice the palate.
Not only are these craft mixologists stepping up to the challenge in terms of pairing drinks with dinner, which requires extra attention to detail, but also in working closely with the chef to match flavor profiles. Pairing food and cocktails can be as easy as matching up and highlighting citrus flavors to creating a smoky cocktail to enhance an entrée.
The Evolution of the Craft
Cocktail and food pairings are not by any means a new concept — they have simply grown from the traditional Mexican and steak restaurants and are now being introduced to a more diverse range of establishments. In the past, diners would have found themselves enjoying a fresh, light margarita with spicy enchiladas or a robust Manhattan with their steak. This has forced an evolution and development into areas where the pairings were previously missing as the modern diner’s palate has become more discerning and educated. Therefore, craft cocktails are being requested and bartenders are coming up with concoctions that compliment what is being prepared by the chef so that the experience is not dampened by disagreeing and incompatible flavor profiles.
5 Things to Consider When Pairing Craft Cocktails
While observing various restaurants, several things caught my attention about pairing cocktails and food. I would like to share what I believe are the top five considerations along with examples as to how these are implemented.
1. Use the Wine Philosophy. Cocktail pairings are much like wine pairings in which they are paired using the same philosophy. For example, if the diner is enjoying a nice piece of grilled chicken or fish the bartender will accompany this with a combination of light, delicate flavors rather than the heavier, richer flavors that he would suggest to accompany a flavorsome steak or lamb dish.
2. Be Responsible with Your Alcohol Quantities. Don’t over booze the guest. When considering a cocktail pairing keep in mind the quantity of alcohol the guest will be indulging throughout the entire evening not just per dish. The pairing menu should be able to be tolerated by the average guest, though alternatives and variations should be implemented by servers and bartenders depending on the clientele. For example, serving low alcohol libations like wine and beer based cocktails will create a better experience for the guest because they will remember the experience.
3. Choose One: Complement or Contrast. Either complement or contrast the cocktails with the food. Bartenders complement the food when they sync up the same flavors in the drink. I love this idea because the elements in the dish are also used in the cocktail, which provides some cross-utilization. The alternative is to use contrasting flavors that will challenge the dish itself, and leave your taste buds to constantly pick up different elements, expanding the flavor profile of the dish rather than synching with it. For example, at Spur Gastropub in Seattle, I enjoyed a five-course menu with cocktail pairings. My favorite pairing of the evening was a complementing pairing that included a smoked steak and a mezcal cocktail. The smoky component in each of these items drew the dishes into a comparative flavor profile using all senses.
4. Utilize the Chef. One of the most important aspects of a cocktail pairing is consulting with the chef. As a mixologist, it’s important to utilize the variety of chefs — trained in different culinary backgrounds — you might have at your disposal, and taking advantage of their collective knowledge of herbs and flavor profiles. This collaborative effort creates a combination with more in-depth elements that stand apart from your typical two-dimensional cocktail. For example, you have now upgraded your classic Ramos gin fizz to a basil and thyme infused gin fizz.
5. Think Outside the Box and Be Inventive. Think outside the box and use wine, beer, and other unorthodox alcoholic ingredients you wouldn’t generally find in cocktails to help diversify the drink. Using all senses also helps bring the cocktail and food together — smells of herbs, smoke, and bitters brings creativity to the guest experience. For example, misting the top of the cocktail with an aromatic bitter or topping off the cocktail with Prosecco adds an effervescent effect.