Pairing Cocktails with Food, the Ultimate Guide

Pairing Cocktails with Food, the Ultimate Guide

On this Thanksgiving day, we thought it fitting to release an excerpt from the recently released Welcome Home by Death & Co. Hopefully you can use these Fellow Tips to enjoy a cocktail with Thanksgiving dinner today and throughout the holidays.

Most food and beverage pairings begin with the food, after which you find a drink to complement it. This approach works perfectly with wine, beer, and sake, but cocktails are a different story. From the powerful acidity of a margarita to the alcoholic punch of an Old-Fashioned or a Manhattan, the intensity of cocktails makes them a challenge to pair with food. This is why we tend to flip the script, starting with the cocktail and finding an appropriate food to match.

Though there are many elements to consider, an easy place to start is to focus on a food's saltiness or richness. Our love of salt is well-documented, but it becomes especially critical when considering how cocktails and food match up. A citrusy cocktail loves a salty fried snack, like french fries; the drink's bright acidity cuts through the heft of the oil and starch. Bitter drinks, like the Negroni, have a natural affinity for salty crunchy snacks, like pretzels (one of our favorite combos); the salt lessens the impression of bitterness. And there are few things more restorative than a bracingly cold Martini matched with briny oysters (especially with a tangy mignonette); yes, you've just made a deconstructed dirty Martini, straight from the sea. 

Cheese pairs nicely with cocktails, too. Try a luscious Brie or other soft cheese with a citrusy cocktail, like a Daiquiri; the citrus cuts through the richness. Or try a hard salty cheese, like pecorino or Parmesan, with a bitter cocktail such as an Aperol Spritz or an Americano. Your taste buds will find relief from the deep flavors of cured meats with a sip of a refreshing cocktail, especially one with bubbles, such as a Tom Collins or highball. Or complement that depth of flavor with a spiritous, dense cocktail, like a Manhattan. 

The richness of most deserts is perfect territory for cocktail pairing. If you've ever dashed a bit of Angostura bitters on top of vanilla ice cream, you've experienced an ethereal marriage of spice and creaminess that parallels a root beer float. That same affinity can be explored through cocktails highly influenced by bitters, like an Old-Fashioned (or its many variations). And a bite of really good dark chocolate chased by a sip of a Manhattan is one of life's wonderful pleasures; the bitterness of the sweet vermouth complements the chocolate, with a hint of cacao butter rounding off the whiskey's edges. 

You've likely noticed that these examples are mostly small plates, single bites, and sweets -- not fully composed meals. There's a casualness and impermanence that comes with a cocktail -- it lasts only a few precious minutes (at lease for us). Pairing cocktails throughout a composed meal would be fatiguing to the palate, and you'd risk overconsumption of aggressive flavors that compete the with dishes. That's why we drink cocktails before and after dinner and open bottles of wine, sake, cider, or beer during.

But there are exceptions to this general rule. First, low-ABV cocktails can be a fantastic pairing for composed plates, serving the palate-refreshing role that wine or beer usually fills. But take care to keep the drink's flavors subtle enough so as to not overpower the food. Any variation on the Bamboo, for example, walks the line perfectly; built around a base of food-friendly sherry, it will sip like a more spiritous cocktail, but allow you to still taste the food.

If you really want to pair cocktails throughout a meal, don't let us hold you back. Just be mindful that one doesn't dominate the other. If you're keen on a project, compose a progression of small, concentrated bites with specific cocktails for each. Call it a tasting menu, if you like. We've experimented extensively with this, both at Death & Co with our "Six Bites" menus -- where each tiny dish is inspired by a cocktail family -- and with coursed tasting menus at the Walker Inn, our dearly departed avant-garde bar in Los Angeles. It's an extravagant endeavor, to be sure, but it can make for a one-of-a-kind dinner party.

 An excerpt from Welcome Home by Death & Co, released November 16th, 2021, and available in many bottle shops and bookstores now


This letter was sent from the Fellows at Death & Co

Since its opening in 2006, Death & Co has been a must-visit destination for serious drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts, and the winner of every major industry award.

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    Ranger Buck by Death & Co.

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    Ranger Buck by Death & Co.