Cocktail pairing, while talked up as a hot trend by various food bloggers, is a dicey subject for a lot of experienced bartenders and mixology evangelists. If you ask Thad Vogler, proprietor of the upcoming Bar Agricole and most recently bar consultant at Camino, he’ll tell you firmly, "Don’t do it." He hates the concept of pairing high-alcohol drinks with food, saying the effect of the drink is to immediately numb the palate and ruin all hope of enjoying the food. But if you talk to Reza Esmaili, current president of the U.S. Bartending Guild and bartender at Smuggler’s Cove, you’ll get a more nuanced picture of the hows and wherefores of pairing booze with any number of dishes.
"In the right hands it can be a genius, innovative experience, and in the wrong hands it can be disastrous," Esmaili says, adding that pulling off great pairings requires a bartender with both a deep understanding of the flavors and aromas of spirits and liqueurs, as well as an understanding of food preparations, ingredients, and the ways different flavors harmonize and connect. He generally avoids citrus, and also tends not to pair spirit-driven cocktails with every course, knowing that wine or beer are often better suited for certain foods. "Too much octane in a beverage is the same as an extremity of any type, be it temperature or flavor. It’s about lengthening focused flavors, and not muddling them."
As an example of a successful pairing, Esmaili mentions a fresh dungeness crab dish that he created a cocktail for at the recently shuttered Conduit. "The meat was picked with herbs with a yellow curry puree, and served with a quenelle of avocados with a nutty balance of salt-roasted cashews on top. I made a cocktail using a vegetal, briny, agave-driven tequila (El Tesoro Platinum), tocai, and a crisp, high-acid French wine (an Haute Marin white blend from the Loire). The drink balanced perfectly with the fat and nuances in the dish, without being too high in alcohol."
Brooke Arthur, bar manager at Range, points out that Spanish tapas were created for drinks. "The food was meant to keep away fruit flies by covering your sherry glass with a slice of chorizo or bread, so a glass of dry, acidic sherry with a dish of patatas bravas or another spicy small plate cuts through and compliments all those flavors." But she says that she tends to steer customers toward wine, especially as they get to their main courses. "The wine menu at Range is full of beautiful bottles and glass pours to compliment Chef West’s food. If customers are persistent, I tend to make them something light in flavor and alcohol; with champagne, wine, sherry, and citrus at my finger tips it’s not impossible."
The cocktail menu at Quince, says bar consultant Scott Baird (also of 15 Romolo), was never intended to go with the food. "But if you’re talking about tapas, or Mexican antojitos, or any sort of appetizer that’s high-fat, high-salt and with a lot of punch, then a cocktail can be perfect — especially something with citrus to cut through the fat." He says that the bar program for the upcoming Cotogna Café, attached to Quince (Cotogna means "quince" in Italian, and the place is set to open in a month or two in the former Myth Café space), will be meant to pair with all the food, which is going to be far more rustic Italian than the regular Quince menu, with a lot of strong wood-fired flavors.
The biggest issue for Scott is one of timing. "Cocktails aren’t meant to be lingered over until they come to room temperature. A cocktail you’re supposed to drink quickly, with a small bite or two. But you can let a glass of wine sit there for an hour while you enjoy a couple courses of food. But pork belly and a Manhattan? That’s an incredible combo."