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Should cocktails be paired with meals?

Two top mixologists lock horns over whether – in the same way as wine – cocktails can be paired with food, or be consumed in the same way as wine.

Will the cocktail and food pairing trend last?

As the world’s of food and drink become increasingly entwined, drinkers are more often seen ordering a mixed tipple to accompany their dish.

While some see this as a natural step in the progression and mergence of the food and drinks worlds, others believe the palatable tastes of cocktails can be tainted by food.

Two respected bartenders – Dawid Samulczyk duty manager at London’s The Folly, and Toby Maloney, partner and head mixologist at Chicago’s The Violet Hour, discuss the dilemma.

Which of our judges do you agree with? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Dawid Samulczyk, duty manager and mixologist, The Folly, London

Dawid-Samulzyk“Pairing food with cocktails is just like being a chef and a mixologist at the same time” 

Cocktails and food pairings are a real growing trend, particularly in the US where top mixologists are really establishing themselves as leaders of creativity and innovation. By pairing cocktails with food, it allows you, as a bartender, to create a beautiful story between the dish and the drink.

It really makes sense because the kitchen and the bar overlap considerably nowadays; bartenders are learning from chefs’ techniques and adapting them behind the bar, and vice versa. Pairing food with cocktails is just like being a chef and a mixologist at the same time. It takes a lot more skill to design cocktails to compliment food, so you have to be extremely cautious about the ingredients you use; it’s taking mixology to the next level and with that comes risks.

To do it well, you have to extend your knowledge of flavours and combinations of ingredients, thoroughly understand dishes in the kitchen and go the extra mile for your guests.

I find classic cocktails are really quite good when it comes to food pairings, and you don’t even have to reinvent them too much. For example, I think Negronis go very well with cheese and meat dishes, providing an interesting balance on the palate — but there are so many options out there.

The trend is certainly engaging bartenders and consumers alike. Every guest has a different palate and what works for one might not be to the taste of another, and this goes for both food and drinks. But as bartenders we should be making sure we can provide something else more suited to the customer’s taste. There’s nothing wrong with bringing them into the conversation when it comes to playing around with cocktails and food.

It’s also a fantastic opportunity to create more interaction between bartenders and guests. Our palates are much more finely tuned and keen to try new flavours than they were a few years ago, and this is what creates curiosity within the customer to swap their glass of wine for a dinner cocktail — I can definitely see this being the way forward.

Toby Maloney, partner and head mixologist, The Violet Hour, Chicago

Toby-Maloney“I see people drinking an Old Fashioned with their meal and it doesn’t make any sense”

For me, cocktails belong before, between or after a meal, for two reasons: temperature and abv.

When it comes to cocktails, they should be served as cold as humanly possible. So if you are sipping one during your meal the temperature is going to rise, or the ice is going to melt and over-dilute the drink.

It’s not the same as having a glass of red wine, which is served cool, not cold, or a bottle of white you can keep chilled over ice; those cocktails, such as Cosmopolitans, that need to be served super cold just don’t work as a food pairing because you can’t keep that consistency in temperature.

Wine is just within the boundaries of what our palate finds pleasurable in terms of the alchohol’s abv. Generally speaking, cocktails tend to be around 25% abv or more, and yet I see people drinking an Old Fashioned with their meal and it just doesn’t make any sense to me; it’s far too high in proof. Customers want drinks that accompany and compliment their meals, but any flavours of the food will be completely overpowered by the high abv in cocktails.

Personally, I have steered clear of food pairings with cocktails as I don’t think they work, but also because what I find most interesting are “intermezzo” cocktails. I can make cocktails exactly how I want them, with the exact flavours I have in mind, to create a connection between two courses. How I achieve this is I combine the flavours from both courses to create a bridge-like concoction that tastes delicious, refreshes the palate, yet doesn’t affect the flavours of my customer’s meal in any way, shape or form.

People’s palates over the last couple of decades have grown incredibly, so I can understand why bartenders are trying to push forward with pairing cocktails and meals.

However, in spite of this, I think people will always prefer to drink beer and wine with food for the simple fact that they’ve proven to be the perfect combination.

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