How To Pair Cocktails With Food Dishes

Cocktails and Food

As I mentioned last week, I recently went to a great event called ‘Project Botanicals‘ which was all about matching cocktails with a series of tapas-style dishes. Apart from providing a nice break from the traditional ‘food and wine pairing’ scenario,  matching food and cocktails was also a whole lot of fun and I thought it would make a great theme for a party at home.

At the end of our lunch, I asked restauranteur Gary Mehigan (who created the dishes for the event and whom you may also know as a judge on ‘Masterchef’) for some pointers on how to successfully pair cocktails with food and he was kind enough to oblige.

Based on his advice and some further cocktail drinking research on my part, here are 5 easy tips to match cocktails and food at home!

1. Focus on one key flavor

Keep things simple and focus on playing around with only one (maximum two) flavor in the dish or cocktail you’re making.

If you’re unsure about where to start then try and think about some of your favorite flavor combinations and how they could be translated into a food and cocktail pairing. For example ‘lamb and mint’, ‘turkey and cranberry’, ‘sushi and ginger’, ‘fish and lemon’ are all classic combinations that can be easily turned into a food and cocktail match. A mint julep could be amazing paired with lamb meatballs for instance and a ceviche would most likely go very well with a citrusy cocktail. Herbs are a great way to enhance flavors and so are fruits and spices.

As a general rule, look to enhance or compliment the flavor rather than match it exactly. A chocolate cocktail served with chocolate dessert wouldn’t be quite as exciting as a chocolate fondant served with a fruity cocktail for example. Otherwise, you could also try contrasting the flavors instead. For example a spicy dish could go very well with a sweet cocktail to balance things out.

2. Look to the dish’s country of origin for inspiration

There’s a reason why most countries produce certain flagship spirits. Mexican dishes will often go very well with tequila-based cocktails for example whilst Japanese food might pair well with sake driven cocktails.

Also think about what fruit and herbs are usually associated with the country’s cuisine. Asian food also often goes well with lychee, ginger or lemongrass for instance.

3. Consider the weight and body of the dish

Is the dish you’re preparing on the light or heavy side? It’s important to keep things balanced as you don’t want the cocktail to overshadow the dish or take away from its flavors in any way. For instance, white fish would call for a more delicate, refreshing cocktail, whereas bbq steak could go wonderfully with a bourbon or whiskey cocktail.

Also think about the texture of the dish/cocktail and how you can play with that side of things too.

4.  Limit the alcohol intake

Food and cocktail pairings usually work best with small tapas style dishes. However if you’re planning to serve your guests more than three/four dishes then I would recommend either serving mini-sized cocktails  (which could be super cute!) or throwing in a couple of virgin cocktails so that your guests don’t feel ill by the end of the meal (or pass out). Often the flavor in cocktails comes from the mixers and garnish rather than the spirit itself so you can still match those to your food to create a similar experience.

5. Have fun!

This was one of Gary’s most important tip. At the end of the day, this whole exercise is about having fun so don’t stress too much about creating the perfect menu. Also, some of the best combinations happen by accident or are completely unexpected so don’t be afraid to experiment a little. The pairings I put together below are only meant to be a starting guide. :)

Finally, everyone’s palette is different so what you might think is a winning combo might not work for your friend. And that’s ok! It’s all about sharing a fun experience together.

I hope you found these tips useful! Have you tried matching cocktails and food before? Is this something you’d like to try at home with your friends? Finally do you know of any great cocktail and food combination that we should all try?

Food and Cocktails Pairings  Ideas

Oysters – French 75

Ceviche –  Margarita

Crab and Avocado Toasts – Gin and Tonic

Roasted Mushroom Tartines – Negroni

Sushi & Sashimi – Saketini or Lychee Martini

Lamb meatballs –  Mint julep

Turkey sliders – Cranberry Kiss or Cranberry & Whiskey Spritzer

BBQ steak – Old Fashioned

Chocolate cake – Black Russian or Espresso martini

Strawberries and cream – Aviation

A big thank you to Gary Mehigan for sharing his tips with us! If you live in Melbourne, make sure to check out Bombay Sapphire’s pop up bar  ‘Project Botanicals’ this month.


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