by Dale DeGroff
Matching food with spirits and cocktails seems like a new concept, but the truth is, it's been around for a long time. William Pokhlebkin in The History of Vodka describes the unique relationship vodka shared with Russian cuisine in the 18th century. Herb-infused vodkas were accompanied by zakuski, small dishes based on meat, fish, and grain, with the flavored vodkas. The vodka was a perfect foil for the salty, fatty zakuski.
Another culture that regularly partakes of spirits with their meals is China and Korea. Chinatown tables are often cluttered with bottles of Cognac and Scotch that are consumed throughout the meal. In Sweden and Finland it is common to see many courses washed down with flavored Akavit. And when was the last time you ate Mexican without drinking margaritas and tequila throughout the meal?
In the mid 1980's, when I was the head bartender at Joe Baum's Aurora Restaurant, I became interested in expanding my relationship with the kitchen, manned by talented chef Gerard Pangaud. I encouraged my bartenders to take a chef-like approach to creating drinks; to explore the ingredients, techniques, and recipes so that they would be able to reproduce the classics and also know how to create fresh and interesting new cocktails.
It was at Aurora that the first real interesting cocktail food match emerged for me; strips of seared fois gras coupled with a Blood and Sand Cocktail (equal parts Scotch, Cherry Heering sweet vermouth and orange juice). Soon after, I had a conversation with chef David Page of Home Restaurant in Manhattan, and we concluded that the city was ready for the Great American Cocktail dinner.
Years later, we began hosting cocktail dinners at Rainbow Room and they were a hit. Arnauld Briand was at the helm for our first cocktail dinner. We invited David Page to do the appetizer course and away we went. We began with semi-formal tastings in the chef's office matching cocktails with dishes off the menu.
Trends emerged in the matching; red meat dishes worked well with whiskey based drinks; game and foul matched well with cordial cocktails, fruit liqueurs mixed with brown spirits like brandy and whiskey. I searched the old cocktail books for Sherry-based cocktails to use with soup courses. Gin and vodka mixed with citrus in sour drinks accompanied shellfish and ceviche style appetizers nicely.
Delicate fish dishes were some of the hardest to match with cocktails. One such match emerged some years later at a cocktail dinner with Chef Andre Guerrero at Linq Restaurant in Los Angeles, a Mojito with a delicate seared scallop and mushroom dish. That first dinner was fun but only the Sazerac and David's Spicy Grilled Prawns with Andouille really worked as a match, the other matches were satisfactory at best.
Tips For Giving A Cocktail Dinner
Don't get too serious; it is a fun exercise matching classic and gourmet cocktails (cocktails with fresh and unusual ingredients) and creative small dishes.
Serve small cocktails in a three to four ounce cocktail glass.
Start small with a couple courses for friends over the bar before getting too ambitious with a six course meal.
Work with the chef to choose dishes with big bold flavors that will stand up to the spirits.
Learn how to batch up a cocktail for a large group; remember the cocktail must go down first and the food must follow immediately. Note: I shake twenty or thirty cocktails at a time in large gallon size store and pour containers with ice.
When matching a cocktail in a gallon size add the sweet and sour ingredients last in small increments, tasting often to achieve the proper balance.
Stop between courses to allow the chef and bartender to chat about why they choose the match. If the matches don't work for some diners be gracious and have wine available as an alternative.
Take a look at some of the matches that follow and try a few of your own. Remember cocktail dinners are not meant to usurp wine as a table beverage, they are just a fun way of taking the craft a bit farther and having some fun doing it.
(Served with a Thyme Roasted Rabbit Loin)
1 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
1/4 ounce Campari
1 ounce fresh orange juice
1 ounce Cointreau
In a mixer filled with ice add all the ingredients. Shake well; strain and serve in a double Chilled Martini glass. Garnish with a flamed orange zest.
(Served with Veal Loin with Sweetbread Ravioli)
1 oz. Anejo Rum
1/2 oz. Orange Curacao
1/4 oz. Maraschino Liqueur
3/4 oz. fresh Lime Juice
3/4 oz. Taylor Velvet Falernum
1 oz. Grapefruit Juice
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into an ice filled double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with lime.
(Served with Caramelized New England Diver Scallops)
2 oz. Gin
3/4 oz. Curacao
2 pieces of lime
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Muddle limes, Curacao, and bitters in the bottom of a mixing glass. Add gin and ice and shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime peel.
BLOOD AND SAND
(Served with Fois Gras)
3/4 oz. Scotch
3/4 oz. Cherry Heering
3/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth
1 oz. Orange Juice
Shake all ingredients well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel.
(Served with Chocolate soufflé)
(Created this for the James Beard House during the Olympics held in Barcelona)
3/4 ounce Spanish Brandy
3/4 ounce Dry Sack Sherry
3/4 ounce Orange Juice
3/4 ounce heavy cream
1 ounce simple syrup
float of Cointreau
Freeze in the blender but not too thick. Serve in a London Dock or Sherry style glass. Float some Cointreau on top and garnish with ground cinnamon.
As a leading authority and popular personality in the beverage world, Master Mixologist Dale DeGroff appears regularly in the press and on television. He is the author of "The Craft of the Cocktail" (Clarkson Potter). He offers "bartender boot camps" at bars in Manhattan and lectures throughout the U.S. and Europe. DeGroff is also the spokesperson for the Distilled Spirits Council in the United States. (more info at: www.Kingcocktail.com)
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