Perfect Pairings

Why cocktails might just make a better partner for food than wine

Vancouver Cocktail Week opened with a perfectly paired brunch at Botanist Restaurant. Here an egg yolk raviolo and crisp serrano ham partner with a cocktail of gin, citrus and a green tea ginger cordial. Jana Bizzarri photo

Move over Pinot, Tempranillo and Albariño. Wine pairings are fine, but cocktails are increasingly gaining recognition for the role they can play in taking a dining experience to the next level.

The growing trend was on full, tantalizing display during Vancouver Cocktail Week 2022, with cocktail-paired brunches and dinners at spots like Botanist, Tableau Bar Bistro and Carlino proving to be particularly popular. 

Straight and Marrow was among the establishments that showed just how well cocktail pairings can work; one of the matchups on its VCW menu consisted of ham croquettes paired with a Nouveau Melon Fizz, evoking the classic combination of prosciutto and melon. Owner Chris Lam says what makes this movement particularly exciting is that the possibilities are limitless. 

“You can make almost endless combinations of drinks to pair with food that you couldn’t necessarily get from wines,” Lam says. “Our core belief is in the balance of flavours. I believe that conventional ideas on pairings are antiquated and outdated. There should be no limits to how food and drinks are paired, and we can explore that greater with cocktails than we can with wine. This is especially true as there are no preconceived notions of things that don’t work, such as red wine with fish.”

Over at Botanist, head bartender Jeff Savage has created a VIP Cocktail Tasting experience, an ever-changing six-course cocktail-paired meal. Savage takes the lead here, crafting story-inspired cocktails that he then presents to executive chef Hector Laguna, who, along with his team, comes up with dishes to augment the drink’s flavours. 

For instance, to pair with a Piña Colada-like cocktail—made with pineapple-husk-infused Jamaican rum, coconut-infused vodka, dry Curaçao, ginger, lime, sencha tea, oleo saccharum and clarified milk—Laguna concocted a texturally playful dessert of calamansi sorbet and passionfruit cream with coconut meringue, pineapple and mango.

Making thoughtful, deliberate choices when it comes to pairing the right cocktail with the right dish is the very backbone of how things work at Laowai, the Prohibition-inspired, Shanghai-influenced hidden bar at the back of Chinatown’s Blnd Tger dumpling bar. (Want in? Order the Number 7.)

“[Bartender] Alex [Black] and I have the same viewpoint that you can’t have a good cocktail program unless you have something to pair with it,” says Laowai founder Lewis Hart. 

Consider the Absence of Confusion cocktail, made with tonka-bean-infused Angel’s Envy bourbon, housemade bitters and a “Thyme is Money” oleo saccharum. The team suggests pairing that little number with red braised pork, which is made with the tonka-bean-infused bourbon. “That whisky-and-pork pairing has always worked well, and the pork will enhance the flavour of that cocktail,” Hart says.

Cocktail pairings are also cropping up at the new Sunday dinner series at The Gull in North Vancouver. Each dish on the monthly multi-course menu curated by executive chef Colin Vyner is paired with a beverage, and, just like wine, the cocktails have a way of lifting the tastes of what’s on the plate. 

Take the May menu, which started with English Pea and Ricotta Toast (fresh focaccia with crushed peas, mint, ricotta and garlic oil). The Gull’s general manager, Phil Tapping, created a Cucumber Mint French 75 to complement it. “I find the citrus, cucumber and mint pair up beautifully with the components of the dish, and the bubbles in the sparkling [wine] mingle with the airiness of the dish perfectly,” Tapping says. “You wouldn’t put a dark spirit with that as it would completely overpower everything on the plate.”

He adds: “I usually work with flavours that would accompany and enhance the food and never overpower the food. If the dish is light, I would usually pair it up with a clear spirit like gin or vodka, and if the dish is heavier, I would lean to darker aged spirits. 

“You assess the dish and try to pair it with similar flavour profiles and what would match or balance out some of the flavours. The key is to match the flavour profiles and have them sing together and work in harmony. I try to not overthink it all and just play with the flavours and match them up without using too many ingredients that would overpower any dish.”

At Ophelia Kitchen and its recently opened sister restaurant, Monarca Cocina Mexicana, beverage director Tim Cole loves adding layers of complexity and vibrancy to the bold and distinct flavours of chef Francisco Higareda’s Mexican-influenced cuisine. 

At Monarca, for instance, Cole pairs Let Me Down Easy, a mango, rose and coconut Margarita, with cheesy prawn tacos. The mango and coconut elevate and complement the shrimp; the acid of fresh lime cuts through fatty Oaxacan cheese; and reposado tequila provides the backbone of the drink and ties all the flavours together. 

“For something a little wilder,” he pairs a mule-like cocktail called El Burro, made with rhubarb and sotol, a sprit distilled from an agave-like plant, with beef tenderloin, corn esquites and raspberry mole. “The herbaceous, corn-husk notes of the sotol complement the beef and esquites, and the rhubarb ties in with the more subtle raspberry notes,” Cole says. “The key, however, is the ginger beer, which serves as a sparkling wine would in cleaning the palate of the rich, chocolatey mole and allowing you to experience all the flavours fully. It’s out there but it’s delicious.”

He generally advises against pairing high alcohol and spicy food. That said, at Ophelia, he partners a chocolate-and-añejo tequila Old Fashioned with spicy mushroom tacos. “We get away with heat on heat because of the tempering sweetness of piloncillo in what is definitely a sweeter style Old Fashioned,” he says. “The spicy almond sauce works beautifully with the tertiary, nutty characteristics of añejo tequila, and the chocolate is delicious with the earthiness of guajillo peppers and mushroom.”

Those are not flavours you are likely to find in wine, which is why cocktails can be an even better pairing choice, and one more and more people are discovering.

As Laowai’s Hart says: “I think we’re going to see more of this, that it’s not just salted nuts, but a recommendation of food to go with the cocktails, so it’s a little bit above and beyond.” After all, he adds, “Bartenders are starting to be taken as seriously as chefs and know how to work with flavours.” 

Try these cocktails with their recommended food pairings:

• Tableau’s Citadelle Gibson, paired with raw or lightly cured seafood

• The Gull’s Mint Cucumber French 75, paired with fresh spring greens

• Ophelia Kitchen’s Smuggler’s Sour, paired with prawn or fish tacos

• Laowai’s Behind Blue Eyes, paired with Asian-flavoured pork dishes

Read our tips for pairing cocktails with food here.

—by YVR Barfly

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