How to Pair Classic Cocktails with Food | Wine Enthusiast
Wine bottle illustration Displaying 0 results for
Suggested Searches
Articles & Content

What to Eat with Your Favorite Classic Cocktails

What would you reach for to accompany a meal of steak or fish? While wine might be the instinctual drink of choice, next time, consider classic cocktails. Yes, spirit-based libations can be complicated to pair with food because of their diverse ingredients and wide range of flavors. But those very same attributes give them more potential to enhance a meal in unexpected and exciting ways. 

Although cocktails can be more bitter, sweet and bracing than wine, the food pairing wisdom applies. However, there’s no rulebook, says Robert Elliot, beverage manager at Ocean Prime Beverly Hills. Just master what your palate craves and what works for you. 

Experimentation is the operative word here. “Food and beverage pairing is 90% art and 10% science,” Elliot says. “There are no hard ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s,’ but there are general guidelines on complementary flavors and composition.”

When making cocktail pairings, consider how acidity and fat balance one another, the spice level of your dish (alcohol fuels heat) and texture. According to Anthony Lygizos, sommelier and owner of Denver’s Leven Deli & Co, what works well together might not always be intuitive. For example, he sometimes pairs an acidic dish with an acidic cocktail in order to match strength. He also encourages exploring how prominent flavors in our food, such as citrus notes or herbaceousness, can tease subtler flavors out of cocktails.

Brandon Ristaino, beverage director and co-owner of Good Lion Hospitality in Santa Barbara, considers the classic pairing philosophy of “what grows together, goes together” when thinking about what to serve with food. “Spirits like rhum agricole or mezcal display terroir,” Ristano says. “Often a cuisine’s food and drink go well together.”

Our advice? Make a few of these classic cocktails and their accompanying dishes, and calibrate your choices accordingly. Once you’ve learned whether you prefer complementary, contrasting or similar flavors, you can fine-tune your pairings not just for individual dishes, but for a multi-course meal. 

The Best Pairing for an Old Fashioned: Steak

Steak and Old Fashioned
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

A California Cab and a steak are a famous couple, but try an Old Fashioned next time. The classic cocktail with a steak will transport you to a 19th-century chophouse—or a Mad Men–era power lunch. The sweetness from the Old Fashioned enhances the umami flavors of the meat, while the bitterness of the cocktail balances the smokiness of the char. Though the spirit-forward cocktail is versatile and balanced enough to accompany many cuisines, it really shines with a rich Wagyu, says Elliot. A fatty Japanese A5, lightly-seared for a minute or two, will make your Old Fashioned taste ethereal.

You May Also Like: A Starter Guide to Wagyu Beef

The Best Pairing for a Classic Martini: Oysters or Shellfish

Oysters and Martini
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

The spirit-driven martini—often enhanced with savory garnishes like olive brine, onions or capers—benefits from food in the same flavor family, advises Elliot. “Classic pairings like caviar, oysters and shellfish all have an inherent salinity from the ocean, which plays really well with a martini,” he says. Steamed mussels, grilled lobster tail, shrimp, crab, scallops and clams are all stellar options, too—especially when they’re seasoned simply with just white wine or butter. However, beware of too much heat: “If your dish has any spiciness, a martini will increase that perceived heat level, like adding gas to a fire,” Elliot warns. If you’re piling on the chili peppers, go for a sweeter cocktail.

You May Also Like: Easy Steamed Oysters on the Grill

The Best Pairing for a Whiskey Sour: Fish and Chips

Whiskey Sour and Fish and Chips
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

A whiskey sour is a complex, refreshing cocktail when made correctly (hold the sour mix and use fresh citrus, of course). Mac Gregory, vice president of food and beverage at Pacifica Hotels, believes there’s no better complement to a platter of perfectly crisp fish and chips. “I love this pairing because of its simplicity,” Gregory says. “There’s a tug and pull on the palate, with a significant sweet and savory balance.” After digging into hot, salty fish and fries, you might instinctually reach for a lemonade, but a whiskey sour one-ups that combo every time, providing the bright citrus notes with a sweet punch from bourbon. Temperatures matter, too, says Gregory, who believes a piping-hot dish deserves a frosty cocktail. 

You May Also Like: Guinness-battered Fish and Chips Recipe

The Best Pairing for a Negroni: Italian Small Bites (Cicchetti)

Cicchetti and Negroni
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

It’s easy to make a Negroni at home, with its recipe of equal thirds of gin, Campari and vermouth. The pleasing sipper is ideal for unwinding from a long day over a spread of cicchetti, or Italian bar snacks. “The first few sips of a Negroni are super strong, but the intent is to slow down and have a long antipasti,” Ristaino says. “Served properly over one giant hunk of ice, it will mellow out over time.” 

Historically a Venetian snack, cicchetti are Italy’s version of tapas. Blanket a charcuterie board with a plate of fine Italian olives (Castelvetranos are a crowd-pleaser), a tin of marinated anchovies or sardines, fried meatballs, crostini smeared with goat cheese, pickled veggies and cheese and cured meats from your local Italian deli. To level up, add calamari or octopus into the mix. Ristaino says seafood cicchetti, in particular, pair well with the strong juniper flavors that are the backbone of the Negroni. 

You May Also Like: Want to Drink Like an Italian? Order a Negroni.

Overall, the flavors meld together well and the bitterness of the Negroni acts as a palate cleanser, Ristaino says, but stick to it as an aperitivo and avoid the Negroni at entree or after-dinner courses. 

The Best Pairing for a Manhattan: Roast Chicken or Pork

Manhattan and Roast Chicken
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

A Manhattan can be overwhelming at first taste, with its strong, bitter and herbal profile, plus pepperiness from the rye whiskey. A neutral meat that’s savory and fatty, like a chicken thigh or a porchetta, pairs well with the Manhattan, according to Elliot. The cocktail’s booziness complements the fat while its bitterness cleanses the palate. When pairing, pay attention to the drink’s subtle fruit undertones courtesy of the vermouth, says Elliot. The spirit brings out specific flavors in marinades, like citrus.

You May Also Like: The Classic Manhattan Cocktail Is Iconic for a Reason

The Best Pairing for a Hemingway Daiquiri: Swordfish Steak

Daiquiri Swordfish
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

The Hemingway daiquiri is a Cuban legend that owes its invention to the sugar-phobic (and liquor-loving) Ernest Hemingway. But the version we know today channels a touch of sweetness through maraschino liqueur and ruby red grapefruit juice, plus white rum—all of which pairs well with seafood. “Drinking rum based cocktails always transports me to the Caribbean, and then I naturally start craving seafood,” Lygizos says. Catch those Havana breezes by pairing this rummy cocktail with grilled swordfish steaks, which Lygizos marinates with salt and pepper, grills and garnishes with fresh lime. The light grapefruit of the Hemingway adds bright acidity to the cocktail, which pairs well with grilled fish, while the fresh lime juice in the cocktail parallels the swordfish recipe. “Though the Hemingway is a strong cocktail in abv, it’s light in flavor and texture, much like the body of grilled swordfish; thus, it won’t be overpowering and will balance the body in the dish.”

The Best Pairing for a Pimm’s Cup: Spring Vegetable Quiche

Pimms Cup and Quiche
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

There are few sips more satisfying on a hot day than a fizzy, fruity Pimm’s Cup. It’s no wonder that this combo of botanicals and fresh fruit is dispensed by the gallons at Wimbledon each year. Lygizos suggests pairing it with a spring vegetable quiche, since the low-abv drink is ideal for brunch and won’t overpower a delicate dish. “The fruity and herbal accents of the Pimm’s Cup complement a savory quiche so invitingly,” Lygizos says. “Spritzy cocktails go well with souffle textures.” Plus, the light effervescence is a cleanser to prepare you for your next bite, and the fruit balances the veggies and enlivens the palate.

The Best Pairing for a Mint Julep: Roast Lamb

Mint Julep Roast Lamb
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

A mint julep isn’t just for the Kentucky derby. Made well, this is a wonderful cocktail for home dining. Roast lamb and mint are a tried-and-true British culinary combo, with the latter often served as an accompanying sauce, chutney or jelly. Opposites are at play, says Gregory. Fragrant mint awakens senses and makes lamb taste even more succulent since its herbaceousness cuts through the richness of the gamey meat. “The sweet of the mint is a perfect complement to the savory sear of the lamb,” he says. Instead of a large rack of lamb, Gregory recommends something more delicate: try some lamb lollipops, like the ones Chef Garee Battad whips up at the Marina del Rey Hotel, by searing them enough to seal in the fat and flavor. Dial up your julep with mint bitters in addition to mint leaves. 

You May Also Like: The Low-Proof Mint Julep Recipe

The Best Pairing for a Tom Collins: Caesar Salad

Tom Collins Caesar Salad
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

A Tom Collins is invigorating, with a whisper of sweetness. It deserves a lighthearted mate that still offers substance, like a richly fulfilling Caesar salad. Lygizos loves that the Tom Collins’s gin botanicals and lemon juice shine against the salad’s anchovy and lemon. “The bubbly effervescence of the sparkling cocktail will cut right through the creaminess of the Caesar dressing, which provides an amazing textural contrast,” he says. Try it with other appetizers or an early salad course before entrees are served.  

The Best Pairing for a Sazerac: Duck Confit or Gumbo

Sazerac and Gumbo
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

The Sazerac holds a special place in New Orleans lore. Though it was originally made with French Cognac, bartenders later turned to rye whiskey; Ristaino doctors his Sazerac with half Cognac and half rye whiskey. Because of its relative neutrality in terms of sweetness and temperature, Ristaino treats his Sazerac as an entree cocktail rather than drinking it with an appetizer or dessert. His favorite pairings include classic French duck confit or Creole or Cajun gumbo or etouffee, but ultimately, any gamey meat like venison, duck or lamb could work. This cocktail will clean the palate thanks to the Cognac’s restrained notes of baking spices, stewed stone fruits and nuttiness, while rye brings a pleasant complementary spiciness. The anisey flavors of the absinthe wash and Peychaud’s bitters bring aromatic notes to mild meats.

The Best Pairing for a Gin and Tonic: English Tea Sandwiches and Savory Pastries

Gin and Tonic Tea Sandwiches
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

A classic gin and tonic is best served with a traditional English tea service. Think cucumber sandwiches with cream cheese and smoked salmon, quiches, and vegetable tarts. The cocktail’s floral aromas, courtesy of juniper in the gin, enhance the herbal flavors, while the bitter effervescence of the tonic cuts through the richer elements like the cream cheese. If you want to pair by mood, not just by food, “this pairing makes you feel like you’re at an English garden party, and it’s perfect for the late morning or early afternoon brunch on the weekends,” Ristaino says. He also recommends a seafood tower as a second option for a pairing.

The Best Pairing for a Last Word: Chicken Al Pastor Tacos

Last Word Cocktail with Chicken Al Pastor Tacos
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

We already know how to pair wine and tacos. To shake things up, try a Last Word, which Lygizos prefers with chicken (not pork) al pastor tacos. “Sweet and spicy are fun contrasting flavors,” the sommelier says. “The sweet in the beverage will cool your mouth off after a spicy bite of al pastor.” On top of that, he likes how the acidity in the Last Word lends itself nicely to Mexican cuisine. “After a spicy bite of tacos, a sip of your Last Word plays like a squeeze of fresh lime juice on the tacos,” he says.

Vanity Cocktail Glasses

New Arrival

Vanity Unbreakable Signature Cocktail Glass – Set of 2

In Stock | $41.00