One of the hottest trends in restaurants today is matching spirits and food. Let’s understand that because they’re high in alcohol (usually 40 per cent or better), spirits cannot be consumed like wine or beer. We simply don’t drink them in the same volumes, and by writing this column, I am in no way suggesting you do so. They can certainly be diluted down with water, soda, or other liquids. The concept here is strictly from a taste perspective and matching ability.
Generally, try to match the character of the spirit to the character of the dish. Certain elements in both spirit and food will either pull them together or create interesting contrasts that compliment. Serve an aromatic spirit with an equally aromatic food. If a spirit is spicy, match it to food rich in spices. A delicate spirit will probably work best with a milder dish.
There’s no question that the most prominent taste of any spirit is the alcohol. Certain foods with a higher fat content like cold cuts, fried foods, rich desserts, chocolate or snack foods reduce this effect by coating the mouth. These tend to work best as a match. One of the most important things to consider when matching spirits and food is acidity. High acid foods clash with spirits, so best to avoid them in matches. Other elements to note include astringency, texture, saltiness and sweetness.
From my experience, brandy is one of the easiest spirits to match to food. Maybe the fact it’s derived from wine and/or grapes makes it so amenable – the wine-food affinity principle seems to translate to the spirit version nicely. Game birds seem to do an admirable job. Pheasant, squab or pigeon breasts wrapped in bacon and soaked brandy or Cognac are divine with a little to wash it down. Try roasted wild duck with any brandy, Armagnac or Cognac for a great taste sensation.
Mushroom-based dishes mesh beautifully as well. Any dish with truffles, such as stuffed portobello mushrooms or stew, will play a brandy like nobody’s business. If you like foie gras, then you’ll drool over a brandy chaser as the fattiness of the liver will be drastically tempered by the spirit. Certain seafood and fish such as sea bass and langoustines work magic with a grape-based spirit.
It also works well with some soups like squash, melon, and turtle. Check out a decent cut of beef (steak) with brandy and see how good it is. If you’ve not tried stinky cheese like Stilton or Rouquefort with brandy, then you’re missing out on a real treat. Also amazing with many desserts! Perhaps best of all is a high quality dark chocolate with aged brandy. You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Clear spirits also make great match-ups. The Russians perfected the art of serving vodka with caviar. Its oily character may even be a better match than Champagne! Alternately, give it a go with creamy pasta dishes. Pisco adds panache to any marinated fish dish, or check out gin with gamey paté, meat loaf or terrine. How about tequila with fried, sautéed or sauced fish? Tequila, aged in oak, will even do justice to a steak.
Let’s not forget Scotch. Have you tried it with smoked salmon? Fabulous! The Scots swear by it with haggis and it is known to cozy up nicely to crab, sushi, soups, goat cheese and even bread and butter pudding.
Bourbon lovers rejoice: some say it matches barbecue beef better than any other spirit.
You can always include some of the spirit in the production of the dish to ensure flavour affinity. Just remember to add it sparingly during the food prep, not just before serving – it would be too aggressive then. You want the alcohol to burn off, simply leaving behind its delicate flavour.
Spirits and food matching is indeed an exciting concept today. It’s surprising how many different flavours will actually work together. Often, the least likely match is the most exciting, so don’t be afraid to experiment, and please sip responsibly.
Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator and judge
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