How to Pair Cocktails and Food

Forget the wine, try cocktail pairings at your dinner party

Cocktails and Food


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The marriage between food and drink has long been used to make dinner a little more pleasurable. While it's common to think about pairing food with wine, that can be expanded to include cocktails, as well as beer. The right drink can enhance any meal, from a formal dinner party to a casual backyard barbecue.

There is a special knack for successful food and drink pairings. It can get complicated, especially when working with cocktails, because the flavors are more complex. However, the experience can be a lot of fun because the flavors are nearly endless and can produce fantastic results.

The key to a good cocktail pairing is to complement and contrast flavors without providing an exact match. You want a drink that naturally fits with the food, extends its principal flavors, and keeps your senses invigorated, anticipating the next bite or sip. There are far more choices with cocktails than there are with wine and beer; this opens up the pairing possibilities, but it can also make it difficult to know where to begin.

Classic Cocktail and Food Pairings

The easiest way to approach a pairing is to think through your taste buds. Consider the flavors that naturally complement a dish without overpowering or competing with the food.

For instance, raspberries are fantastic with chocolate, making the French martini a great choice for chocolate mousse. The cocktail also has a bit of pineapple, which adds a tart contrast to the sweet dessert. While it's tempting to shake up a chocolate martini for that same mousse, it would be too much chocolate. If each element has the exact same flavor profile, it takes away from the experience.

  • Gin's botanical profile is a fantastic choice for seafood and fish. Try a dry martini with grilled sea bass or oysters on the half shell. The gin and tonic is an excellent low-proof drink that works with nearly anything while doubling as a palate cleanser.
  • Whiskey is very versatile, and the various styles have their own potential. Try bourbon cocktails with any barbecue dish, a Manhattan with a perfectly cooked steak, or a Sazerac with a cheesecake dessert.
  • Vodka is neutral in flavor on its own, but vodka cocktails are the most diverse. Smoked fish is an excellent choice for a vodka soda, and caviar with a vodka martini is fabulous. The fruity vodka highballs are perfect for summer fare, while coffee-induced drinks like the white Russian are good matches for those chocolate desserts.
  • If you desire a wine pairing, wine cocktails can be a nice alternative. Even simple recipes like a white wine spritzer or a kir can add a special touch to a meal.
  • Look to aperitifs when putting together your appetizers. For instance, the Negroni is an ideal complement to a well-designed cheese platter.


Some of the best cocktails for food pairings include herbs, either from the liquor or as a fresh herb garnish. Sour drinks are also a tantalizing contrast to many dishes, and dry drinks will refresh the palate. Sweet cocktails can be too much in many cases, even for dessert.

Match Cuisine

You will rarely go wrong with pairing cuisine to the spirit's origin. A sake-based cocktail like the saketini, for instance, would be a nice fit for Japanese cuisine, including sushi. Likewise, look first to tequila with any Mexican-inspired meal and brandy with any French dishes. Serve mojitos with a salad topped with Jamaican jerk chicken.

Some of these—particularly brandy and tequila—may be best reserved for after dinner. Pour a nice cognac into a snifter or a sipper of añejo tequila to enjoy as the evening winds down and extend the joy of good food and drink.

Watch Alcohol Content

Cocktails can contain significantly more alcohol than beer and wine. If you're thinking about multi-course pairings, keep the servings small at around two to three ounces and sprinkle in some lower-proof drinks with a high concentration of nonalcoholic mixers. The table setting can also look less cluttered with petite old-fashioned glasses instead of stemware or tall glasses.

For a more subtle pairing scheme, mix beer, wine, and cocktails on the menu. For example, you may want to serve a nice aperitif cocktail with the appetizers and a refreshing beer with a course or two. Then, select a wine for your feature dish and go back to a delicious dessert cocktail to top off the evening.

Explore Silently

Your first cocktail dinner party can be intimidating. Rather than offering your guests a pairing that may or may not work, do some experimentation beforehand.

It's often best to attempt pairings on a small scale first. Come up with a cocktail to serve with dinner and see how you like it. If it doesn't work out, no one will know. Once you get a winning match, take notes, then share it next time you have friends, family, or colleagues over for dinner.

You can also use your restaurant dining experiences to experiment. You may not always get the hand-crafted cocktail experience you want, but it will give you an idea of tastes, flavors, and pairings. Browse a restaurant's cocktail menu, or ask your server what they would drink with the food or what the chef would recommend for a good pairing. Take this insight home to create your ideal pairing.

There are no right or wrong answers, though you will experience a few poor pairings along the way. The key is to experiment, learn from experience, and relish the adventure. After all, both food and drink are supposed to be enjoyable, so shake up a drink and see what happens!