By Elyse Glickman
From fine dining institutions to casual neighborhood bistros, wine pairing has become as familiar to the average American’s dining experience as salt and pepper. Selecting the right wine that accentuates the flavor profile of the dish it is paired with not only completes a dining experience, but also adds an extra dimension of enjoyment and enlightenment for the diner making a new food discovery.
Given the diversity of high-quality and ultra-premium spirits coming out of Mexico and Latin America, it’s surprising that pairing cocktails with Mexican and Latin cuisine hasn’t exploded in the same way. Nevertheless, spirit-food pairings are percolating on the restaurant scene.
Matchmaking “En Casa”
Beverage Director Colin Pflugradt of the recently opened SOL Cocina in Playa Vista says food and cocktail pairings lend themselves to the restaurant’s concept on many levels. Pflugradt works with SOL Cocina’s chef to develop a custom menu built around educating customers about what they are eating and drinking.
“We spend a fair amount of time touching on tequila and food pairings when we train staff,” says Pflugradt. “Just like wine, we pair blancos, reposados, and anejos with different dishes from the menu and then explain the reason for doing so.”
While it would seem logical to incorporate pairing suggestions right on the menu, Pflugradt says a dialogue between the servers, bartenders and customers is a more effective way to both educate and sell.
“We want our staff to have the knowledge of pairings, and know which anejo we can pair with dessert, which blancos go with what salad, and so on,” he continues. “Typically, I would pair a crisp, peppery blanco with a light, citrusy dressing or a salad with any kind of fruit. Reposados are pretty universal and can pair very nicely with most meats and even cheese. Anejos have a dominant oak flavor and a sweetness that pairs really well with desserts, and also maybe a fatty carnitas dish.”
SOL Cocina often invites mixologists and brand reps to participate in the tastings. After all, they know their own brands best, and can show staff and guests what each brand pairs well with. That is true not only for tequila but for mezcal, too.
“Mezcal is definitely the next big spirit and we are beginning to do a lot of mezcal business at SOL,” Pflugradt says. “Because of its smoky flavor profile, it is much more difficult to mix with and pair and may overpower many items if paired incorrectly. By the same token, however, it is a great way to introduce a scotch drinker to an agave spirit. Pineapple and mezcal are one of my favorite pairings right now—the smoke of the mezcal brings out really interesting things when paired with a charred or grilled pineapple. Spice, like jalapeño and serrano, seems to pair well with mezcal as well.”
Robert Day, corporate beverage director at Richard Sandoval Restaurants, says that the company’s modern approach to both cuisine and cocktail preparation lends itself to cocktail-food pairings.
The restaurants in Sandoval’s portfolio combine authentic Latin ingredients with international flavors and inventive techniques to create new and unexpected concepts and cuisines such as modern and coastal Mexican, Latin- Asian, Peruvian and Pan-Latin.
“There is such a great range of flavors with Latin spirits,” says Day. “From the sweetness of cachaça to the smokiness of mezcal, there is a vast variety of food-drink pairings that can be made. Our cocktail menus mirror the cuisine of the restaurant, which creates a great environ- ment for food pairing.”
Several Richard Sandoval restaurants offer a range of different Latin American and fusion cuisines, so customers are not only open to new dishes and drinks separately, but also to experimenting with different combinations, whether it is via a server recommendation or as part of a specialty chef tasting menu promotion that includes both wine and cocktail pairings, Day says.
“We are continuing to educate bartenders and servers of the origin of each spirit, and helping them understand how pairing can be a good sales tool, enhancing the experience for the guest,” says Day. “We have also started to talk with different companies about consumer spirits tastings on a weekly basis within all of our restaurants. We are also asking for literature on the products to continue staff and customer education.”
Cachaça, the distilled spirit made in Brazil from fresh sugar cane juice, is another Latin spirit perfect for food pairings thanks to Brazilian sugar cane’s complex flavor profile, which integrates elements from bananas, lime blossoms, red bell pepper, fresh cane, and sea salt, according to Luke McKinley, creative director of Novo Fogo Organic Cachaça.
McKinly acknowledges that food-cocktail pairings open many new doors for restaurants and for their patrons, who now have more opportunities than ever to experience new flavors.
“The possibilities are pretty limitless, and this is very exciting from our perspective,” he says. “There is patisserie in Seattle that occasionally makes delicious Caipirinha macarons with our Silver Cachaça, proving that the flavor of fresh sugarcane stands out just as well in pastries as in drinks.”
Elyse Glickman, el Restaurante’s bar columnist, is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work spans topics including wine and spirits and gastronomy. She served as a senior editor for C-Suite Quarterly (CSQ) magazine, covering food and travel.