As we have seen in previous parts of this feature, food and drink can be a marriage made in heaven for restaurants and pubs. But cocktails, apéritifs and spirits are not products that tend to be associated with food and they are rarely even advertised or upsold.
It comes as no surprise then, that the majority of operators will divert from pairing these drinks with food on menus. But that is not to say the two can’t or shouldn’t go together. In fact, with a little forethought and initiative, your business could capitalise on these high cash-margin drinks and drastically increase average spend per head.
The soon-to-open Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar in London’s Marriot Hotel County Hall will be doing exactly that. Aiming to bring a ‘quintessentially English drinking experience’ to South Bank, the venue features 39 English gins and six English vodkas as well as a selection of cocktails listed through the ages.
Bar manager Karina Elias, who helped design the menu, says: “The restaurant and bar at Gillray’s share the same ‘English’ ethos. The restaurant offers the best of English produce sourced from across England, and so does the bar.
“Wine is the immediate choice for diners, but it’s not the only drink that can complement a dish. Choosing to pair your meal with a cocktail, for example, can provide a very different taste experience.
“A cocktail shouldn’t overpower the food or detract your attention away from its flavour. It can also act as a great aperitif to a meal, opening up a customer’s palate to different flavours and textures. Our restaurant menu features a ‘Kick Start’ section, which recommends a selection of signature gin cocktails as the perfect start to a dining experience.”
A step further
The Ambrette restaurant, with sites in Margate and Rye, has taken things a step further. Inspired by a recent trip to Scotland, chef patron Dev Biswal is to serve up a special, seven-course sampling menu with matched whiskies next month.
“Each of the seven courses will be accompanied by a 25ml glass of whisky,” explains Biswal. “The idea is to not match something that is really strong or overpowering, with food that is strong or overpowering. It’s quite similar to wine matching in that aspect.
“Today, restaurants are more about the experience than just about food. You can start with an aperitif which is not too strong, then gradually take the strength up with spirits and cocktails throughout the meal, and then slowly bring things back down for desert.”
Not only will matching spirits or cocktails with food enhance a customer’s experience, it can provide a win-win situation for the restaurant and the drinks company.
So says Alexandre Quintin, UK ambassador for Rémy Martin - the brand has its own chef, working full-time to develop effective food pairing combinations and recipes. It also recently held a food matching dinner at Massimo's Restaurant & Oyster Bar to mark the release of the new expression of its VSOP Cognac.
“It’s important for us as a Cognac brand to encourage people to try their drinks in a different way, and food matching is an effective way of doing that,” says Quintin. “Everyone can benefit from matching spirits and cocktails with food; the consumer in terms of the experience; the restaurant because it is upselling the drink; and the drinks brand because we are putting ourselves forward and boosting our own sales.”
Training and preparation
So when it comes to spirits and cocktails, the marriage of kitchen and bar appears to be providing operators with an opportunity not to be missed. But it may not be right for your business. As Tom Forrest, senior wine and spirit expert at London tasting venue Vinopolis , warns, it can come at a cost and effective pairings can be hard to pull off.
“The main thing that puts people off about cocktails is that there is a lot of preparation involved,” he says. “Bar staff have to be trained to learn how to create and mix cocktails properly and equipment needs to be purchased – you can’t just suddenly decide that you are going to offer them.
“They are harder to match as well, as the flavours are multifaceted due to the different combinations of alcohol used. The main thing to remember is to try and match the types of flavours - martini’s go well with light and savoury foods such as olives because they balance out the bitterness of the drink.
“Spirits can be matched a lot more easily with food than cocktails as the flavours are less complex. There are some great classic combinations such as coastal whisky and oysters – the salt compliments the fishiness of the oysters – and artisan vodka with greasy Polish sausages.”
Top tips to successful spirits/cocktails and food matching:
- Keep it simple
Quintin from Rémy Martin: “Don’t try to do too much. We don’t normally do a whole cognac dinner from starter to dessert, because it would overwhelm the customer.” Forrest from Vinopolis added: “Don’t try and create huge cocktail menus - it’s about quality drinks and premium spirits rather than quantity.”
- Plan ahead
Forrest: “Decide how you are going to incorporate spirit and food matching into your business – is it going to be via tasting masterclasses, drink recommendations on the food menus or a dedicated tasting menu?”
- Practice makes perfect
Forrest: “Successful food and spirit matching is all about practice work out what works and what doesn’t.” Quentin added: “Don’t be scared to recommend something unusual, as long as you and your staff have tried it initially.”
- Be innovative and creative
Elias from Gillray’s: “Try something new that will challenge both your team and your customers. “There are new ingredients and techniques being introduced all the time; don’t be afraid to explore them.”
- Maintain brand identity
Elias: “be mindful of what your restaurant’s key selling points and offers are, and honour them. An integrated and consistent approach is vital.”
Five effective flavour combinations:
- Grilled rib eye steak with aged Armagnac
- Smoked salmon with Scotch whisky
- Thyme-smoked shoulder cut with an Apple Sour
- Roast duck with a citrus-based cocktail
- Roquefort or Stilton with VSOP cognac
Read all our articles on food and drink matching trends here