How to Craft Cocktails That Complement Your Food

The Cafe Calliope daiquiri at SoBou
The Cafe Calliope pairs the sweet heat of ancho chile and chocolate in Patrón's XO Cafe Incendio with rich, creamy condensed milk, and it goes perfectly alongside SoBou's churros. Photo: Sharon Pye.

Oenophiles and beer fanatics may object, but cocktails can also be enjoyed alongside a meal. However, it’s a complicated art to pair the two — cocktails, of course, require much of the same thoughtful preparation, flavor integration and forethought as the work of a chef. But even complex flavor profiles can play nicely together — teasing out subtleties and highlighting notes you otherwise might not have noticed.

For this year’s Daiquiri Season, New Orleans bartenders were assigned a spirit and challenged to create a Daiquiri spin-off with the designated spirit at the center of it. Some of these bartenders went a step further and created drinks that could be enjoyed alongside items on their food menu. Lauren Bellucci created a memorable spicy coffee Daiquiri to enjoy alongside churros served at her restaurant, SoBou. (Get the recipe for her drink, Cafe Calliope.) We talked with Bellucci about crafting cocktails to complement your food.

How do you approach creating a perfect cocktail-food pairing? (Walk us through your thought process.)

For this competition, I started with my spirit and just brain stormed what associations I had in my mind - and what would work. Sometimes I start with an ingredient like cinnamon or coffee and work outward. Then I talk to the chefs about what is possible. Sometimes something in the kitchen inspires me, and we work together with the same ingredient.

As bartender, do you work in tandem with the kitchen? What does that process look like?

I am lucky to have found a place like SoBou, where I am constantly involved with the amazing chefs and what they are working on. They help me with their boundless knowledge of technique, so I can achieve all of the wild culinary elements I dream up ... I'm always asking — is this possible? What is the best way to do this? They have so much experience that the answer is always yes. Sometimes when we all go out together, we find a flavor or ingredient we are interested in and develop from there. It's a dream come true for someone who loves to cook already. Brainstorming sessions with Juan Carlos and Tori are exciting and inspiring. Sometimes the kitchen needs ideas for which spirits would go best in a dish and I get to pay them back in that way. Right now we have a compressed watermelon served with anchovies, and we worked on it until we realized it would be even cooler to soak the fruit in a whole cocktail, so I made Hemingway Daiquiri.

Besides flavor profiles, what qualities do you find important in pairing food with mixed drinks?

I think the ideas behind it have to be compelling. For Daiquiri Season I wanted to do something like New Orleans plus Mexico, because my spirit was Patron Incendio. So I thought something like coffee and beignets, and chef was already doing these amazing churros ... So it was spicy coffee Daiquiris paired with cinnamon churros with a spicy dipping sauce. Texture is so important, and the crunchiness of the churros really offsets the sweetness of the [Daiqiri]. When the kitchen is doing something that is very complex, I like to do a simple cocktail that just highlights one flavor and makes it pop.

Do you have any tips or advice for bartenders who'd like to experiment with pairings?

I think the way to start is to talk to your kitchen, and come up with a flavor component or a spirit that you can both use. Then experiment, experiment, experiment! I think syrups, oleos and shrubs are another great angle to approach from, something both kitchen and bar can play around with.

What's your all-time favorite food and cocktail combination?

French 75 and raw oysters or Negronis with the Burrata bruschetta at Ancora.

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