For decades, wine has been presumed to be the beverage of choice for diners looking to complement their eating experience with perfectly suited notes and flavours. However, the world of food and drink matching has developed significantly over the past decade. The changing faces of this practice show that any establishment, from local cafes to high-end restaurants, can use this holistic approach to modern dining as a way of premiumising consumer experience.
"Big Hospitality claims that, with successful upselling, soft drink pairings could actually generate higher margins than alcohol."
The beginnings of beverage recommendations
As Serious Eats points out, flavour matching is not unique to food and drink - we think about pairing all the time:
“Let's say you have a brownie. It's deep and chocolaty and just a little sweet. You could put a scoop of ice cream on it, or a drizzle of hot fudge. You could add some berries, or a raspberry sauce, or a little salted caramel, or quite a few other delicious things. But would you add garlicky pesto? Would you add tomato-and-onion salsa? Would you add melted cheddar cheese? Probably not.”
The principle of food and drink pairing is that it’s important to consider whether the drink you’ve chosen to accompany your meal will make the food taste better, whether the food will improve the experience of the drink in turn, or whether instead the enjoyment of both will be diminished due to inappropriate choice of accompaniments.
According to Karen MacNeil’s book, The Wine Bible a founding principle of food and drink matching lies in the old adage, “white wine with fish; red wine with meat.” This slogan was premised on the idea that the body, or weight, of the wine should be matched to the weight of food. Meat was generally heavier and darker in colour so paired with red wines, and as fish was usually lighter in weight and colour, it was often paired with white wines. Many of the pairings of wine and food that are today considered to be ‘classics’ also originate from the centuries-old association between a region’s cuisine and their local wines.
Chef2Chef gives this brief overview of some of the most common food and wine pairings:
- Champagne – Salty foods – the light, sweet tastes of champagne balance out the salt.
- Pinot Grigio – Light fish dishes – Light wine complements, rather than overwhelms, fish.
- Chardonnay - Pasta – The crisp flavour of chardonnay is a versatile pairing.
- Pinot Noir – Earthy dishes – A light red with pairs well with robust flavours.
- Merlot – Beef and lamb – The deep red flavours of Merlot complement rich meats with complexity.
- Cabernet Sauvignon - Wild Game – A full-bodied wine which works well with rich flavours.
However, unique flavours are becoming increasingly popular in restaurants to accompany premium dishes. In 2012, Big Hospitality reported that spirits and cocktails were gaining popularity in restaurants who were capitalising on the high profit margins these drinks provide by upselling them as part of the dining experience.
Incorporating cocktails into a menu can provide a truly unusual edge to your restaurant’s offerings, however, it is important to remember that the cocktail shouldn’t overpower the food or detract attention from its flavours. Start with the tried-and-tested combinations, such as these pairings suggested by Big Hospitality:
- Grilled rib eye steak with aged Armagnac
- Smoked salmon with Scotch
- Thyme-smoked shoulder cut with an apple sour
- Roast duck with a citrus cocktail
- Roquefort or stilton with VSOP cognac
The rise of non-alcoholic drink matching
In a piece on the future of food and drink matching, The Telegraph claims:
“Juice pairings – non-alcoholic fruit, veg and other plant juices crafted to match the flavour profile of amuse bouche right through to pudding – is popping up as an alternative to wine matching in UK restaurants.”
The concept of pairing food with soft drinks was officially founded by Rene Redzepi at his restaurant Noma, in Denmark, where diners were served a careful blend of juice featuring flavours such as cucumber and whey, apple and pine shoot, sorrel, and nasturtium with his Michelin-starred tasting menu.
Non-alcoholic juices are increasingly becoming recourse for food and drinking pairing, partially due to the rise in people going alcohol-free and consumers’ awareness of the health benefits of natural, low-sugar alternatives. In fact, alcohol consumption outside of the home fell by 30 per cent between 2006 and 2011, according to The Guardian. However, this is not a matter of serving simple fruit juices – rather, consumers are seeking complex, aromatic flavours with herbal infusions and fresh ingredients perfectly crafted to complement the ingredients in their dish.
Jameel Lalani, founder of boutique tea company Lalani & Co, says that the fundamentals are the same as with alcohol: "You want to match intensity, strength, you either want to complement flavours or contrast.” However, there is space for experimentation, as “beyond the rules – like how you'd have a particular wine with a particular dish – it's largely a blank state."
In a poll by The Telegraph asking ‘would you pay for a juice pairing?’ 80 per cent of respondents said yes. And this is not just appealing for consumers: Big Hospitality claims that, with successful upselling, soft drink pairings could actually generate higher margins than alcohol. Licensees are demanding premium soft drinks to serve consumers looking for a premium experience where, if they wish to choose non-alcoholic beverages, these are provided not as an after-thought but instead as an integral feature of a superior dining experience.