By Liza Weisstuch

The cocktail conundrum

What happens when you get cocktails and food near perfection
As if the agnolotti wasn’t extraordinary enough; tiny parcels of braised rabbit and mushroom arranged on a plate with heirloom carrots and a painterly swath of earthy brown butter. But then came the pairing: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon mixed with Bonal Gentiane-Quina (a herbaceous aperitif), honey and cardamom served down a rock of crystal clear ice. The powerful, high-octane Bourbon cut through the fatty butter and the liquorice notes of the Bonal muscled through just enough to draw out the savoury, umami flavours of the mushrooms. It was symphonic.

The setting was the James Beard House in New York City’s West Village neighbourhood. The townhouse was once the residence of James Beard, the late iconic food writer and cookbook author often referred to as the ‘Dean of American Cookery.’ The Beard Foundation, his namesake nonprofit, supports and celebrates America’s culinary industry with educational programs, scholarships, dinners, and an annual awards event. (For a chef to win a James Beard Award is akin to a musician winning a Grammy or an actor winning an Oscar.) Today the House serves as a dining destination for special event meals prepared by invited chefs. To be asked to cook here is to know your place on the national radar is locked in. The five exquisite courses on this unseasonably warm September night were prepared by five young female chefs from Kentucky who’d been selected to participate in the LEE Initiative, which stands for ‘Let’s Empower Employees’ and is also the surname of its founder, the acclaimed chef Edward Lee, a New Yorker-turned-Kentuckian who runs several popular restaurants in Louisville.

That the meal was prepared by several chefs made it unique off the bat, but why all this talk about food and chefs in a column in a drinks magazine? What really piqued my interest about the dinner was that there was hardly any wine in sight. Lee had paired up with Maker’s Mark distillery diplomat Thomas Bolton to design cocktails to pair with each dish.

One of the key players on the push to make American single malt its own designation

I’ve heard people refer to food-cocktail pairings as sacrilege. (Cocktails are meant to be enjoyed as their own experience, they say. You’ll lose too much of its nuance if food gets involved.) I’ve heard people say they refer to them as dangerous. (You’ll get too drunk, they say.) I’ve heard people refer to it as absurd. But I can’t take anyone seriously who doesn’t have the capability to see absurdity as opportunity. After all, as Camus once noted, “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.”

In his own way, Beard was a maverick, a pioneer who became a veritable icon for his forward-thinking tendencies. Many of the ultra-creative chefs that cook at the House are mavericks, breaking boundaries and introducing new flavours and approaches and ideas and forgotten traditions to the world. Makes sense that this would be a place where cocktail pairings are introduced and presented so skilfully as to make it seem natural.

It’s been a long-time coming, but I am overjoyed that’s the way things are moving. Not two weeks before the LEE Initiative dinner I made my very first visit to the Beard House for a dinner prepared by the team at Hank’s Oyster Bar, a venerated seafood joint in Washington D.C. On hand for the drinks? Virginia Distillery Company, a small operation in the quaint, historic four-square-mile town of Lovingston, Virginia. It’s one of the key players in the push to make American single malt its own designation.

To be sure, with so many components to both meals and cocktail recipes, it takes dynamic thinking. Sometimes a cocktail needs to compliment the food on the plate, maybe even use the same ingredients, and sometimes it needs to contrast. Nevertheless, it’s a tendency that Bolton is seeing more and more of. “As a whole, consumers are embracing cocktail culture. And they’re embracing food pairings,” he said, noting regular drink on heavy rotation with him personally is a Manhattan he makes with Port wine and walnut bitters, a mix that plays well with a hearty steak. Sounds simple and intriguing enough that it just might catch on.