Plymouth pilgrims didn’t drink pumpkin martinis, as far as we know. But that doesn’t mean you can’t break with tradition and pair liquor with the food on the Thanksgiving table.
Though wine is the conventional go-to beverage when pairing food and drink, spirits and cocktails can make for some interesting match-ups and add a little novelty to the menu.
Even Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of the just-released “Food Lover’s Guide to Wine,” love to pair cocktails with food from time to time, especially this time of year.
“One of our favorite combinations of the season is an apple cider martini (made with cider, apple puree and vodka, rimmed with melted caramel and crushed peanuts) served with dishes made with pumpkin or winter squash – from pumpkin ravioli or risotto to butternut squash soup. The flavors meld beautifully, and scream ‘Fall!’” say Dornenburg and Page.
They also like chocolate and banana as a cold-weather dessert combination and vote for a banana cake served with a chocolate decadence martini (made with vodka plus white and dark chocolate liqueurs, and which also can also be rimmed with crushed peanuts or walnuts).
Liquor doesn’t come with built-in guidelines like the white-wine-with-chicken mantra (though that rule gets broken successfully quite often these days). But the basics of pairing are the same – look for flavors in the drink that will either complement or nicely contrast the food being served.
“Food lovers too often forget that the flavors on their plate are strongly influenced by the flavors in their accompanying glass. Instead of taking the risk of having them clash, it’s important to think about their flavor compatibility and ensure that each is enhancing the other,” say Dornenburg and Page.
Stephen Wilson, master of whisky for Johnnie Walker, considers whiskeys “the wines of the spirit world,” because there are so many different types and styles.
“You have all these amazing flavors.”
A practical note on pairing spirits and food: Liquor is typically 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume, compared with wines, which are typically 13 to 15 percent alcohol by volume, less for some wines, such as riesling. When putting together a whiskey pairing for dinner, Wilson makes the pours small, around a half-ounce, and puts plenty of water and other beverage options out. Another idea is to make a cocktail – for instance, whiskey mixed with ginger beer – that complements typical fall flavors such as sweet potatoes.
In the world of Scotch whisky, there are single malts, which are distilled from 100 percent malted barley and have distinctive flavor profiles, and blends, which are a combination of several single malt and grain whiskeys. Scotch whisky has to be aged a minimum of three years (and often much longer), with 12 and 18 years common for premium blends. Johnnie Walker scotch is aged in American oak barrels that have been previously used for bourbon and European oak barrels that have been used for sherry.
As the whiskey matures, it will start to take on more character of the cask it is in and will mellow slightly. The oak adds color to the whiskey and brings flavors – for instance, vanilla and honey – from American oak. European oak previously used for sherry adds rich fruit and spice. At 18 years and beyond, a creaminess begins to develop, which can complement sweeter food. Wilson likes to keep Johnnie Walker’s 18-year-old version, Gold Label, in the freezer, which amplifies the creaminess and brings out honey and raisin notes, and serve it in chilled glasses with desserts such as apple pie or pumpkin pie.
Looking for another way to celebrate the spirit of Thanksgiving? Wild Turkey bourbon, a uniquely American product, is one way to go.
The Pass the Turkey cocktail created by master sommelier Fred Dexheimer mixes 1.5 ounces Wild Turkey 101 with 2 ounces apple cider, 1 tablespoon cranberry jelly, a sprig of fresh sage and another of thyme. To make, muddle the sage and thyme with the cider; add ice, top with the bourbon and jelly. Then shake, strain and serve in a glass rimmed with turkey jus and breadcrumbs.