Dare you pair your burgers with a Bourbon? Your sausages with a Scotch? Or your prawn cocktail with a gin?

Dare you pair your burgers with a Bourbon? Your sausages with a Scotch? Or your prawn cocktail with a gin?

Spirits and food matching is one of the hottest trends in restaurants right now and it's time the pub trade took it more seriously too.

The phenomenal rise of casual dining, the growth in barbecue or "smokehouse" cooking and the explosion of cocktails in the mainstream have all helped create an environment in which diners are more willing to accept the idea of drinking spirits with a meal.

"Spirits are incredibly versatile," says Katie Warren, group marketing manager at Cellar Trends. "People drink them neat, with mixers and in cocktails, which means we are seeing more opportunities to drink through the evening and match to different foods."

The company has been building on the classic caviar and vodka association for its Beluga Gold Line Vodka brand for some time but has more recently embarked on more innovative food pairings for its malt whisky portfolio.

"Scallywag Speyside Malt Whisky & dark chocolate make a great match; Rock Oyster Island Blended Malt Whisky with seafood, or Timorous Beastie Highland Malt & cheese are all great combinations," she explains.

"Where we see pubs and bars recommending spirits alongside food courses, customer spend can increase and the overall customer experience improve."

One of the catalysts for this boom in spirits and food matching has been the success of gourmet burgers and smokehouse-style barbecue restaurants, where the food lends itself to drinks other than wine.

At the casual dining chains Meat Liquor and Gourmet Burger Kitchen, diners have developed a taste for hard shakes — milkshakes spiked with spirits.

"Serving hard shakes adds theatre to a bar's offering, they are simple to create and bring the Americana, retro theme to the menu," says Florian Beuren, Jägermeister brand ambassador.

"There's so much experimentation when it comes to burgers, with venues introducing weird and wonderful creations to stand out from the crowd and catch the eye of consumers.

Jägermeister allows the experimentation to continue into the drinks menu as the herbal liqueur blends perfectly with vanilla, banana and salted caramel ice-creams, creating countless flavour combinations."

If you want to create a classic "Jägershake" yourself, try blending 35ml of Jägermeister with 25ml of milk, 25ml of cream and three scoops of vanilla ice-cream.

Other venues from which publicans can take inspiration include Sager & Wilde in London's hipster hotspot of Hackney, which offers cocktails such as the Olive Oil Old Fashioned, made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon that's been specially designed to be enjoyed with dishes on the menu; and The Punch Room at The Edition Hotel in London's West End, where afternoon tea has been translated into "Scandal water" where bowls of punch are matched with small treats.

Outside of London there's Almost Famous (with venues in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds). There are more mainstream examples too, for anyone looking for something more accessible.

"We are seeing some Italian food chains beginning to look at this, experimenting with lighter gin, elderflower and strawberry flavours especially as we come into the spring/summer period," says Andrew King, chief executive of cocktail mix brand Funkin.

"Caribbean food is also having something of a moment and we've seen a few of those chains experiment with rum, especially those with smokier notes, to go with some of their punchier dishes. Plus Mexican restaurants, which have been looking at this area for some time already, using tequila cocktails."

For anyone making a first foray into this space, matching a nation's food with its national spirit is a good place to start.

"There's definitely something to be said for provenance where the flavours complement each other," says Andrew.

"A margarita with a pasta dish, for example, probably wouldn't work because the flavours would compete too much. There's definitely a logic in matching tacos and tequila, or Caribbean curry and rum, and it's therefore a good starting point."

A drop with dessert

Alternatively, you could start at the end of the menu — puddings and cocktails are often an easy sell to sceptical customers.

"Dessert is a really good place to start offering this sort of thing," says Andrew, "Because there's a logic to it – people are already familiar with the idea of finishing a meal with a digestif.

"Use popular cocktails, such as an espresso martini, and match it with a coffee and/or chocolate-based pudding.

"We've seen a number of venues doing this and it works on a number of levels because the idea is being introduced in an accessible way."

Nidal Ramini, head of advocacy at Brown-Forman UK, points to London's Savoy Hotel as a "best in class" example of working with cocktails and desserts.

"They launched a 'Temptation Wheel' where a dessert is paired with a cocktail and a chocolate," he explains.

"It's given them a whole new revenue stream targeting a new type of diner: people who might want to eat at home but go out for dessert. It's a great idea and it's great to see outlets challenging the norm to provide their customers with exciting new occasions."

For those who are just starting on this journey, however, simpler options might be looking at citrus flavours, in cocktails such as sours for example, to accompany burgers and ribs, or offering whiskey straight-up to match with steaks, as Nidal explains: "If you are selling steaks, offering a flight of American whiskeys, where the styles and flavours are complemented, is a good place to start.

"Tennessee whiskey is rounder in style than Bourbon, while Bourbons have a big and bold flavour. It's about matching styles and flavour profiles with particular dishes, just thinking outside the box a little bit.

"Keep it simple — and don't try to sell cocktails that are too sweet to consumers during their meals. No one wants that."

In food rather than with food

If spirits with food is a step too far what about using spirits as an ingredient in dishes?

Bourbon brand Buffalo Trace worked with burger chain Honest Burger last autumn to create a limited edition Mad Men burger, created to celebrate the release of the final series of the hit TV show on DVD and Blu-Ray.

The bourbon was used in a special barbecue sauce in honour of the show's main character Don Draper, who was often shown drinking Bourbon on screen. Customers were also offered the change to pair the burger with a snifter of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, for the full Don Draper experience.

More than 10,000 of the burgers were sold, at £11.50 a pop, over the three-week

 

FOCUS ON INGREDIENTS

When creating cocktails to match with dishes think about incorporating ingredients from the dish in the drink

FOCUS ON NATIONALITY

Think about spirits from the country from which your dish originates as a good starting point for matches

DON'T OVER-COMPLICATE THE FLAVOURS

Often the best matches can come from pairing something simple with something more elaborate, having a complex cocktail and a complex dish can cause the two to combat, rather than complement, one

KEEP THEM SWEET

Dessert is a good place to start. Chocolate, coffee and cheese are good matches with a range of spirits and cocktails

MARKET YOUR MATCHES

No food menu should be without a drink suggestion and no drink menu without food matches

SPIKE YOUR RECIPES

Using spirits as an ingredient in dishes is also popular with punters. They make a simple and sexy addition to glazes, sauces and marinades