Cognac and côte de boeuf: spirit and food pairings to live by

Food and wine matching is familiar territory, but Joel Harrison argues that just as much joy can be found in pairing your dinner with the likes of Cognac, Tequila, pisco and whisky

Words by Joel Harrison

A glass of Cognac paired with steak

On a recent trip to France, after landing in Bordeaux I took a table for dinner in a small restaurant on the banks of the Garonne. I was expecting to be dazzled by some local Left Bank delicacies: wine, surely, would be the star of the show, given my surroundings. Instead, the meal opened with locally made gin, was steered towards Cognac for the main course and finished on a rhum from the French island of Martinique.

The latter was an excellent example of rhum agricole, which is often seen as an earthy and, dare I say it, challenging drink. But this one came to life when paired with a selection of French cheese.

It reminded me of a time when I was taken aback by an otherwise diffident natural wine, which awakened as soon as it was paired with food; it was a change as stark as Clark Kent into Superman. Suddenly, the wine went from dull and boring to superhero status.

Spirits can don a metaphorical cape as soon as food is involved

So too, spirits can don a metaphorical cape as soon as food is involved. Although spirits are often reserved for pre-dinner tipples or that post-dinner leather-armchair moment, they work just as well when upgraded from the role of the sidekick to the protagonist. In fact, I would argue that despite the wide spectrum of flavour, colour and texture delivered by wine, choosing a spirit to go with your food gives you better and broader options. Spirits can and should be a viable alternative to the liquid side of luncheon; the drinking aspect of dinner.

‘But spirits are far too strong for that’, I hear you cry. A fair point. Spirits were never designed to be quaffed in the same way that wines are. But there are options if you want to make it to the main course without passing out: the first is dilution. A great alternative to an aperitif of bubbly, for example, is a simple gin and tonic. Refreshing, light and sparkling, it ticks every box.

A G&T makes for a solid start to any meal, says Joel Harrison

When it comes to sitting down to the main event, where you might once have ordered a glass of crisp white wine with a starter, opt for a measure of pisco (the grape brandy from Peru and Chile), lengthened with chilled still water. If you dilute on a 2:1 ratio (two parts water to one part spirit) you’ll have a drink comparative in alcoholic content to a glass of wine with as much flavour to boot. I find it pairs incredibly well with a light salad or with fish.

What about an alternative to a good red wine? Of course, red wine can be Beaujolais-light or Barolo-heavy – but aged spirits can provide a similar range of depth. Take an añejo Tequila; packed full of earthy notes yet rounded out with between one and three years in oak, you’ll find a drink that delivers when paired with a dish like pulled pork. For something bolder, try a rich Cognac, where the texture, oak spices, and grape sweetness will work wonders with dishes more traditionally paired with reds on the bolder end of the spectrum, such as côte de boeuf.

Tequila and pulled pork tacos
Cognac paired with beef
Tequila's earthy notes and Congnac's complexity mean they marry well with dishes you might traditionally pair with red wine

As for dessert, our palates are geared up for something sweet and viscous. The world of spirits definitely doesn’t disappoint on this front. A good measure of Irish whiskey (something with a lighter vanilla note, such as Teeling’s Single Grain) chilled down in the freezer, works wonders in the same situation. It becomes thicker and richer, condensing the flavours into a wonderful accompaniment to anything sweet.

Of course, the art of matching food with flavours found in drinks is a real skill, the work of a sommelier. In my experience, the best ones not only understand the red, white and orange wines on their list, but also the spirits section, too. And the finest of their craft will understand that these distillates are not just reserved for pre- or post-prandial imbibing. Next time you are in a restaurant, ask the sommelier for a flight of spirits with your food and see what they come up with… go on, I dare you.

Glass of rum and chocolate
whisky paired with blue cheese
Spirits with a bit of sweetness like rum and whisky can also shine when it comes to dessert

And then, with the festive season screeching around the corner, I’m going to challenge you to look at foregoing your familiar favourite wines for spirits at the heavily laden Thanksgiving table or for your Christmas Day feast. You’ll likely find you drink less alcohol and discover bigger flavours by the glass – and there will be a real talking point at the table. Plus, it’ll give a whole new meaning to the term ‘festive spirit’.

What Joel has been drinking

  • One the world’s oldest Irish whiskey distilleries, Bushmills, has scoured its warehouses for its very best, oldest casks of mature whiskey. Released under the name The Causeway Collection, the latest limited-edition bottles include one distilled in 2000 and matured in a port cask and another from 1991, matured in a Madeira cask. It’s simply some of the finest Irish whiskey ever committed to bottle.
  • My advice for anyone honing their cocktail-making skills at home is to choose a different drink each month and make it at least twice a week. You’ll learn to perfect it, and even add your own twists. My cocktail of the month has been a Maple Syrup Old Fashioned. Simply put a teaspoon of maple syrup into a short glass, add 50ml of a good bourbon whiskey such as Michter’s Small Batch, top up with a teaspoon of water and stir down. Add in loads of ice. Keep stirring. Then add a maraschino cherry and teaspoon of the juice from the jar. Delicious and warming.
  • I won’t let the shorter days ruin my love of gin, especially now we’re edging into sloe gin season. Making sloe gin couldn’t be easier: pick them after the first frost (or before, then put them in the freezer). Chuck them in with some good, high-ABV gin and leave for about three months. I like to sweeten to taste after I’ve strained off the berries. If you can’t wait three months, crack open a bottle of Elephant Sloe Gin – my choice as the perfect replacement for London Dry in a Negroni.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.