14 Underrated Food And Cocktail Pairings That Just Make Sense

While there's always plenty of discussion about pairing food and wine, cocktail pairings are often overlooked. It may be that the idea of matching cocktails is daunting, considering the huge variety of bold flavors that can appear in a single drink, but the truth is that pairing is relatively straightforward if you know the basic principles and aren't afraid to experiment a little.

At its core, food and cocktail pairing is no different to making cocktails — we're trying to find balance. We can do this by matching flavors that complement each other, but we can also achieve tasty results by pairing ones that contrast. For example, sweetness balances out savory flavors while salt can reduce bitterness, and acidity can cut through richer and fattier foods. 

Some dishes and cocktails may share ingredients that tie them together, and you'll likely find pairing items within the same cuisine works more often than not. It's also important to remember how critical texture and mouthfeel are when we eat and drink, and these also need to be factored in when pairing. With these principles in mind, below is a list of our favorite food and cocktail pairings that are easy to overlook, but once you've tried them, you'll never go back.

1. Old Fashioned and charcuterie

The classic Old Fashioned is a relatively straightforward drink to make and master, consisting only of bourbon whiskey, sugar, and a few dashes of Angostura bitters stirred over ice with a twist of orange peel. Despite its simplicity, the Old Fashioned is a spirit-forward cocktail, so it helps to pair it with food that can temper the heat of the whiskey to let the key flavors shine through.

Fattier foods, like charcuterie meat, are great at reducing alcohol burn because the fat coats the tongue and inside of the mouth and reduces the heat. This makes it easier to savor the flavors, as the rich caramel notes of the bourbon complement the meat. While some charcuterie boards feature cooked meats, cold cuts are more prominent, and their lighter taste pairs superbly with the bittersweet Old Fashioned and the citrus element of the orange peel garnish. Smokier, oakier bourbons are excellent for pairing with most meats, and if — like us — you add cheeses to your charcuterie board, whiskey-based drinks will pair wonderfully with these as well, especially semi-hard cheeses like mature cheddar or Emmental.

2. Dirty gin martini and oysters

Many would consider dirty gin martinis and oysters to be acquired tastes thanks to their bold flavors. However, if you like intense flavor pairings, the two go together superbly.

First, you've got the salinity of the martini's olive brine that builds on the ocean-like flavor of the oysters — if the salt is too overwhelming, a squeeze of lemon on the oyster will reduce the saltiness and instead bring out the subtle sweetness of the raw seafood. While gin and oysters can both vary in flavor, gin's ever-present herbaceousness complements pretty much every variety of oysters, whether they're earthy, floral, buttery, or briny.

The final ingredient in a gin martini — dry vermouth — also pairs well with the oyster flavors, but if you prefer your martinis on the dry side, the brinier the oyster, the better. Lastly, the crisp, refreshing profile of the martini works as a palate cleanser between each oyster, ideal if you like to garnish your oysters with strong condiments, or if the oysters are an appetizer before your main meal.

3. Moscow Mule and pad Thai

The zesty and effervescent Moscow Mule can be a tricky cocktail to pair with food, thanks to its prominent ginger and lime characteristics, but the key is finding a dish that shares these core components. Fortunately, there are cuisines that heavily feature these two ingredients, and Thai food in particular is an ideal match.

The Moscow Mule's ginger beer complements the prominent ginger in a pad Thai, while the citrus from the lime pairs with the same ingredient in the noodle dish. The acidic citrus also cuts through the Pad Thai's sweeter flavors that are usually derived from the added palm sugar and tamarind sauce.

For those who like their Thai food traditionally spicy, the fizziness of the ginger beer provides a refreshing contrast to the chili heat of a pad Thai, cooling down your mouth between each bite. Ultimately, pairing a Moscow Mule with pad Thai results in a balanced culinary experience that fuses the sweet, sour, and spicy elements of each by cleverly making the most of both contrasting and complementary flavors.

4. Negroni and aged cheese

The Negroni is another beloved classic that's infamous for its intense flavors — flavors that can be off-putting for some first-timers. Consisting of equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, it's a cocktail whose ingredients all pack particularly strong punches.

While gin and sweet vermouth are both known for their highly botanical profiles that can verge on pungent, Campari is renowned for its extreme bitterness. Together, these three rich and powerful ingredients result in a drink that many say changes sip by sip, each one getting time to shine. This means we need to pair the Negroni with something equally robust so that neither the food nor the drink's flavors get lost.

Strong, aged cheeses are an excellent match for the Negroni, and given the cocktails' prominent bitterness, it's best to pick those with contrasting sweet or salty characteristics. Blue cheeses like Gorgonzola or Roquefort are excellent picks, while saltier cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino also match fantastically. If you're not a fan of super strong cheeses, you can always opt for a sweeter, nuttier gouda or comté that will lower the intensity of the Negroni's bitter Campari element, or a sharp and earthy aged cheddar.

5. French 75 and smoked salmon

While the French 75 purportedly got its name from having a kick like a 75mm French artillery cannon, the truth is that it's actually a pretty delicate and refreshing cocktail despite its strength. As such, it's a beverage that pairs best with food that's also light yet still flavorful.

A sparkling blend of gin, lemon juice, sugar syrup, and champagne, the French 75 is crisp, dry, and herbaceous, and it pairs superbly with smoked salmon, especially smoked salmon canapés with cream cheese. The salmon's smokiness contrasts with the cocktail's lighter flavors, while lemon juice is always a stellar accompaniment to fish and most soft cheeses. The citrus also works extremely well with the salmon's clean and briny essence.

While the effervescence of the champagne cleanses the palate between each bite, it completely juxtaposes the salmon's silky smooth texture – and the cream cheese if you're going for the canapés — adding an extra dimension to the mouthfeel. Both the French 75 and the salmon manage to be powerful while retaining their elegance, making them ideal partners for pairing.

6. Manhattan and steak

Technically speaking, the Manhattan is a pretty simple cocktail, consisting of only rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of Angostura bitters. However, despite its short ingredients list, it's a rich and complex cocktail that can easily overpower delicate dishes.

The robust Manhattan has sweet notes that contrast superbly with the savory, seared crust of a perfectly cooked steak. Ultimately, the cut of the steak doesn't matter as long as it's of relatively high quality and cooked to medium rare or lower to maximize the meaty umami flavors. The caramel, oak, and spice of the rye whiskey also complement the cooked meat characteristics, especially if you're able to imbue your steak with a nice smoky char by cooking it on the grill.

If you overcook the steak, the flavors of the cocktail likely won't balance as well, especially as most of the delicious juices will have been cooked out of the meat. The meat will become tougher and less pleasant to eat, and it won't pair as well with Manhattan's velvety mouthfeel. Lastly, as we mentioned earlier with the Old Fashioned, going for a fattier steak will not only result in a tastier meal but will also reduce the alcohol intensity of the boozy cocktail.

7. White Russian and tiramisu

When it comes to dessert-like cocktails, it's possible to go one of two ways – to lean into the decadence and pair them with equally sweet and creamy desserts or go for a contrasting approach and pick something savory instead. Although the White Russian can definitely be matched with savory dishes – especially rich dishes or those with a spicy kick — it's hard to choose a better partner than the classic Italian after-dinner treat, tiramisu.

In many ways, the White Russian is the cocktail equivalent of tiramisu, matching a drink of vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream with a dessert that consists of creamy mascarpone, espresso and rum-dipped sponge fingers, and chocolate. In a true like-for-like pairing, every flavor and texture has a near-identical counterpart to play with and elevate.

The sweet and airy tiramisu harmonizes with the creamy cocktail, and while the coffee elements of each may sound excessive in combination, the sugar and cream prevent them from tasting too bitter without compromising the coffee flavor. We also recommend using a tiramisu recipe that calls for a pinch of salt – many omit this step, but we find it also helps reduce the bitterness of the coffee while enhancing the flavors of the other ingredients.

8. Margarita and sushi

Although margaritas are most commonly paired with Mexican food, sticking to a shared cuisine, it's definitely worth being a little more creative with your matching. Interestingly, the Margarita goes perfectly with fresh sushi, resulting in a fusion of both complementary and contrasting flavors.

With its zesty and refreshing blend of tequila, orange liqueur, sugar syrup, and fresh lime juice, the margarita's citrusy, tart profile cuts through sushi's delicate fish flavors with ease. It elevates pretty much every type of sushi fish, like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and eel, and it also plays off sweeter ingredients like crab or avocado. Additionally, in the same way that soy sauce helps bring out sushi's natural flavors, the moderately acidic margarita with its salted rim has the same effect when the two are paired together.

Lastly, the bright and grassy agave profile of the tequila acts as an ideal palate cleanser, doing the same job as pickled ginger in terms of resetting your taste buds in preparation for your next bite and allowing you to switch seamlessly between different varieties of sashimi, nigiri, onigiri or rolls without muddying the flavors.

9. Mojito and jerk chicken

Mojitos are excellent cocktails for pairing with food, as they're light and approachable with fresh flavors that complement dishes without overpowering them. Consisting of white rum, fresh mint and lime, sugar syrup, and soda water, mojitos are the ideal accompaniment to authentic Jamaican-style jerk chicken dishes.

First, the sugar, mint, and lime go a long way to tempering the heat of the fiery Scotch bonnet peppers in the jerk spice mix. The herbaceous quality of mojitos also interplays with the rest of the spices, predominantly thyme and allspice. Interestingly, the soda water itself affects how we perceive certain flavors, due to the carbolic acid that's formed when carbon dioxide is dissolved in the water. The acid itself imparts a pleasant tartness, while also cutting through the richness of fattier pieces of chicken, like wings and thighs, and enhancing our perception of sweetness in food, which helps balance the chili heat.

Like the margarita, all of these qualities make mojitos a great palate cleanser, especially when served ice cold, so they're a great way to refresh your mouth between bites and courses.

10. Bloody Mary and pepperoni pizza

The extremely savory nature of a Bloody Mary means it's frequently paired with a range of foods, particularly brunch dishes, but that doesn't mean every combination works. It's pretty common for bars and restaurants to get experimental with Bloody Mary garnishes, adorning the cocktail with everything from lobster tails to cheeseburgers, and while some of these additions work well, others can be a little gimmicky without much consideration for the flavors.

There are plenty of food pairings that do work well with a Bloody Mary, but the humble pepperoni pizza is one that everyone should try at least once. Aside from the shared tomato aspects of the cocktail's juice and the pizza's sauce, the Worcestershire sauce, celery salt, hot sauce, and citrus add a spicy kick while adding complementary flavors to the base. If you're not doing it already, a pinch of salt in your Bloody Mary goes a long way toward amplifying the taste of the tomato, so it'll do the same to your pizza.

Everyone has their own take on a Bloody Mary, sometimes adding ingredients like red wine, port, or balsamic vinegar to increase the acidity and create a richer cocktail, but the good news is there aren't many tweaks you can make that won't also work with a slice of pepperoni pizza.

11. Whiskey Sour and buffalo wings

While beer is often the go-to drink of choice when it comes to tucking into a pile of spicy buffalo chicken wings, it doesn't actually do all that much in terms of improving the flavors. An ice-cold lager will reduce the heat of the spice, but won't really impact the taste, and while a hoppy IPA might pair better, if it's too bitter, you might end up throwing off the balance of the flavors.

Next time, go for a whiskey sour instead. The tangy lemon juice contrasts extremely well with the buffalo sauce, while the sweet simple syrup helps reduce the heat to let the more nuanced flavors come through. Using a sweeter whiskey, like bourbon, works best; however, if you're looking to increase the heat, a spicy rye will do the job.

As we mentioned before, more acidic cocktails like the whiskey sour are an excellent way to cut through rich and fatty foods, and buffalo wings fall firmly into those categories. Lastly, we have the wonderfully frothy texture of the egg white which enhances the mouthfeel of the wings, mixing with the sauce and adding another dimension to the crispy batter and chicken skin.

12. Espresso martini and grilled cheese

Although many of us associate espresso martinis with a certain elegance, it might surprise you that one of the best dishes to pair them with is one of the simplest comfort foods around. For the unfamiliar, espresso martini recipes can vary, with a number of ways to elevate the cocktail, but typically contain vodka, coffee liqueur, fresh espresso, and sugar syrup.

Although coffee and cheese work due to their contrasting elements, they also both share nuanced flavors that can be fruity, floral, nutty, or sweet, depending on the variety of each. In this case, pairing those subtle flavors makes them all the more noticeable, while the sweetness of the cocktail balances the savory flavors. To make the most of the pairing, opt for a rich, nutty cheese like a mature cheddar, gouda, or Swiss. What's more, the roasted coffee notes also amplify the toastiness of the hot, grilled bread. Espresso martinis are also known for their decadent, creamy consistency and frothy mouthfeel which contrasts wonderfully with both textures in a grilled cheese — the gooey melted cheese, and the crispy toast.

13. Caipirinha and samosas

The Brazilian caipirinha is a fantastically fresh and simple-to-make drink that's a lot more complex than some might assume. It's heavy on fresh lime with enough sugar to balance out the citrus, but the key component is the spirit, cachaça.

While cachaça is technically a style of rum, it's unique in that it's made from fermented sugar cane juice rather than molasses, which results in a grassier, earthier flavor profile. These characteristics make the caipirinha a great match for the spicy, aromatic elements of traditional Indian samosas, and its simplicity makes it versatile enough to pair with both meat- and veggie-filled varieties.

The liberal use of fresh lime wedges in a caipirinha also cuts through the richness of the samosa pastry and filling, both of which can be on the oily side. Plus, it's a notably refreshing cocktail that will cleanse the palate and reduce the perceived spiciness between each mouthful.

14. Brandy Alexander and bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers

Like the White Russian, most of us would consider the Brandy Alexander to be a dessert cocktail, kind of like an alcoholic milkshake. Consisting of equal parts cognac, crème de cacao, and fresh cream with a sprinkle of nutmeg, the obvious pairing would be an equally opulent after-dinner treat.

However, picking the obvious choice would mean missing out on a truly unique experience, and while it may sound a little strange, a Brandy Alexander is delicious when matched with bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers. Texturally, the creaminess of the cocktail marries with the melted cheese, especially if you go for mozzarella, while also contrasting with the crispy bacon.

Flavor-wise, the salty bacon and melted cheese both stand up to the richness of the Brandy Alexander with the salt boosting the cacao elements. You've also got the added sweetness from the cocktail bringing down the heat from the jalapeños, while the boozy, fruity notes from the cognac amplify the peppers' natural flavors.