Whiskey with beef, gin with shrimp: A guide to pairing spirits, food

Flight of Vodka Oyster Shooters, from left to right, The Red Devil, The Sunset and The Kentucky, with an oyster platter at Tipple & Brine.

Flight of Vodka Oyster Shooters, from left to right, The Red Devil, The Sunset and The Kentucky, with an oyster platter at Tipple & Brine.

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Tin Vuong is so convinced that whiskey and aged beef are a great match that he created a restaurant — Steak & Whisky — around that pairing. “Whiskey has a rich, deep and very smoky underlying flavor that works really well with aged beef,” says Vuong. The ultimate for him is Japanese whiskey which has “just the right amount of bitterness and butteriness and smokiness.”

A gin martini with a shrimp cocktail is one of Dana Farner’s favorite things, says the former Cut sommelier, “to the point that I crave gin whenever I have a shrimp cocktail. The layers of gin’s botanicals enhance the briny but not too intense flavors of the shrimp.” She’s got another good match: straight bourbon with dark chocolate and caramel, either a candy or a cake, to end a meal. In general, any wooded liquor is good with chocolate.

By the beach, oysters with shots of tequila make a terrific setup. For something with more punch, Tipple & Brine’s Marc Johnson has created three oyster shooters. Each is focused on a different alcohol but light on the booze lest the oyster get lost. “You have to have some other flavors in there to balance it out,” he explains. His favorite? The one with tequila and grapefruit juice garnished with chopped orange, smoked salmon roe and cilantro.


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Many cultures have a tradition of drinking spirits with food. The Greeks and Turks down anise-scented ouzo and raki, mixed with water to turn it cloudy, with an array of mezze — olives, salty cheese, dolmas, cured tuna, hummus and more. The Russians drink shots of icy vodka with caviar and zazuski spreads. And who hasn’t indulged in a martini with Chinese food on a Sunday night at least once? Pairing cocktails with food can be particularly fun for bartenders because, unlike wine, a cocktail can be tweaked to suit a dish.

Here’s your guide to drinking spirits with your food. Pick your poison, and we’ll tell you what to eat with it.


The clear spirit infused with juniper and an intricate layering of botanicals plays well against the briny sweetness of a classic shrimp cocktail, chilled seafood platter or grilled prawns. Gin is made with myriad recipes, some juniper-heavy, some citrusy or herbal, some cask-aged.



This Scandinavian clear grain spirit is flavored with caraway seed and, depending on the recipe, with spices such as cardamom, cumin, coriander, fennel or dill. Those flavors make icy shots of aquavit a natural with smoked salmon, gravlax and cured fish.


The agave-based spirit is drunk either straight up or in a cocktail. Shots of blanco (clear, unaged tequila) pair well with guacamole or queso fundido (melted cheese). A darker, more complex añejo (aged a minimum of a year) is brilliant with mole that has a touch of chocolate in it. A margarita straight up (no salt on the rim) is a better match with ceviche or tacos.


A lighter golden rum with lime squeezed into it cuts right through the salt and fat of roast pork and suckling pig. A mojito made with Brazil’s cachaça does the trick too.


Made in an incredible array of styles, whiskey can step into Cabernet Sauvignon’s shoes as an accompaniment to steak. The beef should be marbled and well-aged, the whiskey smooth and smoky. And taken neat.



The Russians know what to do: Serve the pure spirit icy cold, with caviar, smoked fish, herring. To give the neutral spirit a kick, it is often infused with all sorts of flavors. Horseradish or black pepper work with food, but most of the other flavored vodkas, no.


America’s whiskey, dark and profound, can hold its own against barbecued meats. Have that big slab of smoky baby-back ribs or smoked brisket with a glass of small-batch bourbon or a well-made Manhattan. Also, straight sipping bourbon from a top producer is very agreeable with chocolate, preferably something that’s 70% cacao or more.