They've been doing it with wine for an eternity, and beer dinners have been all the rage for the past few years. So why not cocktails?
Friday night's Cocktail Dinner at the Culinary Institution of Charleston was something novel for most attendees: a four-course meal with each course paired with a different cocktail. It was the first such event for the festival and also for the two chefs, Scott Stefanelli of the Culinary Institution of Charleston and Scott Crawford of the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, North Carolina.
The evening began with a quartet of pony-glass cocktails and trays of passed hors d'oevres. My favorite was the pink peppercorn paloma (tequila with lime, grapefruit, and a sprinkling of crushed pink peppercorns for a little zip), which was matched with a clever hummus made from good old South Carolina boiled peanuts, spread on toasted brioche with a topping of smoky paprika pepper marmalade.
William Grant & Sons, the makers of Hendrick's Gin and Milagro Tequila, sponsored the event, and their "brand ambassador," Charlotte Voisey, teamed up with Junior Merino of The Liquid Chef to serve as co-mixologists. Both take a food-centric approach to their cocktails, lacing them with everything from coriander- and cucumber-infused simple syrup (which enlivened Voisey's take on the French 75) to chocolate bitters (which added dark notes to Merino's tequila-based Rouge cocktail).
With all four courses the pairings went well — leaving you reaching for your cocktail glass and momentarily forgetting it was not wine. Most of the cocktails had some sort of floral note to it — the lavender bitters in the opening “Earl of Grey Granito,” the ginger elderflower syrup in the Tequila Warrior — that added a nice complement to the course with which it was paired.
For me, the most pleasing and surprising combo was the Rouge cocktail selected to go with the dessert course. This is a complex, deep red cocktail that starts with apricot-infused Milagro Anejo and blends in Cherry Heering, cream sherry, hibiscus syrup, and chocolate bitters. The result is a cocktail that sips almost like a Madeira, and it works with the rich dessert precisely the way a beverage pairing is supposed to. The first bite of sweet corn cake and buttery ice cream was splendid, and the subsequent sip of the cocktail deepened and enhanced it, making the Rouge not just a cocktail that goes well with the food but a cocktail that makes the food taste even better.
Are cocktail-paired dinners the wave of the future? If the comments of my tablemates and those around us are any indication, this inaugural one was a resounding success. The liqueurs and infusions of craft cocktails bring a new palette of flavors to the table, and I suspect we'll see more chefs and bartenders teaming up for future events.