A meal of barbecue begs for libation to wash it down, and a meal without barbecue and a drink is called breakfast.
The key in selecting the right drink to accompany barbecue is to focus on your choice of sauce because barbecue sauces are so aggressive and tend to dominate the flavor profile.
Likewise, a strong drink can easily overwhelm the subtlety of well-made food. I was once the wine critic of the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, so I have no problem matching wine with food, and, although I love a wide range of beer and spirits, I am by no means an expert. So I have called in reinforcements. I asked cocktail expert Jonas Halpren for tips on spirits and cocktails and Marty Nachel, author of Beer Across America, Beer for Dummies, and Homebrewing for Dummies for brew recommendations.
For more on the subject, click here for websites that have good buying guides for wine, beer, and spirits.
For hot sauces
Matching drinks with hot spicey capsaicin-laden food is very difficult. The best thing for putting out a capsaicin fire is lipids. Fats. A drink with fats? Milk. The next best thing to put out the fire is sweetness. The traditional choices are sweet tea, lemonade, or soft drinks, like Coke or Dr. Pepper. In any case, go low alcohol. It only flames the fire.
Brew. If the sauce is hot, reach for a beer that has a noticeable sweetness and does not have a lot of hops and its attendant bitterness. That’s often a standard boring old American lager. Nachel says, “Try a Munich helles, a Marzenbier/Oktoberfest, a Vienna style beer, or an English brown ale. If you appreciate dark beers, give bock, doppelbock, or Belgian dubbel a look.”
Wine. You want a chilled wine with low alcohol, light body, and a hint of sweetness, say 2 to 4%, to help cool the fire. Try a rose, blush, a New York Riesling, or a German Kabinett. German red wines are hard to find but work great with these sauces because they are fresh and fruity and have that hint of sweetness. Champagne is a good choice.
Spirits. Halpren says, “Keep the booze to a minimum and think dairy. The fat in dairy is absolutely the best way to neutralize the capsaicin from hot peppers. I love Kahlua Milkshakes, Pink Squirrels, Grasshoppers, and Brandy Alexanders. It isn’t often that I get to recommend them with food. Yet, here they work. Acid also works, so break out those drinks with Champagne and citrus. Orange is especially good with hot sauces, so try a Fuzzy Navel or a Harvey Wallbanger.”
For sweet sauces
Brew. Go dry and hopsy. Nachel says, “Consider an English Extra Special Bitter (ESB), German Schwarzbier (black beer), or an Altbier.”
Wine. There are two paths to follow: (1) Go for something dry with bubbles such as French Champagne, dry American sparkling wines, or Spanish Cava, or (2) go for a big red such as a zinfandel or syrah from California or a Shiraz from Australia (shiraz and syrah are two names for the same grape).
Spirits. Halpren says, “Drink a cocktail that has acidity that cuts the sweetness (lime or lemon juice, ginger beer) or is refreshing (seltzer water, lemonade). I recommend cocktails like Mojitos, Mint Juleps, Lynchburg Lemonade, a Collins drink (Tom, John and Ivan all work), or a Daisy.
For hot and sweet sauces
Brew. According to Nachel, “You need the malty sweetness to offset the heat, yet you want something drier to balance the sweetness. A good Czech Pilsner or a Dortmunder will do the job.”
Wine. Try sweet sparkling wines like Asti Spumante. Now all you wine snobs out there: Yes, I said Asti. Try it and quit sending me hate mail. You’re why I left the wine biz.
Spirits. Go for a good brown whiskey on the rocks with a splash of water.
For vinegary sauces
Brew. Try something with some sweetness like a Belgian ale.
Wine. Riesling, gewurztraminer are good choices to soften the tartness. As above, I like Asti or other moscato based wines with vinegarry sauces. Try a Kir Royale, which is a blend of sparkling wine with creme de cassis.
Spirits. Halpren says, “Vinegar is an acid and doesn’t play well with others. It likes more acid. Try ginger beer-based cocktails like the Dark & Stormy. The vinegar will accentuate the drink without overwhelming it. The Hemingway Diaquiri is another great pick. It’s not the blended, sweet drink that you think it is. This is a citrus explosion of lime and grapefruit with rum and maraschino liqueur (also not what you are thinking). Champagne-based cocktails work well with vinegar-based sauces as well.”
Champagne with barbecue?
It’s surprisingly good! It can easily be your go to for all smoky meats and a real no brainer. And nothing elevates a meal more than bubbly.
The bubbles cleanse the palate of the sweet and heat, the acidity cuts the fat, and it just makes everything more festive.
Madame Bollinger (1884 – 1977), one of the grande dames of French Champagne, said it best: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it if I am; Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”
Halpren’s tricks for pairing cocktails with barbecue
Here’s what Jonas Halpren of DrinkOfTheWeek.com says about pairing cocktails with barbecue and grilled foods:
Keep it simple. You don’t want to serve a cocktail with 12 ingredients and you don’t want to be mixing drinks when dinner is served.
Don’t go sweet. This isn’t the time to break out the Appletinis and Lava Flows. While I love these sweet drinks, there is a time and place for them. Really sweet cocktails with cordials will overwhelm the food, making a sweet sauce sweeter and clashing with vinegar-based and hot sauces.
Balance. You might want to impress your guests with strong, stiff drinks (you know those cocktails with 3, 4, 5 shots), but don’t do it. The booze will drown out the food. You’ll also have some very drunk guests. Limit your drinks to no more than 1 1/2 ounces of base spirit.
Keep it light. Barbecue can be heavy. You want to balance that with drinks that are light and refreshing. Long drinks made with lemonade, ginger beer, and seltzer water take down the proof and add effervescence.
Brown spirits. Most spirits work with barbecue, but I hold a special place in my heart for cocktails made with brown spirits (whiskey, brandy, rum). Given that barbecue has a special place in the canon of American foods, I like to give a shout-out to Bourbon, the most American of spirits. The tannins in Bourbon, which are picked up from its aging in wood barrels, bind with the protein in the meat, softening the tannins in the spirit and providing lushness to the cocktail.
My living will
Last night, my wife and I were sitting in the living room and I said to her, “I never want to live in a vegetative state, dependent on a machine and fluids from a bottle. If that ever happens, just pull the plug.” She got up, unplugged the computer, and poured my wine down the drain.