Flavor Pairings – The Hidden Secret To Cocktail Design
Flavor pairings are at the core of every fantastic cocktail. Many of us take for granted the foundation for our favorite cocktails. You love a gin & tonic because it’s light and refreshing. You enjoy a whiskey sour because it warms your soul and has nice bourbon flavor. A Piña Colada on a warm day by the pool makes your weekend special. But… why?
The artist that designed your favorite cocktail knew how connecting flavors made a difference. There are no doubt many fantastic cocktails that happened by mistake, a fluke mix of a few flavors that sparked something special. But, most cocktails, like most food pairings, come with a bit of intention and purpose.
What are Cocktail Flavor Pairings?
Cocktail designs are no different than food dishes prepared at a fine restaurant or at home by a professional chef or yourself. For example, you’re hosting a party and a friend walks over to you and your bartender starter kit and says, “hey, got any good cocktail ideas that have mint in them?”
Great question! This is when food pairing guides come in handy. There are a few online resources, such as ingredientpairings.com that return flavor pairings for mint (and many others). You can also purchase the Flavor Bible on Amazon to use as a good hardcover resource.
In the case of mint, a few good pairing examples that are easily accessible include:
- brown sugar
- carbonated water
- lime juice
The pairing combinations for mint are extensive and you need to find a few that interest you as the results yield dozens of great flavors. Let’s target almond and lime juice and see how it pairs with rum as a spirit. We also like orange / orange juice as well, so keep that earmarked. A simple flavor pairing for rum returns key pairings like:
- brown sugar (strong)
- sugar (strong)
- lime juice
It seems mint and rum share two common components: almond and lime juice (along with dozens of others as well). Let’s get a few pairings for lime juice:
- brown sugar
And a few flavor pairings for almond:
- brown sugar
- powdered sugar
Through the pairing search you’ll find other connected flavors that work out well across a large degree of our ingredients including cilantro, brown sugar, cinnamon and brown sugar. You could easily link these ingredients into a cocktail design without any trouble. But, you don’t want to pair too many flavors together or you’ll confuse the palate of your imbiber. Pick a few flavors you want to work with or have access to and build off those key pairings.
Our research began with mint and we’ve found linked flavors between orange, rum, almond, and lime juice. Most of our pairings also spoke of sugar from powdered, cane and brown sugar. For simplicity, let’s assume we can use cane sugar if we wanted to balance a cocktail against the lime juice. But, brown sugar would work for this as well.
If you wanted to build a nice sour cocktail out of these ingredients you’d have possibly invented a Mai Tai!
The Mai Tai
- 3/4 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
- 1/4 oz. Rock Candy Syrup
- 1/4 oz. Orgeat (Almond Syrup)
- 1/2 oz. Orange Curacao
- 2 oz. Aged Rum
- Mint Sprig Garnish (slapped)
Very Strong, Strong, Normal, and Weak Pairings
Most pairing databases and lookup charts will list the strength of the flavor pairing. For instance, an ingredient may pair strong with lemon yet weak with lime. In cases like this, it’s usually better to favor those strong pairings over the weak ones. Of course, sometimes your own personal preference prevails when sensing weak or strong connections.
You may have one key ingredient that pairs strongly with another but that second element doesn’t pair with anything else you wish to use in your cocktail design. Strong may not always be the best element for your cocktail if it’s not compatible with other ingredients.
Compliment But Don’t Confuse
Through the travels of the flavor train, you’ll find dozens of great flavors that match together. It can be very tempting to build a five flavor cocktail because all those flavors are enjoyable. But, a firm rule KISS still applies: keep it simple stupid.
Spend time building a complete flavor pairing that allows your imbiber to experience all the nuances and characteristics of the flavors you have chosen for your design. Not all flavors must be front-and-center to the drink. A light nuance of cardamom or medicinal flavor of fennel or eucalyptus does not have to control the drink–just be present. Drinkers enjoy the exploration of flavors as they arrive on the palate either in combination or one-by-one.
In our Mai Tai example we built a cocktail paired with mint yet mint only arrives as the garnish for the tiki design. Mint is potent and powerful and the garnish is allowed to flow into the nose of the drinker as they sip. Aroma is a massive part of a humans tasting experience so do not discount the simple yet subtle use of a mint sprig to pair with the cocktail ingredients.
Flavor Pairing Mysteries Unlocked
Once you understand flavor pairings exist, it become easier to notice them “in the wild” while building cocktails out of a recipe book. You don’t have to be an expert at joining flavors together. However, understanding how some flavors match together helps you design your own cocktails as well as interpret a recipe prior to building it.
Not every cocktail is well balanced and enjoyable. There are some pretty bad recipe designs floating around the Internet. When you understand the concept of flavor pairings it becomes easier to recognize recipe quality by eye. You’ll notice clashing flavor profiles or odd matchings that don’t make sense and can simply avoid those drinks.
Never underestimate the power of flavor pairings. A great chef or master mixologist will often pair unlikely combinations together. Bacon, carrot and basil in a cocktail sounds disgusting but all three flavors pair well together so keep an open mind. As you get better at cocktail design you may start exploring the unlikely and land upon a real masterpiece.
Additional Paring Resources
- The Spruce – Flavor Pairing Guide
- BakeItRight – Flavor Chart
- Food Pairings – Free plan plus subscription plans for the serious!
- Flavor Bible on Amazon