Thanksgiving libations: A primer for your holiday table
Around this time of the year, food publications are full of advice about how to cook your turkey, make the perfect side dishes and wow your guests with the hippest new recipe for pumpkin pie. The Internet is also packed with recommendations for the perfect beverages to serve alongside your feast.
And yet, it seems the question of what to pair with holiday food is as elusive as ever. Not everyone loves wine. Not every beer is the perfect choice to serve alongside the tang of cranberries. And cocktails can be tricky when it comes to complex holiday fare.
So, what is a savvy food-lover to do?
I spoke with three Milwaukee area experts about the whats, wheres and whys of holiday beverage pairing, and they offered up some great suggestions for taking the mystery out of what to drink with Thanksgiving dinner.
First, I spoke with Ira Koplowitz, Milwaukee cocktail guru and owner of Milwaukee's own Bittercube Bitters, who admitted that creating cocktail pairings for a large dinner like Thanksgiving can be a real challenge.
"Main course pairings are tough," he explains. "You want a cocktail that can stand up to the meal, but you don't want to overpower things."
He points out that dealing with varied and competing flavors like sweet potatoes, gravy, turkey and stuffing requires a bit of creativity for those seeking to provide cocktail pairings throughout a meal. He suggests focusing on autumnal flavors like allspice, cinnamon, apple and pumpkin for syrups and cocktail infusions.
"One interesting thing to do," he offers, "would be to take the cranberries off the plate and utilize them in a cocktail. A spiced cranberry syrup shaken with fresh lemon juice, Rehorst gin, Blackstrap bitters and an orange slice might be the perfect complement to Thanksgiving dinner."
When it comes to cocktail pairings for dessert, Koplowitz suggests going bitter.
"Bitter cocktails are great for two reasons when paired with a sweet dessert," he explains. "First and foremost, a bittered cocktail helps digest food. When you digest something bitter, your tongue assumes it is being poisoned and sends this impulse to your brain. Your brain in turn sends impulses to your stomach to fight the poison. Your stomach releases amino acids that aid digestion.
"The second reason for a pairing of bitter with sweet is that the two cancel each other out. Each bite is new again. A Boulevardier riff stirred with Old Fitzgerald Bourbon, Aperol, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters should do the trick!"
His overall advice: Think simple. Pairings should either contrast or complement flavors, but shouldn't take over. If in doubt, you can always begin and end dinner with cocktails and let guests fend for themselves during the main course.
John Lavelle, founder of TheBeerFridge.com, a website for beer lovers, has been working tirelessly on his own beer pairings for Thanksgiving dinner, keeping the following pairing rules in mind – first, finding beers that cleanse the palate to enhance the dining experience, and second, pulling in beers that enhance individual flavor notes in the foods being offered.
"Thanksgiving is a tricky one," Lavelle admits. "If someone is having a deep-fried turkey, I'm probably going to recommend that they get themselves something like a North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner or a Lakefront Klisch or Riverwest Stein for a little more malt backbone. These beers will continue to cleanse the palate and keep the eating experience fresh.
"If you're looking at a good ol' roasted turkey, I would probably lean more towards a really good porter, like a Founders Porter or a Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald. These beers will complement the food without sitting too heavily."
A few of Lavelle's favorite pairings for Thanksgiving dinner include Capitol Brewing's Eternal Flame and Hinterland's Bourbon Barrel Dopplebock.
"The malty and warming quality of the Dopplebock really just screams Thanksgiving to me," he remarks.
When it comes to dessert, Lavelle says that sometimes the most obvious-sounding pairings can be the most appropriate. Southern Tier's Pumking or Lakefront Brewery's Pumpkin Lager make great pairings for classic pumpkin pie, since they reflect and enhance the flavors already present in the pie.
"For something different, try a porter," he suggests, "which is phenomenal with a good pumpkin pie.The roasted quality of the malts with the nutmeg and cinnamon sounds absolutely amazing. In fact, I want to eat and drink all of this stuff right now."
Jaclyn Stuart, co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine & Food Pairing" and owner of Vintage, a wine retailer in Elkhart Lake, is a fan of breaking all the pairing "rules" out there.
"One of the best pairings I've had was a fish paired with a red wine, which totally breaks that 'white wine with white meats' rule," she says.
But she does believe that pairing food with wines from the same region is a sure-fire way to simplify the pairing process.
"Typically wine is made to go with the food from the region or country it is made in," she explains. "This obviously doesn't work so well with foods that are Asian, Middle Eastern or Northern African-inspired, but it works great for Italian, Spanish, French and German foods! You can't beat a good Sheboygan bratwurst with a German Spatburgunder (pinot noir)."
When it comes to Thanksgiving, Stuart suggests that the first step is to accept that one wine is not likely to complement absolutely everything on the dinner table.
"Pick a couple of different wines that will likely go with most of what's on the table," she suggests. "I think it is also paramount that you consider who the people are at your table. If your Aunt Martha won't drink anything other than moscato and riesling, you should probably make sure to have one of those on hand."
She recommends pinot noirs from France or Oregon as a great option for red wine lovers, pointing to their versatility in pairing with a wide variety of foods. Chianti and other sangiovese-based reds are also good choices.
"These reds tend to be lower in tannin and body, making them more food-friendly with things other than red meats and richer foods," she says. "Oftentimes zinfandel tends to make an appearance on the Thanksgiving table because it is thought of as an 'all-American grape,' great for this American holiday, but even though it is low in tannins, it is heavy and high in alcohol. This tends to overpower most Thanksgiving foods."
For whites, she suggests gewurztraminer or riesling for those who tend to opt for more mellow flavors in their menus, or chardonnay for those serving dishes with more bold, rich flavor profiles.
"You could opt for a dry rosé, which combines the nice berry aromas of a red with the acidity and lighter body of a white wine," she adds. "Typically those from France, especially the Rhone Valley, have a nice herbal note that is great with stuffing and vegetable dishes."
If you're looking for something way off the beaten path, you might want to take note of her personal choice for this year's dinner.
"I'll be serving up a white blend from New Zealand this year," she says. "It combines gewurztraminer, pinot gris and riesling, so the wine has all of the best things that each of those grapes offer."
Stuart points out that blends can often offer a layered and mixed array of flavors and aromas, and pair well with many foods. The key is to keep in mind the intensity and body of the wine and make sure that it won't overpower any of your dishes.
A good rule of thumb is to check out the alcohol percentage on the wine label. The higher the alcohol, typically, the drier and fuller-bodied the wine.
For food pairings, anything over 14 percent for reds and 12 percent for whites tends to be too much and just overwhelms most foods.
When it comes to dessert, Stuart likes sticking to classics like ruby and tawny Port. Once open, Ports tend to keep for several weeks or months, so it is a nice wine to just have on hand for desserts.
"For something a little more adventuresome, I would recommend a Madeira," she adds. "This fortified wine from Portugal's Madeira Islands can range from sweet to dry, so it is important to get a Malvasiaor Bual style when using it as a dessert pairing. These styles are nutty, caramelly and delicious with desserts. With pumpkin or pecan pie, they really come alive with spice, raisin and almond notes."
Stuart says that Thanksgiving can be a great opportunity to branch out and try some new wines.
"Pull corks on several bottles and have your own little wine tasting party," she suggests. "It isn't very often that you get to try a plethora of different flavors and share them with so many people that you can justify having multiple wines open and on the table. Have everyone bring a bottle of their favorite wine or each pick a region and bring a bottle from there. Have fun with it!"
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