Fuel the Fire! How to Pair Cocktails with Spicy Food

September 19, 2022 by Sonja Edridge

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Pairing drinks with spicy bites can be a daunting task, especially if you enjoy cranking up the heat! Pairing the perfect drinks and food can be a minefield Too much booze combined with a healthy dose of spice can set your palate on fire. Don’t panic, though! Here are some great tricks to find a great cocktail match for all of your favourite spicy foods. You just need to know where to look for your food pairing.

Hyper regional cuisine is so hot right now too. Spicy foods with high Scoville counts (the measure of chili pungency) are all in this arena. Take the spicy West African roots – it’s all the rage in and around the UK and the southern states of America. Plates of Jamaican jerk spice with a cheeky scotch bonnet chili or two and dishes like birria stuffed tacos are popping up on menus at all the trendy Mexican spots. So, the question we all need answered — what to drink with spicy food?

How does spicy food react with alcohol?

Spicy green papaya salad

Let’s reverse a little first and chat about what effect chili has on the palate. Chili is not one-dimensional; yes, it brings heat, but it’s also packed with flavour and a delicious sweetness. It brightens a dish. The fire comes from the chemical called capsaicin in chilis.

The little obstacle to jump over when pairing drinks with spicy food is the fact that capsaicin is soluble in alcohol and fat. Both turn on the fire on your palate, a common problem with food pairing. The higher the ABV (alcohol by volume), the more (collar adjusting) astringent and intensely spicy food will taste. You’ll feel the burn way more (maybe even a few beads of sweat) and taste the flavour less. Let’s be honest – when your mouth is on fire, it’s tricky to focus on much.

How to choose the right drinks

Spicy sambal in a wooden bowl

If the pandemic got you hooked on YouTube’s famed show Hot Ones, where host Sean Evans distracts thrill-seeking celebrities amidst eating hot wings, then you’ve seen a thing or two about coping while in a Scovilles haze. A massive glass of water just won’t cut the mustard – it’s more likely going to spread the fire. So, what is the best to drink with spicy food? You need to choose drinks that tame the Scovilles. How do we do this? Try to balance or match their weights as well as contrast their flavours. Here are a few techniques to tone down the sting:

Match the texture with fizz

Passionfruit Gin cocktail with straws

When we say weight, we mean the mouthfeel or texture of a sip. First, let’s unpack how we translate this to bubbles. Adding fizz (or carbonation) is a great trick to help douse a fire on the palate.  A swig of beer will quench a chili-induced thirst, so putting the flames out with a beer or Champagne cocktail is a quick fix. Cocktails that include soda water (there are so many!), like a John Collins or Passionfruit Gin, are fantastic too.

Let’s look a little closer at the balancing of the weight. A gentle fruity fizz from a Champagne or sparkling wine cocktail will work fabulously with mild to medium spice when pairing food and drinks. Try a Peach Bellini, a Kir Royale, or a Strawberry Champagne fizz with spicy seafood for a delicious match.

A Michelada, a beer cocktail, is a bit coarser on the bubble front and mouth texture. So, a fiery, bold Jalisco stew called a Birria (made with goat, lamb, or beef) stands up well with a creamy beer cocktail, as do chilli-laden tacos and fiery fajitas.

Get fruity with it

Miami Vice cocktail at an island bar

What is the best thing to drink with spicy food? When the spice escalates, we need to change food pairing tactics, as fizz alone won’t do the trick. The fire onslaught from muddling high-proof spirits with higher fat content spicy foods needs to be muted by a cocktail with sugary fruit mixers. Spice-forward rich Indian curries find their heat elevated by the oils and cream (remember, the heat is fat-soluble). Dishes like these need a powerful fruity cocktail to offer a welcome contrast to the colourful heat. A safe harbour would be the ocean blue Jack Frost filled with fruity flavours of pineapple and coconut; go big with a sweet and fruity Miami Vice or the Jungle Bird with rum, a splash of Campari, pineapple, and lime juice. The latter being Malaysia’s national cocktail, this tropical sweet sip, is used to holding its own in a sea of spicy Asian cuisine. Try it with a Massaman curry.

Up the zest

Top view of a Sidecar cocktail garnished with fresh orange peel

Similarly, the high acidity of bright and punchy citrus cocktails offers relief in the same way as sugar, so try a Sidecar, a Limoncello Martini, or a Lemon Drop to tame a flame. Sake-based cocktails work in this way too. Botanical gin-based cocktails like Martini or Vesper Martini have lively aromatics that clean the palate in between spicy bites. For the ultimate fire extinguisher, try a Pornstar Martini when you’re looking for what to drink with spicy food. The fruity, acidic combination is a perfect match for spicy foods.

Don’t add any more smoke

Close of a cocktail glass with olives inside

Avoid cocktails with heavily oaked or smoked spirits like some Manhattans made with bourbons and whiskeys. They tend to dominate or linger on the palette.

There you have it – the complete guide to food pairing, matching cocktails with spicy food! Keep these top tips in your pocket, so you always look like a pro. Find cocktail recipes and more at The Mixer.

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