In defence of cocktails and food (but not together)

In the July/August issue of BARS&clubs, Fred Siggins weighed in on the practice of pairing cocktails and food. The following is Siggins’ controversial column, printed in full. 

Cocktails and food do not go together. The idea of pairing the two, encouraged by booze brands’ desire to capitalise on the foodie movement and adopted by some high-end bars and restaurants, is a mismatch we should put behind us.

Let me start with a couple of caveats. Firstly, I’m not talking about bar food. Simple and smashable, even the best bar food is there in service of the drinks at hand and the conversations they engender. I’m also not talking about aperitif and digestive cocktails served at restaurants, or straight spirits, which have their place in certain meals.

Secondly, I mean no disrespect to my colleagues who have pursued food and cocktail pairing, and in doing so have advanced our craft exponentially. I’m not saying it can’t be done well, because it can. I am saying it shouldn’t be done. And here’s why:

Food and cocktails hold very different places in our culture. To force them together is to miss the point of, and disrespect them both.


Food is love, a direct and deliberate nurturing of the body and soul. Food is family, the ritual of breaking bread binding us together socially. Food is civilization, the act of cooking one of the first things to separate us from other animals. Cocktails are none of these things.

A good plate of food is already complete, with all the elements working in harmony. To disrupt that with a cocktail, and all that booze and sugar and acid, is overkill and culture clash. A good cocktail should also be a complete set of balanced elements; to deliberately unbalance one just so it can complement the other is a waste of time.

On the other hand, naturally fermented beverages are both lightweight and complex, making them ideal for food pairing. And while valiant attempts at recreating these factors in cocktail form have been made, it’s like reinventing the wheel in a different shape. There’s a 10,000-year history of wine, beer, sake, etc. evolving alongside food, resulting in truly incredible matches, and a whole industry of sommeliers dedicated to finding new ones.


Cocktails also hold huge cultural importance. Despite its specifically American origins, like hip-hop or rock’n’roll, cocktail culture speaks to us all. Invented at a time when life was becoming more complicated as folks started working in factories rather than on farms, cocktails represented escape.

Stressed and tired, you could pop into the bar and let the worries of the day melt like the ice in your Collins. A smile and a story, a delicious whack of booze and sugar, and the switch is flipped. You are now a man (or woman, cocktail bars being one of the first places where the sexes interacted socially) of leisure again, free to return to your loving family or stay and be among friends.

So important was this cultural movement that even after prohibition the cocktail lived on. Our grandparents courted over scorpion bowls, and served terrible highballs at cocktail parties, because a mixed drink, far more than beer or wine, says: “It’s okay. Relax. We’re just here to have fun.”

The fundamental importance of cocktails is that, unlike food, they are unnecessary. The deliberate frivolity, all the silly names and garnishes, is the very thing that makes them beautiful. Like a bunch of flowers or a feather in your cap, cocktails are a small luxury that lends colour to our lives.


In the realm of the bon vivant, the raconteur and the rogue, cocktails are James Bond with his martini, Earnest Gant with his Zombie, Jerry Thomas with his Blazer. The stories of their origins are deliberately outlandish, and usually untrue, but who needs truth? The point is to be entertained, enthralled, surprised and impressed. To take a holiday from life for the cost of a few bucks and the time it takes to drink a Mai Tai.

The cocktail is our weapon of choice, we keepers of the fantasy. Ringleaders, soothsayers, magicians and hosts, we are unnecessary too, my friends, which makes our company all the sweeter. That is the craft of the bartender, and it’s one of which we should be proud. To put cocktails alongside food denies us our true calling. It’s a self-conscious attempt to make us seem more important, while failing to recognise that we already are.

So leave the chefs to do their thing, the sommeliers too. They’re good at it. They don’t need us. And we don’t need them.

Fred Siggins is product and brand strategist for Sullivans Cove Distillery. A former chef and bartender, food is his best friend, and cocktails his lifelong love affair. 

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