Sommelier Tip: Embracing the (Occasional) Wine-Free Pairing

How to match food with other libations.

Wine may be food’s perfect partner, but increasingly, wine directors are organizing multicourse dinners that match spirits, beer and saké with specific dishes, resulting in some revelatory meals.

At Elements in Princeton, New Jersey, Justin Kuruvilla, the restaurant’s wine director, curates 6–8 nontraditional pairing dinners each year. These events “tend to draw a more youthful, fun-loving crowd,” says Kuruvilla. “Our consumers like to broaden their flavor spectrum, which is why we try to incorporate these beverages into our pairings.”

Kuruvilla offers these outside-the-box pairing tricks:


Spirit pairing is hardly new. “Russians enjoy vodka and caviar, and Scandinavians drink aquavit and herring,” he says.

Salty starters like Elements’ caviar tater tots go surprisngly well with several gin-based cocktails. “Wine complements the food” says Kuruvilla. “But cocktails can actually extend the dish’s flavor profile.”


For Mediterranean dishes, Kuruvilla looks to a lighterstyle hefeweizen since “the dishes’ salt, oil, herbs and olives are extremely good friends with the banana-scented esters in hefeweizens.”

For heartier cuisine, Kuruvilla loves serving up an amber Märzen, “particularly with cuts of meat that have a good, solid sear on them.”


Noting that saké styles vary as much as wine and beer (saké is, technically speaking, rice beer), Kuruvilla says the smoky, bacon-y aroma of a kimoto junmai is perfect for pork belly. And fans of Provençal rosé would adore junmai daiginjo and the purity of its pairing with a simple Asian dish like his restaurant’s famously rich fluke sashimi.

Tanuki Cocktail

Recipe courtesy Jamie Dodge, bar manager at Elements, Princeton, New Jersey

¾ ounce Hayman's Old Tom Gin
½ ounce Moscato d’Asti syrup (recipe below)
½ ounce nigori saké
Blanc de blancs, to top
2 shiso leaves, divided

Combine gin, syrup and saké in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Add one shiso leaf and shake well. Double-strain into a Champagne flute and top with the sparkling wine. Garnish with remaining shiso leaf.

Moscato d’Asti Syrup

1 cup Moscato d’Asti
½ cup sugar
8 shiso leaves

In a saucepan set over medium heat, combine the wine with the sugar. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat, then add the shiso leaves. Let the mixture steep for 10 minutes. Remove the leaves and allow the mixture to cool. Strain well. Yields approximately 10–12 ounces.

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