The Right Way to Pair Spirits with Steak, According to Steakhouse Bartenders

Rich in fat and flavor, steak is easy to pair with red wine—but what about spirits? Cocktails and neat pours are generally considered pre- or post-dinner beverages, largely because they can be tricky to pair with food. Spirits have a much higher alcohol content than wine, which can tire out taste buds. The strong flavors of spirits also tend to overpower food, especially when it comes to more delicate cuts of meat, like filet mignon.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to have your steak and drink your cocktail too.

When looking for that perfect steak pairing, it’s always helpful to rely on the staff. James Conley, the longtime service director at Keens Steakhouse, finds that guests often box themselves in with preconceived notions of what they like and what goes together. “The biggest challenge is encouraging our guests to trust us to lead them to their leap into the unknown,” he says.

So how do the pros do it?

According to Jason Hedges, bar director at Gotham Bar & Grill, there are a few items on the checklist when considering a pairing. “I pair the spirit not only with the protein, but also the sauce and the additional accompaniments,” he says. “It’s a technique called mirroring. This involves pairing mutual characteristics of the dish and the spirit. If I have a peppery au poivre preparation, for example, I may want to emphasize the spicy peppery qualities and choose a rye whiskey, or maybe an aged tequila with some nice peppery notes. If it’s a smoked preparation I would lean toward a maritime scotch or perhaps a mezcal.”

In addition to considering the other flavors on the plate, the temperature of the meat itself carries a lot of weight, which is why, if you like your steak cooked to the core, you might want to skip the bourbon or añejo tequila. “If a steak is cooked well done, or close to it, most of the fat will have been cooked out and oak tannins won’t have the fat to cling to and won’t get absorbed the way they would with a nicely marbled and less-cooked preparation,“ Hedges says. So try something with a little less age on it.

Whiskey is the no-brainer default spirit for steak, with a few agave-based spirit options as well. “Since agave-based spirits are such a dynamically growing category, I talked over pairing them with steak with our bartenders. There was a clear consensus that reposados were the way to go,” says Conley. It makes sense. Reposados get a limited amount of time on the oak, meaning they have weight, but aren’t overloaded with tannins. They can support the heft of a good piece of meat without overwhelming it (even if you do get it fully cooked through).

But identifying the right spirit is only half the battle. How should one enjoy that spirit: Neat? On the rocks? With a splash of water? Mixed into a cocktail?

“A neat, undiluted shot with food works better in the abstract than in practice. If you are going that way, at least have a beer back,” cautions Conley. A not-too-high-in-alcohol beer can help cool down and refresh taste buds after an aggressive spirit. When it comes to whiskey, he recommends adding a few drops of water if it’s heavily peated, or an ice cube for blended whiskeys.

As for cocktails, whiskey-based classics tend to be an easy and effective route to take. “Keens’s bartenders think of themselves as priests in the temple of the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan,” Conley says. “We often talk about the importance of an Old Fashioned having ‘soul.’ A bartender has to care as they craft an Old Fashioned, or else it just isn’t worth drinking. Old Overholt is our standard rye for an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, but lately one of the guys put forth a Rittenhouse Rye and Carpano Antica Formula Manhattan that really impressed me. It’s a great choice to marry with a medium-rare New York strip.”

But not all classic cocktails are a good fit, as Conley points out: “We also serve up a classic Sazerac. However, I recommend that guests make it pre- or post-prandial rather than an accompaniment to their main course. The Herbsaint liqueur that makes the cocktail so great is a bit of a palate killer.” Similarly, he advises that vodka, while still the drink of choice for many guests, doesn’t bring anything to the table when paired with steak.

Both Conley and Hedges identified at least one other problem when pairing steak with spirits, which is moderation. “Since spirits have a higher alcohol content than, say, red wine, if you take a sip with every bite of steak you might leave the meal three sheets to the wind,” Hedges says.

For those who are able to appropriately pace themselves, keeping a few basic principles in mind can greatly enhance your steak and spirit experience. Remember to first consider the intensity of both the dish and the beverage, taking into account all of the flavors on the plate and in the glass. If you prefer your meat well done (no judgement, OK, a little judgement) go light on oak aging. If you simply must have your spirit neat, rather than on the rocks, add a few drops of water and/or order a pint of beer to balance out the intensity and bring your palate back to life. For cocktails, opt for whiskey-based classics and, above all, trust your service and hospitality professionals.