Sacramento's central city is about to turn into one big cocktail party. The fifth annual Midtown Cocktail Week kicks off Sunday, and the following eight days will be filled with special tastings, bartending classes, soirees and more in the name of mixology.
The rise of Midtown Cocktail Week coincides with the emergence of an inspired craft cocktail culture around the country. We're not talking that same ol' Jack and Coke. House-made mixers, seasonal ingredients, artisanal spirits and a reverence for the classics all have helped fuel this cheery renaissance.
Cocktails are emphasizing flavors and complexity like never before. So it's no wonder that so many drinking establishments, from Cure in New Orleans to Sacramento's own Shady Lady and the Golden Bear, also craft food menus that pair well with their drinks.
When it comes to food and cocktail pairings, Shady Lady co-owner Alex Origoni starts with some simple categories. First, he considers whether the drink is "short," or a spirit-forward drink that's served in a smaller cocktail glass, or a "long" drink that's heavier on mixers.
"Then I think if the drink is sour, sweet, bitter or savory," said Origoni. "When pairing cocktails with food, I'm thinking about all these qualities and then go from there."
Whether you're looking for something to snack on during Midtown Cocktail Week, or thinking of hosting a cocktail party at home, here are some cocktail and food pairing ideas. And be sure to check out the accompanying recipes that cover drinks, snacks and more.
Cocktails don't get much more classic than this. The Manhattan mixes whiskey or rye with sweet vermouth and a few dashes of Angostura bitters, garnished with a maraschino cherry.
You'll find plenty of variations of the Manhattan using different spirits, such as dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth or even anejo tequila for a "Tijuana Manhattan." Whatever the blend, the result makes for a rich and potent drink with sweet overtones.
Food pairing idea No. 1: Bacon-wrapped dates.
The sweetness and smokiness of bacon matches up perfectly with a Manhattan. The bacon-wrapped dates at Shady Lady are stuffed with Point Reyes blue cheese and a marcona almond, which is noted for its sweetness. All of these flavors sweet, savory, salty fit just fine between sips of that Manhattan.
"You've got these big, full flavors that work well overall," said Origoni. "And the Manhattan has some sweetness to pair well with the dates. You always want to match like with like."
Food pairing idea No. 2: Roasted bone marrow.
Bone marrow's become quite the sensation at Sacramento restaurants over the past few years. But pairing this decadently delicious dish with a cocktail? Turns out, bone marrow's a good match for a Manhattan.
Just as with wine and food pairings, the weight of the drink should match the weight of the food. So a big and fatty slather of bone marrow on toasted bread needs a formidable drink for its match. The Shady Lady's take on bone marrow includes an olive tapenade to help cut through the bone marrow's fatty nature and flash-fried parsley for garnish.
"The Manhattan is a spirit-heavy drink, and rich with rich is essentially the overriding principle here," said Origoni.
Smoked mint julep
Ah, nothing like a cool mint julep for relaxing on a scorching Sacramento afternoon or while watching the Kentucky Derby. This classic Southern cocktail combines just a few key ingredients (bourbon, sugar, mint and ice), often served in a silver cup.
Chris Tucker of the Golden Bear adds a twist to the mint julep with smoked ice. Tucker learned about this ice-smoking technique from Laurelhurst Market in Portland. He uses hickory wood chips and a perforated hotel pan to create this icy concoction. The resulting smoked ice is used for cocktails, and it also adds a flavor component that works well with foods.
Food pairing idea: Smoked skirt steak sandwich.
This combination is pretty much a no-brainer. Cocktails with smoked ice also lend themselves well with barbecued meats and other smoked dishes. The key is to make sure both the food and cocktails are balanced with their flavors. Too much smokiness might make your mouth taste like a chimney.
"We do a lot of stuff on the grill and this will also work with chicken and ribs," said Tucker. "I like to think about balanced drinks and balanced foods."
Blueberry shrub with bourbon
Not to be confused with a backyard bush, this kind of shrub is a time-honored way of preserving fruit juices with vinegar and sugar. Add a splash of seltzer or ginger ale to a bit of shrub and you've basically got an old-time soda. Or add some spirits to that shrub and you'll get the makings of a fruity cocktail with a slight acidic bite.
Shrubs have become a favorite mixer on the craft cocktail scene, and are among Tucker's favorite ingredients for creating drinks.
For Midtown Cocktail Week, Tucker's making a blueberry shrub with bourbon that's an ode to summer and fits with the Golden Bear's Southern-style party Aug. 26. This flavorful drink, which is topped with a house-made ginger beer, fits easily with all kinds of foods.
Food pairing idea: Baby back ribs with blackberry barbecue sauce.
This drink and food combo will be dubbed "black and blue" at Golden Bear, with a mouthwatering mix of sweet, smoky and savory flavors. The vinegar in the blueberry shrub cuts through some of the richness of the smoked ribs. The blackberry and blueberry in the cocktail and food is overall about an homage to summer and the South.
"We always like to pair the food with whatever event we have going," said chef Brian Mizner of the Golden Bear.
This drink is made seasonally at Shady Lady, when local blackberries are juicy and ripe. Along with this bit of fruit, the Courage Cooler includes bourbon, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and a little soda, served in a long glass with a garnish of thyme and blackberry. This cocktail is refreshing with juiciness and bit of effervescence, and full of flavors that invite bites of food.
Food pairing idea No. 1: Duck confit tots.
The Shady Lady twists the traditional elementary school snack by stuffing duck confit inside its tater tots, and pairing them with duck cracklings that are similar to chicharrones. Given that blackberry sauce is a traditional accompaniment for duck, the blackberry used in the Courage Cooler makes perfect sense as a pairing. The thyme garnish in the cocktail also doubles as a go-to herb for preparing duck.
Food pairing idea No. 2: Duck mousse crostini.
Once again, the blackberry goes great with both duck and cocktails. While the Shady Lady makes its own duck pâté, this dish is fairly easy to re-create at home using a high quality purchased paté. Add some grilled bread, apricot, radicchio and a few other ingredients and you've got a tasty party snack that'll match well with any blackberry-based cocktail. Down the hatch!
MIDTOWN COCKTAIL WEEK
2012 marks an election year and also the fifth annual Midtown Cocktail Week. So this year's celebration of cocktails featuring some of Sacramento's best bartenders will be fashioned like a party time political rally. Dubbed "A Spirited Debate," a variety of central city eateries will transform into "political parties." The Shady Lady will be the Brandy Brigade, Restaurant Thir13en will represent as Liberal Pourers, and Faces will fly the flag as the United Lavender Party, among others.
Starting Sunday, the following eight days will be filled with a string of cocktail parties, special events, classes and a bartending competition with a $1,000 grand prize.
As always, keep a designated driver or a cab phone number handy if you're going to indulge.
Here are some highlights of Midtown Cocktail Week 2012:
A Spirited Debate
Sunday Outdoor kickoff event at 20th and J streets from noon to 4 p.m. $20 advance/ $25 at door.
Tuesday "Super Tuesday" cocktail competition at the Shady Lady from 6 to 10 p.m.
Aug. 23 Italian aperitifs at Hot Italian from 6 to 10 p.m.
Aug. 24 1920s-style "Repeal Prohibition" political rally at Grange Restaurant & Bar from 5 p.m. to midnight.
Aug. 25 Punch prepared by the Sacramento chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild and served at the Governor's Mansion from 6 to 9 p.m.
Aug. 26 Midtown Cocktail Week closing bash with a Southern flair at the Golden Bear.
Information: For a complete lineup of events and cocktail recipes, visit http://midtowncocktailweek.org/