If you’ve ever felt uncertain mixing spirits with snacks, you’re not alone. However, through rigorous and very scientific testing methods, we think we’ve uncovered some perfect pairings…
Food and drink. The phrase rolls off the tongue in such a way that it makes me believe they should rarely be apart. Breakfast deserves orange juice. Tea demands biscuits. They complement each other so carefully that you can almost imagine every type of drink having an invisible string connecting it to its faithful food friend.
But then spirits enter the picture, and the strings end up getting a bit tangled. You can enjoy an excellent spirit with food, I just don’t think I’ve ever quite found a perfect duo. However, I truly think there’s opportunity for greatness when spirits meet snack foods, and so through my Very Important Research, I set out to uncover some impeccable pairs.
First order of business was to assemble a snack selection. I chose eight snack foods that I believed stood a good chance of complementing a spirit – with some caveats. For starters, I’m a vegetarian, which automatically ruled out some snacks – my apologies, pork scratchings aficionados. I’ve also seen the dangers of introducing cutlery to a casual pub setting first hand, so anything involving knives and forks was also not considered. With this in mind, the final snack list was…
The snack ensemble
Crisps – Specifically cheese and onion flavoured crisps. It’s the best readily available flavour of crisp and I am willing to fight my corner on that.
Peanuts – Specifically salted peanuts. Why wouldn’t I want my legumes to be covered in tiny mineral crystals?
Tortilla chips – Specifically salted tortilla chips. I usually want to avoid having my fingers covered in that bright orange dust found on cheesy tortilla chips.
Plantain chips – Specifically salted plantain chips. OK, this time I was limited by the selection at the shop, but probably what I would have chosen anyway.
Popcorn – Specifically salted popcorn. I refuse to acknowledge sweet popcorn.
Olives – Specifically green olives. You might think olives need cutlery, or at least a toothpick, but I don’t. Does this make me a monster? Maybe.
Pretzels – Specifically salted pretzels. Other jazzy flavours are available, but let’s be real. Let’s be really real. If you’re getting pretzels, you’re getting salted pretzels.
Pickled onions – Specifically… Actually, never mind. They’re pickled onions.
Next, a spirit selection was assembled. For this list, I picked out drinks that wouldn’t raise too much of an eyebrow if you were to see them on the back bar of your local drinking establishment. OK, the genever might be a bit surprising, but I really like genever and wanted to see what if there were any good matches. I’ll admit I was playing favourites. To allow for general applications of the findings I won’t be revealing any of the brands, but I aimed to use good examples of the spirit and style. The final list was peated single malt, sherried single malt, bourbon, dark rum, gin, genever and reposado Tequila.
Snacks chosen. Spirits chosen. The science soon followed. These tastings were done over a series of days, and the routine was to sip Spirit A, eat Snack A, assess, take a good glug of water, eat Snack A, sip Spirit A, assess, take a good glug of water, repeat with Snack B, and so on. Tasting the spirits and snacks both ways around seemed important to me when I started, but it only ever really made a difference a handful of times. If a combination tasted bad one way around, nine times out of ten it tasted bad the other way around too. I did get to eat more pickled onions than I would have done otherwise, though. Silver linings.
Well then. Here’s how it all played out.
Peated single malt
Top Snack: Peanuts
Peat and peanuts!
It appears that peanuts and phenols are good friends, as the salted peanuts were the best partner for peated single malt. It ended up tasting like smoky peanut butter, which absolutely should be a thing. I am willing to lose crunchy peanut butter if it means we can have smoky peanut butter instead. The briny intensity of olives stood up well to peaty whisky, and the tangy brightness of pickled onion was enjoyably refreshing when juxtaposed with the smoky single malt. Popcorn is the enemy of smoky whisky – the combo was astringent and unpleasant.
Sherried single malt
Top Snack: Plantain chips
Plantain chips and sherried whisky makes for a fruit-forward combo
The sweet, subtle fruitiness of plantain chips blended brilliantly with the red berry and chocolate notes in sherried single malt, making it the best partner for this whisky. However, the rest of the snacks didn’t really put up much of a fight for the top spot. The cheesy crisps we’re pretty good (after a few seconds – it starts out a bit too sweet, but gets better), and pickled onion is definitely worth a go, though neither were anywhere near great. Tortilla chips and sherried single malt somehow ended up having the consistency and flavour of spent coffee grounds. As you can imagine, not great.
Top Snack: Pickled Onions
Who didn’t see this one coming?
Pickle juice and bourbon is a strange combination that sounds terrible but is the complete opposite. With that knowledge, I will admit that I approached bourbon and pickled onions with an inkling that this would be a winning pair. Reader, I was right about pickled onions and bourbon. They’re such a great team. Popcorn performed well here, as did the tortilla chips, which I think has something to do with their corn content and the corn content of bourbon. The sweetness of plantain chips did not help its cause, with the combination becoming unappealingly marshmallowy. Sadly, olives are just too funky to pair with bourbon very well at all.
Top Snack: Popcorn
I was a big fan of rum and popcorn
Popcorn was the biggest surprise here. I’d say it “really pops”, but that’s the kind of pathetic pun that makes me want to push chairs over instead of do a polite giggle. Anyway, the heaviness of the dark rum along with its powerful fruit notes pair brilliantly with the lightness of the popcorn, as well as feeding into the classic sweet/savoury dynamic. If you really like peanuts, dark rum is a good match, as it somehow manages to bolster and intensify the peanut’s flavour profile. The subtle estery notes of plantain chips blended well with rum, giving it a tasty, tangy kick, too. A strange, acidic bitterness developed when introducing pickled onions to rum, so that combo is to be avoided, I reckon.
Top snack: Inconclusive
So here’s the thing. I didn’t find a snack that I could confidently say paired perfectly with gin. That isn’t to say one doesn’t exist. This was only a test of eight snacks, I have of course missed great swaths of snack foods, including ones across the globe that I have never had the chance to try (but really want to – if anyone knows where I can get halva in Ireland, give us a shout). I did taste a few good matches, though. To the surprise of no one, olives work well with gin. The creamy, subtle sweetness of plantain chips helped to balance the herbal bitterness, as did the very light toastiness and saltiness of pretzels. Pickled onions were fine, if a little bit too punchy. The best thing to be said about crisps and gin was that it opened up the chance to write something about “crisps and crisp juniper”, but even then it was kind of hard to fit into a sentence naturally. A missed opportunity.
Top Snack: Peanuts
Got all artsy with the peanut placements
You might think that genever is too similar to gin to yield any different outcomes, and that my personal love of the spirit might influence the results. However, try genever and peanuts and tell me that combo isn’t awesome. I dare you. Spiciness, creaminess, saltiness, a whiff of earthiness and subtle sweetness – it’s all there, and it’s great. Plantain chips are on a similar wavelength to peanuts when paired with genever, except leaning a bit more on the sweetness. Tortilla chips, crisps and popcorn helped the herbaceous elements of genever come through a little brighter, which was cool. Pretzels and genever ended up being a pretty bland combination, while the pickled onion overwhelmed the genever completely, which is a sin in my book.
Top Snack: Olives
My favourite combo of the lot – Tequila and olives
Only one snack and spirit pairing made me swear out loud, and that was olives and Tequila. It’s such a good combo – instantly bright and juicy on the palate, with savoury, oily notes lasting, plus a little hint of funk popping up later on. But that’s not all – both popcorn and pretzels really impressed me with the Tequila too. The big, crunchy salt crystals on the pretzels supercharge the vegetal earthiness of the spirit, and the softly toasty popcorn created an almost bourbon-esque flavour profile with the Tequila. The oniony notes of the crisps made for an enjoyably tangy experience, while the estery elements of the plantain chips were bolstered wonderfully. Tortilla chips performed pretty well, but did get a bit lost underneath the Tequila, while the opposite was the case for pickled onions, which took over the palate once again. Peanuts started out alright, but after a few chews the combination became surprisingly way too sweet.
I recognise that I have written a lot of words about snacks, all of which sort of amounts to a series of yummy/not yummy verdicts. I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped past them in the hopes of there being a graph or something you can refer to and quickly see what snack you should pick up to pair with a tasty bottle you’ve got on your shelf. If you did do that, you’re in luck. Inspired by a colleague’s deep love of charts and graphs, feast your eyes on this incredibly artistic chart that I made. Enjoy.
Artistic, scientific, and very colourful
What did we learn from this? Well, personally I think I have learnt that Tequila may be my favourite spirit to pair with food. It produced the best combo with the olives, and worked well with almost all of the snacks. While I was very excited to see how pickled onion would fare, I found that it wasn’t actually a great match for most of the spirits on the list. I’m honestly not surprised, but I think it’s good to have that confirmed – I’ll stick to eating them straight from the fridge when I accidentally wake up at 2 a.m. I also decided that further research will need to happen to find a good partner for gin. Even with top tier Martini and Gibson garnishes in the running, nothing made me jump out of my chair. Perhaps sweet snacks are the way to go? Only time will tell. On the topic of more testing, I really would love to do this again with different spirit and different snacks. If you reckon there’s a spirit out there that could use a partner, or snacks that deserve investigation – or if you’ve done your own analysis and found your own perfect match – let me know in the comments!