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Not-sweet cocktails that mesh well with food

Forgive me if this has been asked a thousand times--couldn't find anything in the archives.

Summer is coming where I live, and while we are red wine drinkers all winter, we are not big on whites, and like something cold in the evenings once it gets hot. We do sometimes drink dry rose, but I am sort of off beer lately...my body doesn't seem to like it too much (gives me a headache and makes me sleepy, even one). So, hey, I have a cocktail shaker. I want to pick up some new mixed drinks that will not clash terribly with food--they don't have to "go," but it has to at least seem in the realm of possibility to sip it while eating, since that's when I usually drink. Lightly sweet is okay, but sweet-sweet is really out...I'm not much on sweet drinks, period.

I have rum, vodka, gin, bitters (have never used!) I am not that into gin, actually, but maybe could be converted. I also like tequila. Do not like whiskey or scotch, no matter how many times I try them. Not a fan of the martini. I love citrus and herbal flavors. I also like tonic water a whole lot. Rum and tonic with lime (I know--a bit odd) used to be my drink, but I'd like to branch out.

The other caveat is that I'd like it to be something that's relatively easy to whip up from things I generally have around or that are shelf-stable, or can be made (I did make an orange-vodka infuction recently).

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  1. The obvious choice would be a Gin and Tonic. Since you like Rum and Tonics (as do I), you like bitter flavors. Use a big squeeze of lime to tame the sugar in the Tonic and/or use a premium tonic water brand as they tend to be less sweet. I think you'll soon grow to love gin. Because it is a tall drink, you can sip one for a while.

    Since you have some tolerance for bitter, you might pick up a bottle of Campari. Start with a dilute Campari and Soda, with a big squeeze of lemon or lime. Perhaps 1 oz Campari in a highball or Collins glass and increase from there. It is a beautiful, light drink, relatively low in alcohol so you can have a few over a warm summer's night and not get too intoxicated. This drink also responds well to the addition of gin or even tequila.

    Have you had a really well made Margarita? This is not the disgusting sweet drink that you'd get in every Mexican restaurant or non-craft bar. It is a delightful, citrus-forward adult drink. Since we share a dislike of sweet drinks, I suggest you start with 2oz tequila (blanco or reposado), 1 oz Cointreau, 1 oz lime juice (fresh, of course). Use a good 100% agave tequila (Hornitos is fine, and widely available). Shake. Salt the rim of the glass if you like (leave half unsalted so you have the choice of salt or not, and not too much salt). I actually prefer Margaritas on the rocks, but I'd odd that way. Push the blender to the far back of the shelf. ;-)

    And similarly, a well made Daiquiri is a thing of beauty. Your favorite rum, a little sugar or simple syrup, and some lime.

    I think all of these go well with food. Some might dispute the bitter drinks, but I enjoy a sip of something bitter with most foods -- very refreshing and sort of a wake-up for your palate.
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    2 Replies
    1. re: EvergreenDan

      Thank you! Those sounds lovely. Yes, I do actually like a real margarita, come to think of--that is, I have had some made in someone's home that were good--not frozen and not sweet.. I never order them out since I don't trust them.

      I'm not familiar with Campari. It sounds like something to try, for sure. As for gin, I think I'm just scarred from lots of bad gin in college. Can you recommend a mid-priced brand to start with? We have a small bottle of Bombay Sapphire in the house that my husband bought (he likes it).

      1. re: loraxc

        You'll find lots of opinions on gin. I like Sapphire, and it's not that expensive. Bombay, Gordons, and Tanqueray are all fine brands. Plymouth is softer -- less juniper and slightly sweeter. Hendricks has less juniper and some floral / cucumber tones. Personally, I prefer a dry, juniper-forward gin.

        Campari is quite bitter by itself, so ease into it. It is one of my most favorite drinks and ingredients.

    2. A great warm weather drink is the Aperol Spritz. Aperol is an orange flavored aperitif. In a wine or rocks glass add ice, put in 2 parts prosecco, 1 1/2 parts Aperol, and a splash of club soda. It's a light refreshing drink and really pretty low in alcohol.

      1. The Collins is a classic highball that I feel tends to get overlooked these days. Just gin (or other spirit), soda, lemon juice (fresh squeezed), and simple syrup. Go easy on the simple syrup and you should have a nice tart cooling drink for the summer that will go fine with most foods. I like these even better made with Meyer lemon juice.

        I agree with Dan that Daiquiris and Margaritas are classic summer cocktails. If you like ginger beer, the Moscow Mule is another good highball that is not quite as well known. The Pegu Club is another one to try out. Lime and gin and the bitters take it in another direction.

        1 Reply
        1. re: nickls

          Sounds good, all of it. I was reading the "manly cocktail" thread (it would seem that I naturally like manly cocktails, except for Scotch/whiskey...this amuses me since I am very much female) and the Pegu Club got my attention--it sounds lovely. Thanks!

        2. I like a Negroni, equal parts gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, on the rocks.

          A sipping quality tequila is another favorite of mine.

          1 Reply
          1. Americano's are pretty good to drink with a dinner. It's Lillet (sweet vermouth), campari, and club soda garnished w/a slice of orange and lemon peel.

            Otherwise I prefer a whiskey highball: whiskey and club soda with a slice of lemon added.

            2 Replies
            1. re: deet13

              I completely agree with the Americano suggestion. I don't like sweet drinks either and I find and Americano is great on it's own or with food.

              1. re: Beachy1

                Lately I've been using a splash of San Pelligrino orange soda water to top mine off with... I like the slightly sweet orange and bitter flavor combo.

                It's a good starter cocktail.

            2. loraxc,

              I am going to try and make this even easier on you.

              Well balanced cocktails and well balanced food go together.

              Evergreen is 100% right in mentioning the Margarita. As much as we may think of Spring Break in Cancun, even an average Margarita is one of the best food and cocktail pairings.

              I will digress for a moment. Through a story far to complicated to relate here, I spent two days with Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein specifically working on spirits/cocktail and food pairing.
              It also turns out there were 5 PhD food scientists in this work shop as well as other spirits industry professionals. Margaritas were easily the favorite pairing. Now this could in part be because it is one of the only cocktails we easily associate with dinner when eating Mexican food, but we found it to be more than that. Margaritas, particularly with salt, naturally have a sweet, sour, salty component that is balanced on the palate (I'll get to bitter in a moment). Because the cocktail is naturally balanced, it tends not to conflict with the food you are eating--as long as the food is balanced as well. But one out of two is always better. Peaty scotch and spicey food is something I never, ever, need to put in my mouth ever again right after each other. Note, a well made Margarita has sweet components but is not cloying.

              So if you think, instead of a specific cocktail (though they can be your guides), about getting a little sweet, a little sour, a little salt and/or bitter involved so you have a blanaced cocktail, almost anything can go with food. Though as noted, Scotch is tough unless you LOVE it, and since you don't. No worries.

              Rum and Tonic with Lime is not odd, I used to serve a billion Mt. Gay and Tonics in my beach bar days. But let's look a little closer here....Rum has sweet fruity components, lime provides a touch of sour and tonic has the bitter, although botanicals/aromatics are also expressed. It is a balanced cocktail. In this case, there is no need for salt. I personally find the salt and bitter components interchangable--if you have one, you don't need the other.

              This thread has been amazingly competent in suggesting cocktails that when properly made, have at least a sweet, sour, bitter or satly component and are easy to make. Note the mentions of drinks made with Campari or Aperol, these essentially provide both the sweet and bitter component at the same time. They are a staple behind any bar worth a dime and provide you with tons of deliciousness in one bottle.

              I just recently was at a dinner where every course was paired with a cocktail made with Aperol. It was a huge success.

              We have been taught to believe, mostly from the wine industry, that there is some sort of voodoo involved with pairings and there exists somewhere, a perfect match. Well to be sure, Muscadet and Oysters are magical and Pinot Noir with Salmon/Lamb are special. But Margaritas and Tacos could be in that group as well. There are plenty of way to eat and drink awesomely, you just need to experiement and find them.

              3 Replies
              1. re: ellaystingray

                Muscadet--meh. Try those oysters with manzanilla, or, for real magic, sake.

                1. re: Gustavo Glenmorangie


                  By your handle I'd had thought you'd suggest the Sonnalta PX. If you prefer Sake, please, by all means, drink that with your oysters. It is your mouth, put in it what you want. :)

                2. re: ellaystingray

                  I am belatedly returning to this thread to thank you for this interesting and fun reply!

                3. Thought of one more: martinez. I like them 1:1 gin to sweet vermouth, a teaspoon of maraschino liqueur to taste, dash of orange bitters to taste.

                  1. Martinis and sushi!

                    On a hot summer night in the backyard. Mmmmmm.