Most people automatically reach for beer and wine for a hearty dinner, especially when rich meats are involved. But hold the carafe! Amy Johns, bar manager at Melbourne’s much-loved Le Bon Ton, says pairing dinner with spirits can reveal some winning flavour combinations.

“Pairing with spirits is always an interesting concept,” says Johns. “There’s endless possibilities in terms of flavours with mixers and cocktails. You don’t drink spirits straight-up, and there’s a lot more you can do with them.”

We asked Johns for some guidance with pairing spirits in some familiar dining situations.

Dinner with friends
It’s a Friday night and you want something hearty to share with friends. When considering pairing food with spirits at a dinner party, Johns says the idea is to impress your guests, but not to overwhelm them: “It’s about having a taster and the experience of different flavours.”

Something familiar as a starter, like fried chicken, can be paired well with bourbon. “The spice and wood characteristics of bourbon work well with the creaminess of the buttermilk chicken in terms of texture and flavours,” says Johns.

While bourbon has its subtle elements, it’s also bold enough to match with a red-meat main, such as pork or brisket. “The wood smoke characters in the meat match bourbon’s aged wood characteristics and spices,” she says. “Also the caramel sweetness of the whiskey can lift the flavour of the meat.”

Dinner date
Forget prim white tablecloths and matching cutlery – when getting intimate on a date, the casual approach of music, footsies under the table, and a serve of fries, burgers and dessert can be a much better ice breaker. For an appropriate drink, Johns says a cocktail such as a Bourbon Rickey – involving bourbon, lime and soda – works well with burgers as a palate cleanser. “Bourbon is a bold flavour that complements the meat,” says Johns. “While the sharpness of the lime cuts through all the flavours in the burger.”

But burgers don’t demand bourbon alone: sub the burger patty for a slice of mushroom and more drink options come into play. “I would recommend gin with a mushroom burger,” says Johns. “The dryness and bitterness of the gin will cut through the earthiness of the mushroom without over complicating it.” With mains complete, a date-night can finally get down to business: dessert. Johns says this is where a spirit accompaniment, such as cognac, sherry or rum, really shines.

Dairy desserts can enhance cognac’s aged, oaky and vanilla characteristics, says Johns. It also embraces lighter elements, such as citrus. But for a rich chocolate-based dessert, such as Le Bon Ton’s Choc Peanut Butter Pie, Johns recommends a sweet sherry or rum. “The main characteristics of raisins and spice lift the cacao,” says Johns. “One rum in particular I would recommend is the Flying Dutchman – a rum distilled in the Netherlands and aged in Pedro Ximinez barrels.”

Family dinner
Johns wholeheartedly approves of bringing spirits to the (mature-age) family dinner. “It’s about experimenting and seeing what flavours in the food interact well with the spirits,” she says.

A fun and easy meal to share, such as chicken or chilli-cheese fries, can be a welcome opener on the dinner table. Johns says a starter like fries demands an aperitif such as Campari soda or Aperol, which won’t overpower the fries, but will still cleanse the palate ahead of richer mains. If you move on to hot or sweet flavours, Johns says the paired spirit should be something sharper to cut through.

“The sharpness of a grain spirit, such as an American rye, works well with subtle sweetness,” says Johns. “Whereas for an intense flavour combination involving a hot spice, like chilli or jalepenos, you need something sharp, like a rye or non-peated scotch.”

Johns also points out that spirits don’t have to be confined to the glass – they can make a great cooking ingredient. “You can do a bourbon glaze on a roast, for example, or another kind of sauce, or marinade involving spirits,” she says. “Then you can get all the complex flavours of the spirit without actually drinking it.”

Try out some of Johns’s pairings tonight via the Le Bon Ton menu on Deliveroo.

This article is presented in partnership with Deliveroo.