If you visit a wine bar in any American city, you’ll likely find a food menu featuring cheeses intended to pair with the vino varietals on offer. The cheese-and-wine partnership is rightfully famous, and these days, you can find any number of beer pubs and breweries getting in on the cheese-pairing action, too.
However, there’s a category of alcoholic beverages that aren’t as popularly associated with cheese, but probably should be: hard spirits, liqueurs, and cocktails. We spoke to cheese experts, distillers, and bartenders to learn their favorite hard-booze-and-cheese combinations, and they provided us with 10 flavorful pairings to add to your cheese-counter and liquor-store shopping lists.
With a multifaceted flavor profile and a delicate sweetness, bourbon whiskey matches beautifully with salty cheeses that have nuanced taste notes. When it comes time to choose a bourbon and a cheese that play especially nicely together, Derek Tenbusch of Lonerider Spirits in Durham, NC opts for a high-rye bourbon (a version with 20-35% rye in its mash bill) and smoked Gouda.
“Cheese and bourbon make for a delicious combination. This is particularly true with a cheese like Gouda. We recommend pairing a smoked Gouda cheese with a high-rye [Tenbusch prefers Lonerider Sherry Cash Finish Bourbon], as the toasted oak and pepper finish [on the bourbon] will complement the nutty and smoky characteristics of the cheese. Enjoy the bourbon either neat or on the rocks,” Tenbusch tells The Manual.
There’s a reason why a stiff margarita feels like the perfect way to wash down a plate of nachos: Tequila and cheese make for a harmonious union. “Agave spirits like tequila work well with cheese because of their inherent layers of complex flavors; from grassy minerals and peppery spice to tropical fruit and candied sweetness, there are so many [flavors to] potentially pair with different cheeses,” explains agave educator and pairing consultant Tess Rose of Murray’s Cheese in New York City.
When we asked the Murray’s team for a specific tequila-and-cheese recommendation, education coordinator Michaela Weitzer offered up the following: “ Feta [is an] incredible pairing with blanco tequila [Weitzer prefers Meredith Feta]. This pairing resonates with the flavors of both the agave and the milk type in the cheese – super bright and very refreshing!”
Because so-called “stinky” cheeses have so much aromatic and flavor-based “personality,” it can be challenging to pair them with wines and beers, since the pungency of the cheese often overtakes the more subtle characteristics of these beverages. However, hard liquor has an astringency that holds its own against a “stinky” cheese’s assertive taste and can even accentuate more delicate notes and intriguing secondary flavors.
Founder Christian Hansen of Blue Ridge Creamery in Travelers Rest, SC particularly enjoys the hard-spirit-and-potent-cheese pairing of aquavit (a Scandinavian liquor distilled with herbs) and Gamalost, an aged cheese from Norway. “I’ve been espousing hard spirits with cheese for some time now, but I can’t take credit for it, as it’s traditional to pair Danish smørrebrod (open-faced sandwiches) with aquavit (like vodka, it can be made from grain or potato and is typically flavored with caraway). The astringent nature of the spirit serves as a palate cleanser to the cheese, which is typically Gamelost (literally ‘old cheese’ [in Norwegian]), a very stinky cousin to Limburger. While that may sound strange to the uninitiated, it works for the same reason a tannic, high-alcohol red [wine] goes so well with a ribeye: The sensory pleasure is derived partly from the repeated coating and cleansing of the lipids on our tongue,” Hansen explains. (You can check out a full interview with Christian on cheese here.)
Burrata, also known as a fresh mozzarella pouch filled with cream, counts among the richest, most luxurious cheese products you can purchase, especially when enjoyed with a warm hunk of crusty artisanal bread. Flavorwise, burrata is beloved for its gentle sweetness, which you can deliciously highlight by pairing this semi-soft cheese with orange liqueur.
Co-founders Litty Mathew & Melkon Khosrovian of Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles, CA love this drink-and-cheese collaboration because “the subtle, warm flavor of the orange liqueur” makes an excellent foil for the cool temperature and mild taste of the burrata. When it comes to service suggestions for burrata when paired with orange liqueur, Mathew & Khosrovian like to put “a few sprinkles of pink sea salt on top of the burrata,” creating a profile that reminds them of “an arugula, burrata, balsamic, and tangerine sliced salad.”
Both hailing from the Normandy region of France, Calvados brandy and Camembert cheese are already a geographic match with plenty of history to back up their connection. According to national director of craft spirits education Diana Novak of Palm Bay International and cheese educator and writer Christine Clark, “Calvados [Novak and Clark prefer Boulard Calvados] and Camembert is an iconic pairing that evokes notes of honey, dried apricot, stewed apple, wild mushroom, and toasted onions. Founded in 1825 and family-run for nearly 200 years, Calvados is produced in the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy, [while] Camembert has been produced since at least 1706 [and] is one of four iconic cheeses from Normandy.”
Manchego, a hard sheep-milk cheese from Spain, certainly works well alongside Spanish reds like Rioja and Tempranillo…but bar manager Ryan Gavin of Gran Tivoli and Peppi’s Cellar in New York City also enjoys Manchego with dry vermouth (especially in the context of a martini), telling us that “hard and chalky cheeses like Manchego pair really well with martinis, due to dry vermouth’s savory and herbaceous nature.”
A rich, syrupy, and bittersweet Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts, Nocino is typically consumed as an after-dinner digestivo, sometimes alongside a dessert-course cheese plate. According to beverage director Mike Wyatt of Ward 8 in Boston, MA, the ultimate Italian cheese for a Nocino pairing comes in the form of Parmigiano Reggiano. “I would suggest pairing Nocino – an Italian walnut liqueur – with an aged Parmigiano Reggiano. You’ll often find nuts and honey on a cheese board, and the liqueur will mimic those flavors and pair nicely with the cheese. They’re also both from the same region [of] Emilia-Romagna,” Wyatt explains.
Cognac, a brandy distilled in an eponymous region of France, must be aged at least 2 years to officially qualify as “Cognac.” However, versions that undergo 10 or more years of aging receive an “XO” (or “Extra Old”) designation, which implies richer, more fully-developed flavors. Cheese specialist Tia Keenan, author of “The Art of the Cheese Plate”, considers
Spirit-and-cheese pairings aren’t limited to straight pours of liquor; cocktails featuring hard booze can also link up nicely with your favorite dairy wedges. One (slightly surprising) example?
Goat cheese and Daiquiris. Beverage director Melissa Reigle of Byblos in Miami, FL says that “goat cheese croquettes (or anything with goat cheese, really) can be very well complemented by a traditional Daiquiri. The flavors of the rum pair well with the cheese, and the acid of the cocktail will slice through this particular cheese’s fat like a hot knife through butter.”
As we’ve written in the past, hot apple cider with a slug of spirits is an ideal beverage treat for the chillier seasons. Lead bartender Julianna Arquilla of Bar Sotano in Chicago, IL has a clear preference for a cheese to eat with her cider: “One of my favorite fall pairings for cocktails and cheese is hot spiked cider with sharp Cheddar cheese. I like [to spike my cider with] Wheatley Vodka because the natural sweetness and viscosity of the vodka lends itself to the sweetness of the fresh local cider I use, along with local honey. Also, since it is apple season and I grew up eating apple pie with Cheddar cheese, this is a no-brainer paring. The sweetness from the vodka and apple cut through the sharpness of the Cheddar beautifully. This combo is perfect for the cozy fall and winter evenings ahead of us.”
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