What pairs with meat loaf? Hands up if you'd suggest a gutsy red wine or beer. Good strategies. But what if I were to qualify the question with the word cocktail? Any thoughts?
Mixed drinks and comfort foods – not just the lowly loaf but also such cold-winter standards as macaroni and cheese, chili and short ribs – can seem like strange bedfellows. But must they present an impossible match? What if you're out of wine and beer on a snowy meat-loaf Monday and still fancy an adult beverage? Does the home bar, assuming it's reasonably well-stocked, present options?
I put the challenge to a few creative Canadian mixologists. Remarkably, they were quick with ideas (and didn't laugh me out of the bar).
"Meat loaf – I'd go Manhattan right away," said Frankie Solarik, co-owner of Bar Chef, the vaunted cocktail emporium on Queen West in Toronto, and author of The Bar Chef, a splendid new drinks book. He says the earthy ground beef is a natural counterpoint for the herbal-sweet profile of red vermouth and the nutty mellowness of corn-based bourbon (he prefers bourbon to the more traditional, spicy rye whisky).
My own embellishment: Be liberal with the bitters (two parts whisky to one part red vermouth and three or four good dashes of Angostura bitters); the loaf won't take offence to the extra kick.
Lauren Mote, bar manager at Uva Wine Bar in Vancouver and co-owner of a company that makes the Bittered Sling line of extracts for cocktails, had a meat-loaf pairing. She suggests a drink called Peater Rabbit, which she created recently for the Uva list. It's a riff on the Rob Roy, the Scotch-whisky-based variation of the Manhattan.
Combine 11/2-ounces Glenmorangie single malt whisky and 1/2 ounce Ardbeg 10-Year-Old (an especially peaty, smoky single malt) with 3/4 ounce red vermouth, 1/4 ounce Benedictine liqueur and 2 dashes Bittered Sling Cascade Celery Bitters (Bitteredsling.com) in a shaker with ice; stir and strain into a cocktail glass; garnish with an orange-peel slice.
"It's got just enough peat to affect the palate," she said, but not enough to overwhelm those who may not enjoy very smoky spirits.
My next proposed item: beef chili. "Looking at the heat and spice, you need some sweetness," Solarik said. "I would definitely go Old Fashioned because then you have the notes of the orange as well."
A foundation of the classic-cocktail canon, the Old Fashioned could not be simpler. A mix of whisky (ideally bourbon or rye) with an Angostura-soaked sugar cube (a splash of water helps dissolve the sugar along with two dashes of the bitters) and a citrus twist on the rocks, it lets the chili do the talking while fanning the flames with a cold, subtly fruity caramel-whisky mellowness.
Should you feel more ambitious, Solarik, whose creations often involve the molecular-gastronomy embellishments of smoke, foam and gelatin, offers a riff on the standard in his book. He calls it the Newly Fashioned. Combine rosemary-infused bourbon with raisin bitters (his recipe is not too hard to make, though it takes three months to permit the ingredients to steep) and grapefruit zest.
Justin Taylor, head bartender at Yew Seafood + Bar in the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, offers an "awesome pairing" for spicy chili: equal parts lime juice, green chartreuse, gin and maraschino liqueur. "It has tons of sweetness and complexity to balance the heat and rich flavours," he said. "If you wanted to go Mexican, swap the gin for a blanco [or silver] tequila."
My own tried-and-true simple "cocktail" for chili is Jack Daniel's Tennessee whisky or Jim Beam Black bourbon on the rocks in a tumbler with a quarter-lime wedge squeezed into the glass. Add two dashes of orange bitters if you have them.
There is, I would submit, no comfort food more au courant today than beef short ribs. The saucy, tender meat, stewed red flesh on bone, begs for a deeply flavoured, caveman cocktail. Once again Solarik taps the whisky barrel for a pairing, specifically Scotch. In a wintry drink he calls the Antique Formula, he mixes 1 1/2 ounces smoky Scotch from the island of Islay, ¼ ounce bitter-almond-flavoured Amaretto liqueur, dash of absinthe, ¼ ounce sweet vermouth, a splash of vanilla syrup and ½ ounce apricot bitters (recipes for the latter two are in his book).
As a cocktail minimalist, I think of it as a multilayered fusion of the regal Sazerac (rye, absinthe, Peychaud's bitters, sugar) with the Godfather (Scotch and amaretto).
If brown spirits are the pillar of autumn-winter imbibing, cheese is the glue that binds so much of the dining. Taylor suggests what he considers the killer cocktail for a cheese course. He calls it the Black Walnut Manhattan: two ounces Forty Creek Barrel Select Whisky from Ontario, one ounce Ramazzotti Amaro (a bitter Italian liqueur) and "four to five heavy dashes" of Fees Brothers Black Walnut Bitters, stirred over ice and strained into a cocktail glass. For the record, Taylor matures his blend for five to six weeks in a small oak barrel behind the Yew bar, where it develops extra vanilla smoothness.
"That is ideal for charcuterie boards that have cheese on them," Taylor says.
Macaroni and cheese? To my surprise, Taylor and Solarik independently zeroed in on the same classic cocktail: the negroni, an urbane Italian aperitif based on equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari.
"Mac and cheese is one of the best things to have with it as far as I'm concerned," Taylor said. "The bitter element of Campari cuts through that saucy, cheesy mess."
And as for my beloved chicken pot pie? Mote did not hesitate with a suggestion: The Normandy. Her own creation, it combines one ounce Mission Hill SLC Chardonnay (a fine, full-bodied British Columbia white); one ounce white vermouth; one ounce Calvados French apple brandy; 1/2 ounce Strega herbal Italian liqueur; and 2 dashes of Bittered Sling Lem-Marrakech bitters. She stirs it over ice.
Beppi Crosariol is co-author, with The Globe's Lucy Waverman, of The Flavour Principle, a sumptuous new cookbook and drinks compendium, published by HarperCollins.