Somewhere in the middle of 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” Daniel Plainview, played to great effect by Daniel Day Lewis, sits for an afternoon meal with his son. They order steak, milk for the kid and, for Plainview, a ruthless oil tycoon, a large tumbler of whiskey. It is a tense scene, fraught with balance and nuance, but I don’t think the writers had the gustatory aspect in mind when they penned it. And yet, I can’t help but be reminded of Plainview’s hard stares and his son’s discomfort whenever I am confronted by the curious practice of accompanying food with hard liquor.
I may welcome whiskey after a rich steak dinner, but the idea of joining the two doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t know if this has something to do with the whiskey itself, or the fattiness of grilled meat, or just the missed opportunity of a firmly structured red wine. Whatever the case, drinking spirits with food is a tricky business, but when it works it can be memorable.
The martini, by which I mean gin and vermouth in desperately fought-over proportions, has a mercurial savory side. I’m not talking about the custom of adding a brined olive, although I imagine that practice stems from the very quality to which I refer. Even when adorned with the more sensible lemon peel twist, the martini gives the impression that it works with food. This must have to do with the herbaceous core of the gin and the fruity, yeast-like quality of vermouth. The combination seems to cry-out for salt. I recommend a dry-ish martini and a plate of steak tartare. This works for two reasons really. One, the mineral character of the fresh beef seems to respond to the bracing quality of gin. The other reason is more practical: between all those garnishes (chopped capers, raw shallots, etc.), seasonings and raw egg, the prospects of a successful wine pairing seems dim.
Very cold vodka drunk alongside shellfish is another good idea. I discovered this several years ago during a dismal New Year’s Eve party, enlivened only by what must have been an expensive fruits de mer tower. At some stage someone produced a bottle of good vodka from the freezer which, we later learned from the host, was left behind by his Russian ex-girlfriend. It was glycerine-like when poured and, rather than potent and flavorless, which had been my impression of vodka before that evening, had definite body and mineral complexity. We drank quickly from small ceramic shot glasses between bites of crab, oyster, clam, prawn and smoked salmon. I think the success of the union had as much to do with what wasn’t present in the vodka--namely, strong taste--as it did with what was there. It was a cold and clean foil to the fish, far more adept than any wine would have been, including Champagne.
Of course I’m not the first to recognize these happy marriages. Russians, who wash all sorts of things down with vodka, including fish in several forms, would be the first to point this out. The Scandinavians with their delectable smorgesboards drink akvavit, which, while often flavored with spices and herbs, serves very much in the same capacity as did the Vodka that revelatory New Years Eve. One may read these things with some level of interest, but there really is no substitute for personal discovery. Which makes me wonder: perhaps I ought to give Mr Plainview the benefit of the doubt and pour whiskey the next time I cook a steak.