Steak dinner with cocktails

Pairing Cocktails with Steak

When it comes to a steak dinner, nothing beats a thick porterhouse, cooked to a perfect medium rare and served with bordelaise sauce drizzled on top. A side of mashed potatoes or asparagus is even better. But no dinner is complete without a drink. While a large goblet of red wine is the most popular choice, it’s not your only option.

You could substitute that glass of red for a white or rosé, or even a flute of Champagne. But what if you prefer a cocktail? While some might turn their nose up at the thought of imbibing a cocktail with a steak, cocktails can be enjoyed before, after, and even during dinner — as long as it’s the right cocktail. For example, a mai tai might go perfectly with that spam musubi and ramen, but not really with a cheeseburger. No, you should crack open a beer for that meal.

Since I’ve enjoyed my fair share of cocktails with all sorts of entrées over the years, I know which drinks will make the perfect mate for that hearty steak. But since I don’t know everything, I reached out to Certified Sommelier Cheryl Lassen of Mastro’s and Wine Director David Taylor of Baltaire to hear their top picks, as well. Read on to see if your favorite cocktail is the ideal match for that New York Strip, or if you should be shaking up something new.

Gin martini

Gin Martini with olives

When it comes to cocktails, none are more classic than the martini. Made with gin, vermouth, and bitters, the drink is often served up in a coupe, but can sometimes be enjoyed on the rocks. A popular choice since the 19th century, the cocktail is still popular today thanks to its crisp taste and air of sophistication. These days, martinis can be made of anything, but the gin martini is still the best choice because of its flavor.

Gin is made from juniper berries and a variety of botanicals. Each brand has its own recipe, so each gin has its own distinct flavor. You’ve probably heard of London Dry, Plymouth, and Old Tom. But there’s also American gin and Navy Strength. Depending on what you’re in the mood for will translate to the type of gin for which you reach. For a classic gin martini, London Dry works great because you not only want to taste that juniper and citrus, but those flavors go quite well with the onion, olive, or lemon twist garnish. They also just happen to unite with a steak.

Those herbal notes from the London Dry complement the rich, meatiness of the steak while highlighting the herbs usually found in the compound butters, chimichurri, and Béarnaise sauces that frequently accompany the tenderloin or strip. While a sweeter, more floral gin might enhance the savoriness of the steak, the London Dry is the best choice for the cleanest accompaniment.

Vodka martini

Woman holding a martini

There’s been a debate raging for years over which is the real martini — vodka or gin. If you’ve yet to try either, vodka is a great starter, because vodka tends to be the cleaner liquor, lacking any distinct flavor or odor. That absence of taste and smell means that the bitters and vermouth used to create the vodka martini will shine alongside whatever garnish you choose. But it also means it won’t detract from that delectable steak dinner.

Now, that doesn’t mean all vodkas are created equal. Some are harsher than others, which is why when stirring up a vodka martini, you want the best vodka you can get. You want one that’s smoother and will go down easier, allowing the nuances of the steak to really shine.

But what’s really the best about a vodka martini is all that can be done with it. While a plain vodka martini is delicious all on its own, that clean palate means the imbiber can enhance the cocktail in whatever way they deem fit. You could add an extra dash or two of bitters, or you could make that dry martini wet by adding a little more vermouth. But a favorite way to improve the drink is by turning that crystal clear martini into a dirty martini. Adding a splash or two of olive brine not only increases the herbaceous salinity in the drink but will enhance the savoriness of your favorite cut, as well.

Vesper

Vesper cocktail with lemon twist

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If you can’t decide on gin or vodka but still want to enjoy a martini with your steak, don’t lose hope. There’s another classic cocktail out there that will work just as well: the Vesper. Made famous by that certain English spy who preferred his martinis “shaken, not stirred,” the Vesper is the drink where you don’t have to choose. The Vesper uses both gin and vodka in its recipe, so you can have your cake and eat it, too. While it’s true that there is more gin than vodka, the combination of liquors gives you a clean, crisp cocktail that still has hints of citrus and pine.

But where vodka and gin martinis use vermouth, the Vesper uses Lillet Blanc, which gives the cocktail a more citrusy flavor. A flavor that pairs perfectly with a Béarnaise, mustard, or mushroom sauce by highlighting the tang often found in each of these dressings. That pop of lemon from the gin and Lillet adds a brightness to meal, really waking up the senses so that you can truly appreciate every bite from beginning to end.

Manhattan

Manhattan cocktail in a crystal coup

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If you’re not a gin or vodka fan but still want that air of elegance that usually comes with a fancy steak dinner, then look no further than the Manhattan. Also served up in a fancy cocktail glass, the Manhattan is a martini of a different color – literally. This time, instead of gin or vodka, the base spirit is usually rye, though bourbon can be used in its place if you prefer a slightly sweeter cocktail. And instead of dry vermouth, sweet vermouth is used, along with a dash or two of aromatic bitters.

Which base liquor you go with will depend on what type of flavor you want to accompany that New York strip. If you have a steak that’s been seasoned with a healthy dose of salt and pepper and then drizzled with a peppercorn sauce, you may want to go full boar and use the rye, since it’s a spicier whiskey. But if you’re looking to temper that spice and opt for a creamier sauce, then bourbon would be the way to go, as the sweetness from both the bourbon and the sweet vermouth would be a nice complement to the steak’s spices, and mellow out their fiery harshness while enhancing the richness of the meat.

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Old fashioned

Old fashioned on wood board

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If you’re a whiskey fan and love a classic cocktail, there’s not a better choice than the old fashioned. Usually made of whiskey, a sugar cube, and aromatic bitters, this is a drink that not only looks distinguished, it will satisfy any cocktail lover. Unlike the previous cocktails on this list, the old fashioned is always served on the rocks with an orange twist. Sometimes a cherry or two are thrown in for good measure, and you might even find an occasional splash of soda to give the drink a little extra pizzazz.

This cocktail is beloved for so many reasons, but none more than the fact that the combination of a nice small batch bourbon, sugar, and bitters provides a bold yet smooth cocktail that coats the tongue with a subtle sweet citrus that balances out the smoky flavors from the meat. But if you want to go in the opposite direction, an old fashioned smoked with cedar or hickory chips will enhance the smokiness of the steak and make you feel like you’re enjoying dinner under the stars by open fire. Either way, the final combination of these two will be an experience worth savoring.

French 77

French 77 with a peeled lemon

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No, that’s not a typo. The French 77 is a modern classic cocktail very similar to the vintage French 75, but with one big difference. While both drinks use gin, lemon juice, and Prosecco or Champagne, the French 77 substitutes elderflower liqueur for the French 75’s simple syrup, creating a sweet and sour tipple that has a little extra punch — thanks to the extra ounce of liquor. That extra shot also adds a delightful floral quality to take the cocktail to new heights.

While that combination of flavors makes it a delightful drink to enjoy before, after, or during dinner, they’re not the reason that Cheryl Lassen, the cocktail angel and certified sommelier at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills says it’s the perfect accompaniment to a steak dinner. “The acidity and slight sweetness cuts the marbling of the ribeye really well,” she explains. Creating Mastro’s French 77 with Grey Whale Gin, lemon juice, and St. Germain, Lansen says, “it’s acidic nature also cleanses the palate, so each bite remains especially delicious.”

New York sour

New York Sour on a bar

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Even though there are plenty of cocktail lovers out there, there are those who still believe that a steak dinner isn’t complete without a large glass of red wine. So, for those who can’t decide whether to pair that stunning protein with a cocktail or a glass of wine, you should try the New York sour. The best of both worlds, this whiskey cocktail comes with a floater of red wine on top to create a stunning drink that will go with any protein.

The benefit of imbibing a wine cocktail like the New York sour, especially a New York sour made with egg whites, is that you’ll get a silky cocktail that will compliment the butteriness of a rich tenderloin. The boldness of the whiskey, especially a whiskey with notes of wood and leather, will match the meatiness of the steak while the citrus will reawaken your senses and ready your taste buds for the next savory bite. Finally, that float of merlot or Zinfandel will cut through the intense meatiness of a well-prepared cut.

Penicillin cocktail

Penicillin cocktail with a jigger

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Since whiskey pairs so well with a steak dinner, you can’t go wrong with the Penicillin. The Penicillin is another whiskey cocktail, but where the previous drinks used straight whiskey, bourbon, or rye as their base spirits, this cocktail uses scotch. Unlike the other whiskeys, scotch tends to have a smokiness thanks to the peat inherent in the liquor. Depending on the brand, that inherit smokiness could be subtle or intense. Either way, it makes the liquor a wonderful choice for the heartier cuts like ribeye or flatiron, While you could enjoy a scotch neat or on the rocks, Lassen recommends a scotch cocktail for a steak dinner, specifically the Penicillin.

“The Penicillin is another great pairing for steak,” says Mastro’s cocktail expert. Typically made with both a blended scotch and an Islay scotch to add that extra dose of smoke, the cocktail also includes honey, lemon, and ginger to give it a sweet yet spicy flavor. It’s that “deep sweet yet sharp combination that creates a mouth-watering accompaniment to any steak,” Lassen explains. Even though she believes the drink will go with any cut, the mixologist says she prefers “a leaner piece of meat with this cocktail, to truly enjoy the mouth-watering experience.”

Espresso martini

Espresso martini with espresso beans

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Usually relegated to a dessert or after-dinner drink, you may be wondering how an espresso martini ended up on this list. Well, just because this cocktail is often found nestled among the sweet treats doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed with dinner. After all, when made correctly with the right beans and espresso machine, an espresso martini can have a robust flavor that would be hard to match. That depth of flavor is actually why David Taylor, the wine director at Baltaire, believes the espresso martini is the ideal companion to the right cut of meat. “Our steaks are intense in flavor,” he explains. “And we’d like to pair a drink that offers depth and intensity to match that.”

So, the espresso martini it is. While this popular cocktail is usually made with vodka, Taylor recommends switching it out for tequila for a little more intensity. But whichever liquor you choose Taylor says it’s the “creamy texture [and] espresso notes that pair perfectly with the char of our steak.”

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