Cheesetails: How to pair cheeses with cocktails and spirits

The cocktail culture in America has seen a movement toward classic cocktails with modern twists and an imaginative originality that only a mixologist with some culinary background could muster. Balance, acidity and structure no longer apply to just "wine talk." The current success of spirits mirrors the course of wine, craft beers and artisanal cheese in our country's history. Thus, it makes perfect sense that pairing cocktails with cheese is a trend taking our country by storm. With all of the beautiful handmade cheeses and distilled spirits now produced domestically, a new world of opportunity has emerged. In honor of keeping up with all things cheesy, I've put together a few pairings sure to bring some buzz to your holiday bashes.

Let's start with a fresh Italian-style cheese called Crescenza (krih-SHEHN-zuh). You will love the flavor of this raw cow's milk cheese made at Bellwether Farms in California. It's rich and creamy like butter with a tangy finish that leaves you longing for another bite. Crescenza is similar to mozzarella, but with more complexity, and it's spreadable at room temperature. Think of what you would want to eat with this kind of cheese: basil, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Now think of a cocktail that highlights those flavors. According to About.com, Mixologist Jason Ferris from Bar Artisanal in New York recommends a pepper-infused vodka muddled with fresh basil leaves and topped off with tomato juice for this fresh style of cheese.

Another soft, creamy cheese made in Hudson Valley, NY, is Coach Farms Fresh Goat Cheese (yes, ladies, this is the same company that makes the purses and leather bags). This lovely American cheese has a lemony tang with sweet grass and herbs on the finish. It's safe to pair gin with goat cheese to match the perfumey qualities of both, but Mixologist Dean Hurst of SideBern's restaurant in Tampa likes to take risks. He pairs his grapefruit vodka cocktail Aperitivo with Coach Farms Goat Cheese. Dean says the "bright, refreshing notes of the grapefruit from the vodka and grassy minerality of the Sauvignon Blanc lends well to tart goat cheeses."

If you're a sipper of brown spirits, there are some wonderful cheeses for you to nosh on, too. Tara Q. Thomas of Culture Magazine: The Word on Cheese, found that sommelier Sean Josephs of Char No. 4 restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, likes to pair hard cow's milk cheeses, like Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from Vermont, with bourbons. Cabot's aged cheddar has a mellow caramel flavor with light fruit and nut notes. The apple, mango, honey, butterscotch and grassy undertones in bourbons like Hanncock's President's Reserve really shine with aged cheddars. Josephs also recommends blues with spicy American rye whiskeys. He suggests Boucher Blue from Vermont with Rittenhouse Rye 25 Year Old. Blue cheeses are sharp and prickly, so matching them with the spicy, nutty toffee-and-molasses profile of a rye whiskey tends to cancel out the sharpness and melt the taste of the two into milky, sweet nougat bliss.

Kira Jefferson is the resident "cheese guru" at SideBern's in South Tampa.

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