“People assume bourbon is the best pairing with brisket, but it my opinion, it’s too much,” John Lewis says.
He should know. Lewis is the pitmaster and owner of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, S.C. Originally from El Paso, Tex., he cut his teeth under Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ fame before opening his eponymous space in Charleston’s NoMo neighborhood. Now he dishes up Texas hot guts, brisket, pulled pork, ribs, turkey, and sides like mac and cheese, green chile corn pudding, collards, and more.
When Lewis Barbecue opened in 2016, the beverage menu was not just an afterthought. It was designed to work in tandem with heavy, smoked, barbecued meats.
“We wanted it to be the antithesis of default barbecue and bourbon — lighter and refreshing,” says manager Ben Garbee. At the end of the day, it’s the brisket that should leave memories on the taste buds, not an overpoweringly sweet or boozy drink, he says.
Whether you’re a dedicated pitmaster or simply looking to pick up a few pointers for next weekend’s backyard barbecue, here are six tips on pairing cocktails and spirits with barbecue from John Lewis and Ben Garbee.
Choose Clear Spirits
Brown spirits like bourbon are typically heavier-bodied and sweeter than light ones, making them more challenging to pair with food.
“When we first started planning the menu at Lewis, I knew I wanted to have lots of bright, citrus-forward drinks with lighter spirits like tequila, gin, and vodka,” Garbee says. These are not only easier to throw back alongside a heavy meal, but don’t detract from the flavor of the meat, either.
Embrace Aguas Frescas
Aguas frescas, or refreshing blends of water with fruit, grains, or botanicals, were staples of Lewis’s Texas childhood. “I’ve always loved how bright and light they taste, and I think they’re great with or without alcohol,” Lewis says.
“We thought they’d be a good focus for the drinks menu because their acidity helps cut the smoke and fat in the meat. The added perk is that they’re easy to make (after you do all that juicing) and that everyone from kids to parents can enjoy them.”
The Sandia, a Margarita featuring fresh watermelon juice and jalapeno, and named for the Spanish word for “watermelon,” is one of Lewis Barbecue’s most popular cocktails.
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Bubbly
Glass bottles of Topo Chico, a cult favorite sparkling water, grace nearly every table at Lewis Barbecue. It also stars in one of the restaurant’s most frequently ordered cocktails, called the Little Man.
“One day I just threw a little tequila in the bottle and squeezed a lime and it was magic,” Lewis says. “Topo Chico is so refreshing — its big bubbles and clean taste are perfect for washing down barbecue, and who doesn’t like a little tequila and lime?”
Garbee notes that Champagne, sparkling wine, and fizzy ciders are all excellent complements to barbecue as well. “Bubbles and a little effervescence stimulate your taste buds, and that works great with barbecue,” he says.
Acid Cuts Through Rich, Fatty Fare
“Barbecue, especially ours that’s so focused on brisket and rich, smoked meats, needs an acidic complement,” Lewis says. Hello, Sailor’s Craig Deihl, when in town, turns to the basic Margarita, concocted with a freshly squeezed Margarita mix made in-house, to help power through a meat tray.
“Lots of fresh lime helps cut through the fat,” Deihl says. Tequila, in specific, is refreshing and helps cleanse the palate. Plus, the last thing you want to do is take away from the star of the show: the meat itself.
Most Brunch Cocktails Are Overkill
Sweet Mimosas and rich Bloody Marys might be tempting, especially if you’re partaking in weekend brunch. Both are heavy, though, and compete with the strong flavors of barbecue.
A better bet is a Michelada. The light combination of Mexican beer, lime juice, and spices won’t steal the show or fill you up.
In Case You Overdo It…
Our best advice is to immediately find a cold, dark room to lie down in. If that’s not an option, sip on an amaro or herbal liqueur to help settle the stomach. “We sell a lot of Underberg and Fernet,” Garbee says. We also find that a cold Topo Chico can work wonders.