Inspired by 123 Speakeasy’s tempting event, Flights of Fancy—Eat Dessert First, I chatted with co-founder Christine Keefe about how to pair my favorite Northern Michigan desserts with local adult beverages. Enjoy!

Fudge! Peanut butter, chocolate mint, chocolate turtle …

To me, the sweetness of a light milk chocolate or local fudge screams “cognac!” Pairing chocolate with cognac or Armagnac is a pretty sure thing, but if you’re hosting a dinner party and you really want to create a special pairing, dab a bit of the brandy on your wrist, let it dry, then close your eyes and smell to pick out what notes are dominant in the spirit. You can pick a fudge or chocolate that matches with the fruit or herbs in your chosen brandy. At the Speakeasy, we infuse cognac with lavender grown on the Old Mission Penninsula, and it goes so well with our rosemary shortbread cookies—herbs like herbs; “if it grows together, it goes together!”

On the flip side, if you already have a fudge or chocolate dessert in mind that has a really sweet, dominating flavor, you can go with a more robust bourbon that won’t get trampled by the flavors in your dessert. Add a small splash of neutral, filtered water to open up the flavors of your whiskey. Kierstin, a friend and whiskey lover, explained to me that most of the flavor molecules crowd to the top layer of your drink, so adding a bit of water allows you to enjoy those flavor molecules (called guaiacol) over a longer period of time. Don’t dilute it too much though, or you’ll go past that Golidlocks zone and your drink will just taste watery and sad.

I’m having a (very large) slice of cherry pie, what should I sip?

Definitely go for Iron Fish Distillery’s Woodland Gin. This gin has one of the most luxuriously complex flavor profiles I’ve ever tasted, and they forage or grow all the ingredients that go into flavoring the spirit. I can’t think of anything more “Pure Michigan” than Montmorency cherries paired with gin sustainably distilled in Benzie County! If the thought of straight gin with a dessert is intimidating, add 1/2 ounce superfine sugar, 1/2 ounce lemon juice, 1 egg white and 2 ounces of gin to a shaker with crushed ice. Shake till your arms are exhausted (minimum 1 minute) then pour into a glass, finishing with 2 ounces of seltzer water. Voila! A classic Silver Fizz.

Apple crisp with Moomer’s vanilla ice cream—heavenly. (This recipe is a keeper.)

I know we’re supposed to stick with spirits, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend Aurora Cellar’s Brut Rosé for those dining at home. If you’re coming to the Speakeasy for dessert, though, our Whisper Sister* cocktail pairs well with anything buttery or creamy. Our house apple-infused bourbon is layered with champagne and rose simple syrup, then topped with foraged rose-hip tincture. (I personally gather all of our foraged ingredients, so you can rest assured they’re safe.) The crisp bubbles cut through the fat coating your mouth, allowing you to experience the richness of the ice cream (or frosting, or butter cookie, etc.) again before cleansing your palate for your next bite. Don’t be fooled by the rose ingredients—this cocktail is aromatic, a bit on the bitter side, in fact. With a dish as sweet as apple pie, and as creamy as Moomer’s ice cream, it’s important to counterbalance the flavors and bring it all to center.

*Whisper Sister is 1920’s slang for a female proprietor of a speakeasy.

Drink Pairing Guidelines 

Christine has two general “rules” for people at home:

1. Match the flavor intensity of your dish (dinner, dessert, whatever!) with the intensity of your drink. If you’re serving a dish with light, airy flavors, make sure you choose a drink that’s also light on the tongue. This works best for dishes that are already very well balanced.

2. If you have a dish that is “lopsided” in flavor (very spicy, sweet, sour, salty or bitter), you should aim for a cocktail or drink that contrasts the flavor. So a fatty or rich dinner would pair well with a sour, acidic or bubbly drink to cleanse the palate. A spicy dish pairs well with a sweet drink as a relief from the burn, and a dish full of umami pairs well with a sweet or crisp drink to foil the saltiness.

“In truth, people should try a bunch of combinations to see what sticks—and don’t be afraid to laugh at the truly awful pairings you stumble on across the way,” Christine says. “Taste, like art, is fully individual and subjective! A fun way to do this without breaking the bank is to have friends come over with liquor and/or desserts. Keep track of your pairings on paper so you don’t forget what you like, and keep the size of your samplings small, so you can remember the evening.”

Get tickets: Flights of Fancy is Sunday, April 7. The $25 ticket includes six scrumptious dessert and cocktail pairings served as flights, so guests can explore the wide range of treats offered at 123 Speakeasy and Sweet Tartlette. Combinations will include smokey, sweet and savory flavor profiles, so there is sure to be something for confectionary connoisseurs and bon bon beginners! Tickets also include a tasting sheet so guests can rate and keep track of their favorites, coat check, tax and gratuity.

“The cocktails here are delicious on their own, and if you’ve ever had macarons from Sweet Tartlette, you know how amazing those are too,” says 123 Speakeasy Cook Gary Bates. “Put them together, and you have a match made in heaven—the cocktails complement the sweets, so they both become something different, something more.”

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski