What’s a wine or cocktail lover to do on this beer-soaked holiday? That’s the question propelling many wine directors, sommeliers, and bartenders to beef up wine and spirits programs in time for Oktoberfest celebrations, which run from late September to early October and are generally considered prime time for beer. While its roots are in two German cities—Munich and Bavaria—Americans join in the 16-day celebration too.
The best strategy for Oktoberfest success and for attracting a wide range of clientele is “a thoughtful, well-balanced program and not just looking at it as a beer or wine program,” says Charles Joly, beverage director at The Aviary in Chicago. Putting as much attention into crafting the cocktails and wine as you might the food dishes also shows customers you are serious about mixology, diffusing any notion that beer is the thrust of your beverage program.
Mitch Einhorn, owner of Lush Wine & Spirits in Chicago, agrees. “The opportunity is crossing the two of them together—beer and wine,” he says. Each of Lush’s three locations offers wine tastings and small plates (such as artisan cheeses and cured meats), with an eye on pairings.
And since wine is the core focus at Lush, Einhorn doesn’t hesitate to push his stash of German and Austrian wines during Oktoberfest. “Given the Germanic origin, heading toward Austrian wines is a good alternative,” he says.
For instance, Grüner Veltliner, a white-wine grape popular with Austrian and German wineries, pairs especially well with grilled meats and sausages.
There’s an obvious tendency to host beer-pairing dinners during Oktoberfest, but what Einhorn advises is to consider all alcoholic beverages when drumming up food matches. “If you were doing a tasting menu, you can have the interplays of all the alcohol available,” he says, which might include cocktails, wines, beers, and cordials.
Wines tend to be the most surprising selection for Oktoberfest fans. Kaine Gish, sommelier at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Washington, likes to sip white wines from France’s Alsace region with brats and sausage. “Oak is almost never used in the white wines [from this region], creating elegant, floral, and textured wines perfect for sausages, sauerkraut, and mustard,” says Gish.
A glass of crisp Chardonnay or Gewurztraminer matches marvelously with German dishes like pork schnitzel or chicken bratwurst, says Eddie Johnson, owner of Publik Draft House in Atlanta. He tries to steer customers who order those choices—paired with either mashed potatoes or sweet-potato mash—to try these wines. Ice wines from Canada are also a perennial fall favorite for his customers.
That’s not to say red wines should be forgotten. With cooler nighttime temps, seasoned white-wine sippers may very well switch to red grapes. “Red wines are always in season and fashionable,” says Johnson.
Cocktails should not be neglected either. In fact, autumn is an ideal time to promote seasonal cocktails.
At The Aviary, where cocktail service is equated to a fine-dining, multi-course experience, a warmed cocktail is presented as an amuse-bouche once the outdoor temperature cools, introducing aromas and spices like cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg.
“Being based in the Midwest, we start to get all sorts of local orchard fruit, holiday spices start to become more popular, and you might see a lot of cocktails skew towards whisky, apple brandy, aged tequila, and rums,” says Joly.
“I’ve always looked toward the season when it comes to cocktails,” says Johnson. He also likes to turn to sparkling wines as a key ingredient in craft cocktails. Among his favorite cocktails are Poire, featuring pears, lemon juice, simple syrup, and Champagne; and Ginger Sparkler, with Cointreau, ginger syrup, Prosecco, and spices.
“My personal preference when we get into fall is for bourbon and rye whisky poured in a glass, maybe add an ice cube,” says Einhorn. At his other venture, Twisted Spoke, also in Chicago, a popular drink each autumn is Kickin’ Chicken—made with Wild Turkey bourbon, spicy ginger syrup, and ginger beer.
The cocktail is an appropriate addition to the restaurant’s 500-whisky collection. Wild Turkey (made in Kentucky) also reflects The Twisted Spoke’s love for all things local and regional, including spirits. “More and more Americans are recognizing, or rediscovering, American whisky,” says Einhorn.
And like hearty Oktoberfest beers and deep-bodied red wines, whiskies hail the coming of crisp, chilly nights.