A whiskey cocktail pairing at last year's Chef & Shaker Challenge. Courtesy photo by Gabriella Marks

The art of wine and food pairing comes with a few well-known (but made to be broken) rules of thumb: White goes with fish, red with beef, pinot with game and so on.

When it comes to pairing cocktails with food, the “right” choice is less clear. Some matches just seem like naturals — think margaritas and tacos or martinis and oysters — but how do you choose a drink from the cocktail list that will complement the entree you just ordered?

“I definitely think knowing spirits and trying spirits that you might not be familiar with is a huge key,” said Andrea Duran, beverage manager for Eloisa Restaurant and Bar Alto.

Good news, then, for the cocktail-curious: You’ll have the chance to see and sample countless variations — and foods specially prepared to complement them — at this year’s New Mexico Cocktails & Culture Culinary Festival, which runs Friday, May 31, through Sunday, June 2, in Santa Fe. The festivities include the sold-out Taco Wars chef competition, culinary and mixology workshops, a fundraising bike ride, rooftop yoga, and the Bartender of the Year competition with tastings and an art show. New this year is Culinary Week, which runs June 3-9 and features restaurant specials, classes and events.

The weekend’s grand tasting event is the Chef & Shaker Challenge, held from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, June 1, at the Drury Plaza Hotel. Chef and bartender teams from local restaurants create food and cocktail pairings, each using a different predesignated liquor, and guests and judges choose their favorites.

The event is a fundraiser, with a portion of ticket sales and both winning chefs’ $250 prize going to Cooking with Kids and Santa Fe Youth Shelters & Family Services on behalf of the restaurants, and a live auction raising money for the Helen David Relief Fund, which aids bartenders affected by breast cancer.

Duran, who was named the 2018 Bartender of the Year at the event last year, couldn’t reveal the exact cocktail that Bar Alto manager Edmundo Mendoza would be serving up using SilverCoin tequila this year, but said the liquor will be used in both the drink and the food pairing.

Duran said when it comes to pairing drinks and dishes on your own, don’t stack flavor on flavor — like drinking a chocolate martini with a rich chocolate cake. Instead, try pairing dark chocolate with something bright and fruity, or balance a chocolate cocktail with a popcorn-flavored dessert.

“It creates a beautiful balance,” Duran said. “Don’t be afraid to experiment. You want to be able to taste all the flavors and have them melt together in your mouth.”

The trend of cocktail and food pairings has been growing in larger cities, said Natalie Bovis, who grew up in Santa Fe and produces the Cocktails & Culture Culinary Festival and Culinary Week through her culinary marketing and events company business, The Liquid Muse.

“In my own mixology career … I have always seen cocktails as the liquid element of the culinary world,” Bovis said. “So, a cocktail paired with food makes perfect sense. I’ve done a lot of cocktail pairing dinners in Los Angeles and other cities, and the exciting part is that we can craft a cocktail to fit a dish far better than wine can be paired with it.”

While wine is a finished product when it arrives, a cocktail pairing gives the person making the drink control over its alcohol content, acidity, sweetness and richness.

“When pairing, I always start with the dish and see what elements about it can complement or contrast with the drink,” she said. “Sometimes, I use the some of the same ingredients, and sometimes I use complementary ones.”

At one dinner for which the chef prepared an elk dish, Bovis created a chocolate Manhattan using rye whiskey, a light chocolate liqueur, port instead of sweet vermouth and mole bitters. “It paired amazingly well — not sweet, just rich and boozy enough to cut through the rare gaminess of the meat and embolden the cherry glaze sauce,” she said.

While the type of liquor (or its country of origin) can inform the drink or the dish it should accompany, what’s added to the cocktail is just as important.

“You can transform any spirit,” Duran said. “You can make a dark spirit really fruity and delicious or a light spirit really heavy feeling. It doesn’t matter as long as you have an idea where you’re going.”

Still, there are some naturals. A light dish, like fish or chicken, goes well with a tequila blanco, gin, cachaca or other lighter liquor, Bovis said. A heavier dish, such as meat, lasagna or a rich dessert, works with brown spirits like whiskey, cognac and dark rum.

A thoughtfully crafted drink can elevate a meal, she added.

“These are the kind of cocktails we sip, not guzzle,” Bovis said. “They are gourmet in that sense — a liquid indulgence to heighten a dining experience.”