Charles began by describing how he initially solely relied on his chef and trusted his palate and the way he could break things down. And even today, when he takes on a consultancy, the first thing he does is walking into the kitchen to see what the chef is playing with. Traditionally, most pairings have been food and wine, and people declared that cocktails were both too high in ABV and too flavorful. However, while sommeliers have fixed constraints by what the vintners put in a bottle, bartenders can endlessly alter recipes to better fit the food.
Charles then addressed the difference between taste and flavor. Taste is the standard five of sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami, while flavor is everything else including aroma and texture. Many of the the five tastes work to enhance or balance the others. With salt and umami, they balance bitterness and enhance sweetness; this is why a peanut butter and jelly sandwich works so well. With sweet, it balances sour, bitterness, and spice, and it enhances salt which is why salted caramel is so delicious. With sour, it works with spice and sweetness and enhances salt. Charles continued to describe how many bartenders add a pinch of salt (or dash of saline) in a Sour recipe and why the salted rim in a Margarita is so successful in brightening the flavors; note, this is not a perceivable amount of salt -- if you can taste the salt, it is too much. Finally, bitterness balances sweet and salt. Bitterness is what makes grapefruit a very different citrus fruit; for example, its addition in a Hemingway Daiquiri along with Maraschino is very different than just a Daiquiri with Maraschino.
In terms of alcohol percentages, low alcohol is important since it helps with food; however, high ABV can cut through fat. A downside of boozy drinks is that it can enhance spice and make things too hot as well as get the guests too trashed to appreciate the later courses that the chef prepared. Indeed, smaller servings is a way to overcome these alcohol quantity concerns. When designing drinks, calculating the ABV is rather helpful. Consider a 30% dilution as a good standard; see the image below for an example of this calculation. In looking for inspiration, do not think of mirroring the exact ingredients that are in the dish; instead, look regionally and culturally to add elements found in that food's culture. Finally, subtlety is key in food pairings such as using only a light touch instead of a heavy hand with absinthe.