How to Curate the Perfect Cocktail Hour Pairings

Just as important as the drinks you serve are the personality-packed pairing your serve with them. Create memorable dining experiences by selecting the perfect cocktail pairings.

By Maggy Lehmicke

 Ketel One Botanical
Photo by Ketel One Botanical

Cocktail hour not only gives you the chance to mix and mingle with your guests, but is the perfect opportunity to express yourselves as a couple through creative hors d’oeuvres and libations. From traditional ceremonies to intimate celebrations, curating the perfect dining experience can leave a lasting impression. Though coming up with compatible pairings can be daunting, it also can be a fun way to surprise your guests and show off your personality.

“Cocktails make the moment more festive,” says Matt Landes, the CEO and founder of Cocktail Academy. “They give you the opportunity to advocate for the type of experience you want to have.”

Below are some of Landes’ top tips for creating food and cocktail pairings worthy of any special event (or Pinterest board).

Get inspired by photos.

“People drink with their eyes,” Landes says. The visual impact of the cocktails is important. By using photos as inspiration and working with your caterer on the overall appearance of the food and drinks, he says, you’re much more likely to come up with a cohesive look.

Embrace your theme and setting.

Though not everyone has a “themed” wedding, there are certain foods and drinks that complement distinct experiences. "If you’re having a backyard barbecue hoedown the night before, then whiskey sours and manhattans with Bulleit Bourbon are the way to go," Landes says, "while Tequila Don Julio Margaritas are great for a poolside cocktail-hour sip."

Think outside the glass.

“There are a lot of ridiculous stereotypes that pertain to the bar experience,” Landes says. “That’s something that couples shouldn’t get caught up with.” It’s important for couples to play around with what THEY like and experiment, he says. Whether it be the misconception that tequila can’t hold up to barbecue or Zacapa Rum is only an after-dinner drink, some pairing rules are made to be broken.

INLINE_Intenso Zacapa Coffee Old Fashioned (1) Engraved ice and edible garnishes add extra flair to the pairing experience. Photo Credit // Zacapa Rum

Stay hydrated and responsible.

Landes says one of the more common mistakes he sees couples make is going too strong too soon. If you start with something too strong, he says, guests will likely be sipping on it all night. “Go with something effervescent first,” he says. “Something light like a Ketel One Botanical Spritz or Paloma is super approachable and awakens your appetite.”

Be sure to also provide infused water stations around your venue to keep guests hydrated throughout the evening.

Matt Landes’ Favorite Food and Cocktail Pairings:

Ketel One Botanical Spritz with Grilled Fruits and Soft Cheeses

“Anything you’d enjoy with a glass of wine, you’d enjoy with a botanical spritz,” Landes says. With the Ketel Botanical Spritz, you’re getting just as much flavor with less sugar, he says. “Add a dash of peach bitters and edible flowers and it’s the perfect welcome cocktail.”

Cocktail Recipe:

  • 1.5 oz Ketel One Botanical Peach & Orange Blossom
  • 2 oz of Soda Water
  • 3 Dashes Peach Bitters
  • Edible Flower Garnish

Tequila Don Julio Blanco Margarita with Chilled Seafood

“Tequila is so fun because it takes people to a place mentally,” Landes says. While serving margaritas with chilled or raw seafood is a popular choice, he says, they also pair well with South American spices and seasonings. Try adding serrano peppers or salting the rim with crushed tortilla chips to really activate the taste buds, he says.

Cocktail Recipe:

  • 1.5 oz Tequila Don Julio Blanco
  • .75 oz Lime
  • 1 oz Dry Curaçao
  • Tortilla Salt Rim

Bulleit Bourbon Buck with Smoked and Cured Meats

“When I think of Bulleit Bourbon, I think of bacon,” Landes says. The coffee notes of the bourbon and spiciness of the ginger make this cocktail a great complement to charcuterie boards and appetizers such as fried chicken sandwiches, he says.

Cocktail Recipe:

  • 1.25 oz Bulleit Bourbon
  • 3 oz Ginger Beer
  • Splash of Lime
  • 4 Dashes Ginger Bitters
  • Lime Wheel Garnish

Zacapa Rum Old Fashioned with Savory Pastries

The ultimate sipping spirit, Landes says Zacapa Rum pairs best with crispy, empanada-like pastries with spices like cumin and paprika that balance the rum’s sweetness. Aged in the highlands of Guatemala, in the mystical house above the clouds, 2,300 meters above sea level, Zacapa Rum’s complex flavors are developed through the unique ‘Sistema Solera’ process. The method uses multiple casks that have previously held whiskeys, cognacs, sherries and fine wines. “The sweetness makes it through the distillation process and you’re left with this incredible, long flavor that sits on the palate.”

Cocktail Recipe:

  • 1.5 oz Zacapa Rum
  • 1 Bar Spoon Creme De Banana Liqueur
  • 2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
  • Orange Twist Garnish

Ketel One Vodka Rickey with Chilled Vegetable Soups

The perfect pairing for gazpacho or other chilled vegetable hors d’oeuvres, the “Southside Rickey” made with Ketel One Vodka is a fresh and inviting alternative to a Bloody Mary, Landes says. You can even add a few muddled cherry tomatoes to give it that extra boost of flavor.

Cocktail Recipe:

  • 1.5 oz Ketel One Vodka
  • 1 oz Lime
  • .75 oz Simple Syrup
  • 3 Slices of Cucumber
  • Topped with Soda
  • Cucumber Ribbon Garnish
INLINE_ZolaDiageo NYC ss-011 Ketel One Botanical is great in welcome cocktails and pairs well with almost anything! Photo Credit // Ketel One Botanical

Cocktail Pairings Quick Guide

Perfect Cocktail Hour Pairings

Photo Credit // Zola

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