Have you ever really wanted to serve a cocktail with hors d’oeuvres, but chickened out and stayed with the predictable wine or beer? I have put together a collection of 11 Festive Holiday Cocktail and Appetizer Pairings to inspire you, and included tips for coming up with your own perfect pairings.
In 2016 when I first started playing around with cocktails, I decided creating cocktail recipes is a lot like creating food recipes. Building flavors and textures that complement the key spirit results in a well-balanced cocktail. Taking it a step further, good cocktail and appetizer pairing is about both complementing and contrasting flavors. Simply matching the flavors isn’t usually the most successful approach. Read on for Tips and inspiration!
Good cocktail pairing is all about complementing and contrasting flavors. It is easy to compare it to cooking when you’re balancing tastes. Take a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, for example, and how adding a squeeze of lemon offers a zesty lift. The same principles come into play with cocktail and food pairing. Our aim is not to overpower flavors but enhance them.
~~ Sonya Edridge, Beginners Guide to Cocktail and Appetizer Pairings
💭 Appetizer and Cocktail Pairing Tips
Complement the texture and weight of the cocktail with the texture and weight of the appetizer.
- “Texture” can be described as the mouthfeel or figurative weight of the sip or bite. A light, bright, bubbly champagne cocktail complements a buttery, cheesy pastry-based appetizer like the cranberry brie bites and French 75 you’ll find below.
Be aware of spice or heat level.
- As explained in the note below, you don’t want to overdo the spiciness of your pairing. You want to pay attention to both the ABV (alcohol by volume), and the Scoville units. Boozy cocktails make food spicier. You especially want to avoid spicy, fried foods with a boozy cocktail like an old fashioned or a manhattan. The heat of chiles come from capsaicin, and capsaicin is alcohol and fat soluble. The burn may overwhelm any other flavors. For example: Spicy, fried Indian pakoras with that old fashioned might set your mouth on fire! A better choice with the pakoras would be gimlet or a gin and tonic.
Pick a cuisine and run with it.
- Lean into pairing within a cuisine. I paired my spicy, Mexican-inspired oysters with jalapeño-orange mignonette with a champagne and tequila margarita with champagne, fresh lime juice, tequila, and orange liqueur. NOTE: I would avoid pairing my oysters on the half shell with a spicy jalapeño margarita because the mignonette is spicy.
- Another example? Serve carpaccio with a black manhattan. The Black Manhattan was created in 2005 at San Francisco bar Bourbon & Branch by bartender Todd Smith. It’s a simple variation on the classic Manhattan, with bittersweet Italian Averna amaro replacing the sweet vermouth and with a second type of bitters added. We have also used Montenegro and Nonino. What is an amaro? While once exclusively from Italy, amari (plural) come from around the globe. We love a Peruvian amaro that we discovered in The Sacred Valley in Peru this summer called Matacuy. We brought a bottle home, and hope to find a US distributor!
Consider the size.
- When pairing cocktails with appetizers, consider the setting, and the size of what you’re serving. If you’re serving a few small bites before the entrée, you may want to consider serving a correspondingly smaller pour.
🥂Oysters on the Half Shell and Sparkling Champagne Margaritas
Over the years, I’ve been to many bridal and baby showers that paired brut (dry) champagne with strawberries and/or chocolate. You may enjoy the two together, but as pairings go, it misses the mark. Strawberries and champagne can be complementary, but a demi-sec or off-dry (sweeter) champagne is a better choice. A classic brut champagne pairing would be champagne and caviar or oysters. The subtle, salty ocean flavor of the oysters works really well with the fine bubbles of champagne, prosecco, cava, etc.
I chose to pair my oysters on the half shell with this champagne margarita for a second reason. The oysters are served with a Latin-inspired spicy, citrus-y mignonette, and the champagne margarita includes fresh lime juice, tequila, and orange liqueur. All of these ingredients are complementary, and there is no spice to intensify the jalapeño mignonette.
🥓Air Fryer Bacon Wrapped Dates and Gingerbread Old Fashioned
The old fashioned is a cocktail known for its bold, complex flavors. The sweetness of the bourbon, the bitterness of the bitters, and the zest of the orange peel make it the perfect accompaniment to a savory appetizer like bacon-wrapped dates. The saltiness of the bacon, combined with the sweetness of the dates, is a match made in heaven for the old fashioned.
🧀Chorizo and Potato Tapas and Christmas Red Wine Sangria
At the risk of being totally predictable, I am recommending a fruity sangria with red wine, brandy-spiked fruit, and pomegranate juice. The robust flavors of the red wine sangria pair really well with the hearty and savory chorizo and potato tapas. The spices and acidity balance the creamy manchego on the potatoes. And as explained above, we’re working with a cuisine here – Spanish tapas with Spanish sangria!
🫒Antipasto Wreath Charcuterie Skewers and Cranberry Negronis
The full-flavored profile of cured meats is a perfect match for the spirit-forward combination of a Negroni. The gin/Campari combination is bold enough to stand up to the spicy, herb-y flavors of these charcuterie skewers! The cranberry adds a festive touch…
🥩Filet of Beef Carpaccio and Orange Pomegranate Bourbon Cocktail
Beef carpaccio with capers is a bold, hearty appetizer that calls for a bold cocktail that will not compete. The orange pomegranate bourbon cocktail is not sweet, but it is bold. The pomegranate molasses is tart (not sweet). They work well together!
🦆Duck Prosciutto Appetizer and Winter Old Fashioned
Have you ever had duck prosciutto? The flavor is quite bold, and it tends to be a little oily (not fatty). Bold flavors like duck call for a bold – rather than subtle – spirit. Bourbon does the heavy-lifting in this Winter Old Fashioned, but the spice of the allspice dram, and the tawny port, cut through the richness and oiliness of the duck prosciutto. A perfect pairing!
🥂Cranberry Brie Bites and French 75
The French 75 is a classic cocktail that is perfect for a cocktail party. Its combination of gin, lemon juice, and Champagne is the perfect complement to a rich and creamy appetizer like these baked brie bites. The light and bubbly Champagne, lemon, gin combination helps to cut through the richness of the cheese, creating a perfectly balanced pairing.
🦪Oysters Mornay and Aperol Sour
The citrus-y and slightly bitter flavors of Aperol provide a refreshing contrast to the delicate sweetness of oysters. Bittersweet notes and herbal nuances complement creamy cheeses like the mornay cream sauce (swiss and cheddar cheeses, half and half, and egg). This may be my favorite of the pairings I’ve included in this collection!
🥚Lobster Deviled Eggs and Cranberry Orange Whiskey Sour
The whiskey sour is a classic cocktail that is known for its sweet and sour flavors. Its combination of whiskey, lemon juice, and sugar is the perfect complement to a savory appetizer like deviled eggs. The richness of the egg yolk and the tanginess of the mustard pair perfectly with the sweet and sour flavors of a “regular” whiskey sour. Add lobster? Well, you need an elevated cocktail, and this cranberry and orange whiskey sour definitely qualifies!
🐟Smoked Salmon Canapes with Miso Cream Cheese and Gin and Lillet Rosé Cocktail
Gin is such an aromatic and botanical forward spirit. Lillet rosé is also aromatic, and fruity. The fruity (but not sweet) combination features a little bit of acidity that works really well with the slightly rich smoked salmon and miso cream cheese. This is the most difficult of my pairings to explain, but I feel like it works really well… any time of year!