Although traditional wine-pairing is a science, it seems common sense to serve a Sauvignon Blanc with some fish and a Pinot Noir with a pork chop. Cocktail pairing may not come as easy to some, but with a few insider tips, you can elevate your next dinner party and have great conversation pieces on your next date.

Spicing things up with a paired cocktail menu will surprise and delight your guests, ignite conversation about a meal, and make for a fun evening of trying different spirits combinations.

Below, Ivan Fontana — owner of Death & Taxes, the hippest bar in Reno — shares his tips for breaking out of the wine-pairing box and crafting a cocktail menu.

ivan death taxescocktail pairing

Just as wine pairing is all about highlighting the flavors of certain foods, so is cocktail pairing. For example, if you have Scotch-braised lamb with a pesto sauce on the menu, you don’t necessarily have to create a Scotch-based cocktail. With lamb being gamey and savory, you may want to brighten up the palette, so that you don’t bury the flavors of the meat. Ivan says he would pair this dish with a bit of celery and pineapple juice, rum, and sugar cane, using the sweetness from the pineapple juice and green components of the celery to highlight the experience of the lamb and the pesto.

Alternatively, a menu consisting of Mexican-style BBQ might call for something like a Mezcal or tequila-based drink to play up the Hispanic flavoring. However, if you’re planning on serving traditional southern style ribs, you might opt for something bright like a whiskey sour, adding pineapple-infused honey as the ingredient that ties it all together.

cocktail menusingle cocktail

“I always like to pair cocktails by picking and pulling from the different ways you’re cooking the entrée, which can go a million different ways! If you’re cooking a very prep heavy or technical French dish, you could do something fun like a Cognac with a French aperitif.”

By infusing cocktails with spices and ingredients from the meal, you’ll help your guests correlate the flavors between the drinks and the food. While everyone knows that tacos and tequila go together, you can make things more interesting by including roasted jalapeños or infusing honey with some spices.

cocktails cloves

Ivan encourages use of flavors like honey, cinnamon and cloves, especially during the holidays. Pairing a traditional honey ham steak, mashed potatoes, and gravy with an all-spiced rye whiskey ties all of the elements of the meal together while highlighting each unique flavor.

If creating your own cocktail from scratch seems daunting, then Ivan suggests selecting a classic cocktail like a Manhattan, then adding your own twist to it. Simple tweaks like cinnamon bitters or brandy-infused cherry garnishes are an easy way to make a cocktail unique to the menu.

dinner party cocktails

The trickiest pairing will always be the main course. A dessert course is usually very easy to pair because you can generally put two and two together. It’s when you are making a savory dish that you will be challenged to weld together the different flavors of the meal.

Ivan’s number one tip?  Think about how the dish was prepared and what ingredients went into it. He uses this technique to tie spirits into different courses, which he says will open your guests’ minds to flavors that they may have not otherwise noticed.

For easy cocktail recipes head to Boxwood Avenue, and if you ever find yourself in Reno, Nevada – be sure to stop in and say hello to Ivan and his wife, Sadie, at Death & Taxes!

Images via Gagewood Photography

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