Loving Libations
Signature cocktails recipes and tips from master mixologists to make splash at your reception

Photo: iStockphoto

Wedding planning and to-do lists go hand in hand. By putting signature cocktails in your guests’ hands at the reception, you can cross multiple goals off your list. Done right, they help set a festive mood, convey the wedding theme, express who you are as a couple, add to the celebratory vibe, and save money. That’s right. Who knew being cost effective could taste so good?

As recently as eight years ago, it was uncommon to find signature cocktails at weddings. “Now you don’t do a party without having a signature cocktail,” says event planner Steven Petrarca. What’s more, “The sophistication level has really gone up. Eight years ago, a cosmo was vodka and cranberry juice with triple sec. Now you’d have to do it with exotic cranberry juice from Cape Cod where you knew the farmer and some handcrafted liquor to bump it up and make it special.”

The surprise is that offering this level of quality and ingenuity can cost less than a traditional open full bar. Serving a signature cocktail (or two or four) either as the exclusive alcoholic beverage option or alongside wine and beer controls costs without appearing (gasp!) cheap. “We never get full bar requests anymore,” says Chad Solomon of the cocktail catering service Cuff and Buttons. “We’re seeing modified bars with signature cocktails. It’s very targeted. There is cost efficiency, but it’s also a better experience for everybody. The general level of excitement about those signature cocktails is higher, it’s easier for guests to choose from a focused list, and it creates conversation. Synergy runs through the room.”

A signature cocktail can be a classic recipe or a new creation. As with all decisions wedding-related, ultimately it can be anything you want it to be. For guidance, we queried several of the nation’s top cocktail and event planning experts and consolidated their recommendations into, what else, a checklist:

  • Significance — “Don’t pick something at random just because it sounds chic,” warns Petrarca. Choose drinks that hold special meaning to you as a couple and reflect your personality. Perhaps it’s the first cocktail you shared together, the libation you most often sip, a recipe ingredient that nods to your heritage, or a flavor combination you just really adore.
  • Theme — Align your drink with your overall wedding theme, whether it’s “disco chic,” “Southern jazz,” “beach tiki” or “moonlit elegance.” A creative name for the cocktail can help convey the theme and/or signal it’s an original recipe.
  • Color — It’s possible to replicate your wedding colors in liquid form. Tasty ingredients like sloe gin, limoncello, green melon liqueur, blue curaçao and crème de violette can lend a hue or, as Tom Laird, chief entertainment officer of Brown-Forman points out, it’s possible to “use white base ingredients and add food coloring.”
  • Garnish — From sugared rims to edible flowers, garnishes can be spectacular and personal. Beyond looking pretty, they add flavor. “The garnish can truly make a drink signature, bring out a certain flavor, create a look, a taste that you’re not able to get anywhere else,” says Cindy McClure, CEO/founder of Dress The Drink LLC.
  • Stemware — In terms of style, the vessel housing your cocktail is as important as the drink itself. “I recommend oversized martini stems,” says Ed Lent, director of visual merchandising at Lifetime Brands Inc. “Oversized is important—the little ones aren’t elegant, and the drink splashes out.” Ultimately, though, “It’s your day, so do it your way. That’s the bottom line golden rule.” Whether choosing a champagne flute, double old fashioned, wine stem or another shape, he says, “Consider the overall look, the big picture.”
  • Flavor & Aroma — Sweet or savory? Floral or fruity? Spicy or tart? Mild or intense? Vodka, gin, scotch or bourbon? Whether you hire an expert to design a drink for you or plan to adopt or adapt an existing recipe, the answers to these and similar questions provide direction. If you and your partner can’t agree on a single sensory profile, consider offering more than one cocktail. “Maybe you have two ounces of lemonade and one ounce of pomegranate juice mixed with either vodka or bourbon,” says Laird, “so you have the same base ingredients two ways for two styles. Or you can have a second cocktail that’s completely different. Then you’re really covering the bases. But, if you really only want to have one cocktail, make it a lighter style that will appeal to more palates.” Don’t forget nonalcoholic alternatives, possibly showcasing your signature flavors. In advance of the big day, “hold a sampling,” suggests Lent, “just as you do for cake and food.” Be sure that whoever will be making your cocktails gets things just right.
  • Pairing — Cocktails complement your overall menu. For example, “If you’re serving Italian food, I wouldn’t serve margaritas,” says Angie Jackson of Ultimate Elixirs.
  • Seasonality — It wouldn’t quite fit to serve a hot toddy at noon in July. “Some drinks feel like summer and some feel like winter,” says Petrarca. What’s in season ultimately impacts availability.
  • Availability — “Think about using ingredients that are readily available everywhere,” says Natalie Bovis-Nelson, author of “The Bubbly Bride: Your Ultimate Wedding Cocktail Guide.” Choosing “a certain kind of berry that’s only available in one place but the wedding is in a different location” can create a logistical nightmare.
  • Production — Plan on two cocktails per guest. “You know if your attendees are big drinkers and you need more,” says Bovis-Nelson, “but if you’re serving wine with dinner, two cocktails per person should be adequate.” Be practical: A single bartender can’t efficiently muddle fresh mojitos for 300 people. If your recipe cannot be simply modified for group presentation (i.e., by mixing quantities in advance or substituting a puree for muddled fruit), either pick something else or hire additional staff. To help ensure consistency, “If you put a menu at the bar, print the recipe on the back so the bartender can see it,” suggests Lent. “If they’re making three different cocktails, they can get confused by what’s what. There’s nothing worse than a drink made that doesn’t taste anything like what you want. Don’t let the bartender kill your party.”
  • Service — Every expert agreed: Don’t plan to make the cocktails yourself. “People not already in the industry can find it overwhelming, confusing and a little intimidating,” says Erin Williams, Cointreau USA brand ambassador and co-founder of Hush Cocktails. Even a mixology pro like Williams draws the line at her own wedding: She’ll not only hire folks to serve at her wedding to Bek Allen, she plans to tap one of her business partners to design the nuptial cocktail. Your caterer or reception hall may provide bartending staff or you may need to hire your own. In terms of how and when to serve the cocktails, “one option is to hire servers to carry trays and be handing out cocktails as people arrive,” says Laird. “You could also have an attended or self-serve bar set up and ready to go. I like the idea of a champagne bar; everybody likes a champagne cocktail. Also, retro is in. Why not consider a wedding punch?”
  • Timing — When is the best time to serve a signature cocktail? “Start with it,” says Petrarca. “Put it in people’s hands first thing. It’s a nice way to signal something special is about to start.” Lent agrees, “I think right after the ceremony at the beginning of the reception is best. As much as I could see it working as a toast or with dessert, by that time you’re losing momentum. When people walk in, that’s the first big impression; that’s your ‘wow.’”
  • Announce — Let guests know why you chose the featured drink(s). Place a sign on the bar, print recipes on souvenir coasters or cards, have the emcee make an announcement, or ask a member of the wedding party to share the story about the cocktail as part of his or her toast.
  • Endure — Sharing the recipe is one way to keep the celebration alive. One idea: “For one couple I did a beautiful margarita with agave nectar,” says Jackson. “They gave away little bottles of the tequila printed with their names and wedding date plus the recipe.” Beyond the big day, “use the same cocktail for anniversaries or special events,” suggests Laird. Indeed, like your love, there’s no reason for the celebration to end.


Want a special cocktail but not ready to design one or hire someone else to do it for you? Consider adopting one of these recipes:

lovinglibations_lemonchiffonpie Lemon Chiffon Pie

By Natalie Bovis-Nelson

1½ ounces lemon-flavored vodka
3/4 ounce limoncello
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce Navan vanilla liqueur
1 small egg white
Dash of lemon bitters (optional)
Cocktail Candy Lemon Twist Rimmer

Rim a cocktail glass with Lemon Twist Rimmer.  Set aside.  Shake vodka, lemoncello, vanilla liqueur, lime juice, lemon bitters and egg white vigorously, with ice.  Gently strain into cocktail glass.

—Created by Natalie Bovis-Nelsen, The Liquid Muse. Excerpted from “The Bubbly Bride: Your Ultimate Wedding Cocktail Guide”

Natalie shares this tip with Equally Wed for making her cocktail your own: Try substituting orange flavored vodka with orangecello, and a dash of orange bitters instead of the lemon flavors, swap chocolate liqueur for vanilla—and voila!—you’ll have a chocolate orange martini.  Play with your own favorite fruit flavors in the proportions above, and the sky’s the limit.

The Proposal
2 ounces cachaça 
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
3-4 fresh purple basil leaves, muddled

Shake, strain over clean ice, garnish with a purple basil leaf and serve on the rocks.

—Created by Lurie DeLaRosa, Hush Cocktails

lovinglibations_tangerinebreeze Tangerine Breeze

1½ ounces Finlandia Tangerine

3 ounces cranberry juice

1 ounce orange juice

Orange slice for garnish

Mix all liquid ingredients. Serve in either a tall or rocks glass with ice. Garnish with an orange slice.

—Courtesy Tom Laird, chief entertainment officer, Brown-Forman

Wedding Punch

Serves 8  
1 bottle Korbel Brut  
4 ounces Chambord  
4 ounces cranberry juice  
Frozen raspberries for garnish 

Mix chilled ingredients into a punch bowl. Garnish with frozen raspberries.

—Courtesy Tom Laird, chief entertainment officer, Brown-Forman

Sweet Bourbon Punch

Makes one gallon

2 cups ice tea (unsweetened)

1 cup sugar

1 12-ounce can frozen orange juice

1 12-ounce can frozen limeade

3 cups Old Forester or Woodford Reserve Bourbon

7 cups water

Mix all ingredients and chill. Serve in punch glasses and garnish with fresh mint

—Courtesy Tom Laird, chief entertainment officer, Brown-Forman

Lava Flow

1½ ounces vodka

1 ounce Monin Chipotle Pineapple Syrup

½ ounce Pallini Raspicello

1½ ounce tangerine or mandarin orange puree

Pineapple sugar

Crushed red pepper

Mix pineapple sugar and crushed red pepper; rim a martini glass with mixture. Shake liquid ingredients with ice and strain into rimmed glass.

—Courtesy of Dress The Drink

Nectar de Piris

2 ounces vodka

½ ounce lemon juice

1 ounce ginger peppercorn syrup

½ ounce egg white

1½ ounces honey vodka

¾ ounce elderflower liqueur

Rim martini glass with clove honey then lemon-ginger rimming sugar. Shake liquid ingredients with ice and strain into rimmed glass. Dust with edible silver. Float glazed flower.

—Courtesy of Dress The Drink

Cool as a Cucumber

2 ounces Hendrick’s Gin

2 ounces Ocean Spray White Cranberry Juice

¾ ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice

3 thin-sliced cucumber wheels

1 fresh dill sprig, as garnish

Shake the gin, juices and two of the cucumber wheels over ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with additional cucumber wheel and sprig of dill.

—Created by Angie Jackson, Ultimate Elixirs

lovinglibations_sun-kissed-flower A Sun-Kissed Flower

1½ ounces citrus vodka

1 ounce pear vodka

½ ounce Monin kiwi syrup

2 ounces sour mix

1 scoop ice

additional Monin kiwi syrup for rim

green and yellow sugar for rim

sunflower or daisy for garnish

Dip a martini glass in a little bit of kiwi syrup then rim half the glass in green sugar and the other half in yellow sugar. Put ingredients in a shaker and shake well. Strain into the sugared martini glass; finish with flower garnish.

—Created by Joey Scorza, InterContinental Miami

lovinglibations_violets-passion Violet’s Passion

1½ ounce raspberry vodka or rum

1 ounce berry-infused Sweet and Sour Schnapps

½ ounce berry syrup

2 ounces sour mix

1 scoop ice

Chambord for rim

Lavender and violet sugar for rim

Violet inside an orchid for garnish

Dip a martini glass in a little bit of Chambord then rim half the glass in lavender sugar and half in violet sugar. Put ingredients into a shaker and shake well. Strain into the sugared martini glass; finish with flower garnish.

—Created by Joey Scorza, InterContinental Miami

Berry Ball

2 parts Absolut Kurant

1 part blueberry syrup

Raspberry soda

Build on ice in a longdrink glass. Garnish with blueberries and raspberries.

—Courtesy of Absolut Vodka

Absolut Ruby Menta

1 part Absolut Ruby Red

1 part honey syrup

1 part lemon juice

5 mint leaves

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a well-chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a mint leaf.

—Courtesy of Absolut Vodka

For More Info…

Cuff and Buttons
A cocktail catering company based in New York City

Dress The Drink, LLC
Producer of garnishes and specialty products based in Las Vegas

Hush Cocktails
A cocktail catering company based in New York City

Natalie Bovis-Nelsen, The Liquid Muse
Cocktail book author, beverage consultant and mixologist

Steven Petrarca Events
An event company based in Los Angeles

Ultimate Elixirs
A cocktail catering company based in Chicago

Cocktail Math
Typical cocktail recipes yield one drink. To make a pitcher, multiply by eight. To serve your entire guest list, multiply the number of guests by two and then multiply the recipe by that number. For example, to serve a recipe calling for three ounces of juice to 100 guests you’d need 600 ounces of juice.