There are many Southern hosts who will tell you different cardinal rules for entertaining, but in our opinion, only one is right: make sure to have your dinner party drinks ready to serve the minute your guests arrive. Southern hospitality is all about making your guests feel welcome and relaxed — an adult beverage (or two) pretty much always does the trick. Timely service from this mini drink menu will give them a warm welcome, as it includes just enough alcohol to get the party off to a smooth start.
Seasoned hosts know that the key to entertaining without worry is to prepare as much as possible — and to keep guests’ glasses full. Having an arsenal of drinks ready to serve before folks arrive is essential. With something to sip in hand, people can more easily mingle while you polish off the final details of the evening.
And while a pre-dinner aperitif (or two) is a great way to get the party started, our recommended drinks are fairly low in alcohol in order to keep everyone on their best behavior before the first course.
Barboursville Vineyards Brut Cuvée 1814
Sparkling wine is a favorite (and easy!) pre-dinner drink. Cuvée is a champagne typically made from a mix of grapes from different vineyards and varietals, usually from France. The Barboursville Vineyards Brut Cuveé hails not from Champagne, but from Orange County, Virginia and is a perfect selection for cocktail hour. While most Bruts are dry, this 100 percent pinot noir cuvée is fruitier and softer on the palate, making it a great way to get company settled. Be sure to get a couple of bottles, though, as flutes will be empty before you know it.
Broadbent Madeira, 5-year reserve
Madeira is your great grandfather’s great-grandfather’s favorite drink. Produced on the Portuguese islands of the same name, Madeira was incredibly popular among Southerners during the Colonial era — it was a favorite of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Although sometimes referred to as a dessert wine, its balance of sweetness and acidity makes it a great early evening option, especially if you’re serving rich appetizers.
Looking for more wine ideas?
Sometimes it can be intimidating to pick out just the right wines to pair with your dinner — or appetizers. But with just a little reading (and tasting) you can become just a bit more of an expert. That's why we started our occasional column, "Pairing Southern Staples." It'll help you do just that!
Read all of our Pairing Southern Staples stories
SweetWater Take Two Pilsner
Bready booze may not be the most obvious drink when paving the way for a filling meal, but a pilsner’s bitterness actually helps stimulate the appetite. This German-style, Atlanta-brewed beer’s Czech Noble hops and dryness make it an excellent pairing with savory apps like cheese or crackers. Its medium carbonation helps your guests not feel too full before dinner begins.
Live Oak Hefeweizen
Classic Bavarian wheat beer inspires this golden brew from Austin, Texas. Wheat malt and mild hops drive the light-tasting flavor with notes of clove and vanilla. A slight acidity tamps the flavor back in balance with a slight banana aroma and solidifies this hefeweizen’s place as an aperitif.
Need more more beer suggestions?
We love the fact that there are so many craft breweries popping up all around the South these days, but we admit, all of this choice makes it ... a little hard to make decisions. Since you'll be wanting to serve beers that are on the lighter side before dinner gets going, we've rounded up our favorite low-ABV beers in the list below. We're sure something on this list will strike your fancy.
See all of our favorite low-gravity beers
Campari and Cannon Spritz
Gaspare Campari invented this eponymous bitter liqueur in 1860. Given its strong taste, it’s not usually drank straight, but cut it with some soda water and it makes for a great pre-dinner drink. Another great mixing option is South Carolina’s Cannonborough Beverage Co. sodas, in particular its Honey Basil soda. It’s made with fresh lime juice and provides a great blend acidity, sweetness and bitterness when mixed with Campari.
Southern Amaro Julep
Mint juleps are a Southern staple, but they can be a bit stiff to serve before dinner. Alex Day, founder of the widely renowned NYC cocktail bar Death & Co., invented a less boozy version that substitutes amaro for bourbon. We like where his head's at, but instead of Amaro CioCiaro, we recommend Southern Amaro, made by Charleston’s High Wire Distillery. It works wonderfully as a bourbon substitute in our classic julep recipe.
Want another cocktail recipe (or a few)?
When it comes to easy entertaining, we're big fans of batched cocktails. It's no fun to spend your entire party stuck behind the bar, and making a big pitcher or bowl of punch (or something similar) will keep your spirit-connoisseur friends happy while at the same time making sure you're not doing all the work.
Here are our favorite big-batch cocktails