Think Beyond the Drink: How Your Event Cocktail Should be Telling a Story

Matt Landes, founder of the Los Angeles-based Cocktail Academy, discusses the hottest beverage trends for award season, how cocktails can convey brand messages, and more.

Cocktail Academy has created custom cocktails inspired by this year's Oscars Best Picture nominees. From left: 'The Joke Is on You,' inspired by Joker, is made with gin, lime, cassis, cherry heering, beet juice, and muddled fresh marjoram, then topped with soda. 'Love Is a Great Beautifier,' inspired by Little Women, has rose-infused vodka, dry white port, lemon, simple syrup, and a lemon twist for garnish. And 'Giddy Up,' inspired by Parasite, uses tequila blanco, shoju, lime, simple syrup, and muddled watermelon; it's topped with a watermelon wedge and cracked black pepper for garnish.
Cocktail Academy has created custom cocktails inspired by this year's Oscars Best Picture nominees. From left: "The Joke Is on You," inspired by Joker, is made with gin, lime, cassis, cherry heering, beet juice, and muddled fresh marjoram, then topped with soda. "Love Is a Great Beautifier," inspired by Little Women, has rose-infused vodka, dry white port, lemon, simple syrup, and a lemon twist for garnish. And "Giddy Up," inspired by Parasite, uses tequila blanco, shoju, lime, simple syrup, and muddled watermelon; it's topped with a watermelon wedge and cracked black pepper for garnish.
Photos: Scott Clark Photography

LOS ANGELES—In the past year, Los Angeles-based company Cocktail Academy has worked on high-end events including the Academy Awards' Governors Ball, the Versace x 2 Chainz capsule collection at the 2019 Super Bowl, premiere parties for Rocketman and Game of Thrones, and the launch event for the Tesla Model 3. The beverage company also has worked with celebrities including Kylie Jenner, Quavo, Jessica Alba, and Victoria Beckham. Matt Landes, C.E.O. and founder of Cocktail AcademyMatt Landes, C.E.O. and founder of Cocktail AcademyPhoto: Lexus Gallegos

BizBash caught up with the company's founder and C.E.O., Matt Landes, to discuss the freshest cocktail trends, how drinks should complement an event's theme and decor, why he calls his work "cocktail event production," and more.

On how cocktails can be a vehicle for storytelling
Landes, a New York City native who previously developed beverage programs for the Montage Beverly Hills and 41 Ocean, believes that cocktails can be a powerful way to engage guests with a brand's point of view. Together with his co-founder, mixologist Brandyn Tepper, he launched Cocktail Academy in Los Angeles in 2015, and calls what he does "cocktail event production."

"What we do is so much more than bartending and making great drinks," Landes explains, noting that the company also creates custom ice, garnishes, and D.I.Y. infusions, and pairs the drink with custom glassware, bar tops, lighting, back-bar displays, staff uniforms, and even printable cocktail art. "It's about the creative service experience that allows for storytelling. We live for the opportunity to tell brand stories through cocktails. ... Each individual aspect is tailored to create a whole experience unique to our clients’ specific goals and visions."

On tying cocktails into the overall event theme
Cocktail Academy works under the idea that the bar should be its own form of entertainment that complements an event's themes and decor. Landes and his team work with event producers to craft a menu. "Before we start planning what the cocktails should be, we ask for the event deck, renderings, and images or a Pinterest board," he says. "Getting these details is super important as we are telling the clients’ story through the bar, and we have found that every little nuance has a resounding effect on the end result."

And don't forget the power of social media and that good Instagram shot, Landes suggests. "People drink with their eyes first," he says. "Just like plating food, color and consistency is very important to our team. We like to say it's all about the ‘washline'—or the little bit of foam that occurs at the head of any well-balanced and shaken cocktail."

He adds, "Your drink should scream, 'I'm alive; drink me now!'"

'Cliff's Bloody Mary,' inspired by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is made with vodka, tomato juice, Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, celery salt, and black pepper. It's topped with lemon and lime wedges and a celery stalk for garnish."Cliff's Bloody Mary," inspired by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is made with vodka, tomato juice, Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, celery salt, and black pepper. It's topped with lemon and lime wedges and a celery stalk for garnish.Photo: Scott Clark PhotographyOn crafting cocktails for award-season parties—regardless of budget
Whether it's a high-end celebrity event or an at-home viewing party, award season cocktails should be all about celebration. "Celebrities and event producers ... are looking for something festive and a commitment to excellence," notes Landes. "We’ve found that elevated and perfectly executed traditional cocktails are always a hit."

Landes also says that tequila has been a popular choice at award-season parties, perhaps inspired by the events' Los Angeles location.

For smaller budgets—or at-home parties—Landes says your best bet is to buy fresh ingredients. "It doesn’t cost much to buy some fresh lemon and limes, and to create a homemade simple syrup," he notes. "One of my favorite recipes, that’s easy to make at home, features chamomile and rose-infused vodka. Most people have chamomile tea at home, and you can buy roses at any grocery store. Mix these ingredients with vodka and let it sit for a day or two. The flavor is so unexpected, and it’s an easy way to impress any guest."

On the latest cocktail trends
Landes thinks that less-common spirits will be popular this year. "Soju, genever, and baijiu will be showcased on a lot of event cocktail menus this year," he predicts. "People are relatively familiar with ingredients and spirits that even two to three years ago would have scared off a guest. Now people are actively looking for something new and different."

He also notes the rising importance of "mocktails," or zero-proof options. "I believe it’s important to have an inclusive party that allows people who aren’t drinking [alcohol] to enjoy a well-balanced drink that shares the same level of details as a carefully crafted cocktail," he says. "Nine out of 10 events we’re doing now will feature a zero-proof option."

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