How much alcohol do I buy?
Here are all your booze clues and toast-worthy tips!
Weddings are about love, hope and toasts! Most couples provide guests with lots of champagne, wine, beer and spirits throughout the evening. Especially since buying alcohol for a small gathering is one thing, but what about for a hundred guests or more? Its a bit different. Here's how to stock up according to your guests’ tastes and your budget. (Note: remember to buy ice).
Before we begin, let us preface this with a note that only you know your crowd. If half your guests don’t drink, adjust accordingly. If your loved ones drink beer, but hate wine, well, don’t have a wine-only reception. Also, take your region of the country into account. At the end of the day, you know best what your loved ones expect and what you care about. Adapt as you see fit. (And once more, don't forget to buy ice!)
There are three basic types of wedding bars: beer and wine only, full bar, and the something-in-between we will refer to as a modified full bar. If you are set on doing a true full bar, I do not recommend going the DIY route. No alcohol calculator is going work for a bar that involves 20 different kinds of spirits. Work with a professional bartending service unless you want to blow most of your budget on half the stock at your local liquor store.
On the west coast and in the mid-south, a beer and wine only wedding is completely acceptable, especially if you also decide to offer a big batch signature cocktail or two, a few craft beers, and selection of wines. On the East Coast, however, the expectation is generally that there will be a full bar, or at least a modified full bar. If you ask us personally, we’re big fans of the “do what works for you” school of thought, though, so take that generalization with a salted rim.
The Full Bar Many couples opt for an open bar, where guests have access to unlimited drinks throughout the entire reception. While this is certainly the most gracious approach, it’s also the most expensive and could end up costing as much as 10% to 20% of your total budget. An alternative is the “limited,” or “soft,” bar, where you offer a careful selection of drinks (say, wine, beer and vodka cocktails) at the bar during specific times (throughout the cocktail hour and right after dinner), then have waiters serve wine or beer during the meal.
The Modified Full Bar
When picking alcohol to stock your bar, know your crowd. If your family is definitely going to want to hit the whisky, make sure you have George and Jack on hand. A serious crowd of tequila drinkers? Great, make sure to have more of that as well as limes and salt. And then, of course, you’ll need beer and wine for both a modified full bar or for a beer and wine only bar.
The Beer and Wine Bar
Beer: It’s nice to select at least two types of beer (one dark, one light) to provide options. You will also need to consider bottles versus a keg. Bottles can be more expensive, and some people feel the beer doesn’t taste as fresh. However, kegs require a tap system (either a pony keg or tap), which you’ll need to rent from the liquor store where you bought the keg. Also, keg leftovers are much harder to deal with and don’t keep for more than a day or two.
Wine: You’ll need at least one red wine and one white, but you don’t need more than one varietal (or blend) of each, unless you want to have them.
Bubbles (Optional): Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, and sparkling wine from other non-Champagne regions are delicious, and they are almost always a better deal than French Champagne. If you’re going to serve bubbles as a toasting-only option, you want about 4–5 ounces per person, per toast. Also, you don’t have to do a bubbly toast, if you don’t want to. People can cheers with anything, and your marriage will still be official. We promise.
On a tight budget? Don’t even think about having a cash bar. Guests should never be expected to pay for their own drinks. Instead, consider skipping the hard stuff, which is pricey, and serve less-costly wine and beer only. Or, opt to offer “well” brands of liquor, which are less expensive than premium brands; the same goes for house wines and champagne. Also, discourage the wait staff from refilling wine glasses at dinner without first asking guests if they would like more.
If your venue allows it, consider supplying the alcohol yourselves as it can be a huge money saver. Of course, you’ll have to order and arrange for delivery and cart away the unused bottles after the party. You may be subjected to a corkage fee, a flat fee charged by the caterer per bottle opened; it’s usually around $10 or more but can be negotiated. Even so, you’ll most likely see terrific savings especially if you purchase the alcohol from a wholesaler or a local spirits vendor that offers a buy back program for unopened portions of your purchase. Our favorites include Red Spirits & Wine, Stone's River Total Beverage and Frugal MacDougal.
Don't forget these often over looked aspects when considering what type of bar you would like:
1. Consider your wedding time.
Generally, people will probably drink a little less at daytime weddings, so round down your numbers. Get one case less than the wedding alcohol calculator says to.
2. Remember your time and location.
Think about where you’ll be, when, and what the weather might be like when you are determining the amount of each kind of alcohol. Think about what you would like to drink, and remember to consider your guests. During the summer, people tend to drink more white wine and bubbly, but in cold weather, more red. Getting married in wine country? People will probably want to drink more local wines than beer or cocktails.
3. Consider signature cocktails.
If you are going to offer a signature cocktail, subtract one hour from your calculations. During cocktail hour, assume everyone’s drink will be the signature one, and make sure there’s enough for everyone to have it. Then, proceed with the numbers on your alcohol calculator. This works with either type of bar. If you’re offering only a signature cocktail in addition to wine and beer during your cocktail hour, consider having two signature drinks: one made with brown liquor and one with clear. People can be very particular about these things and they can also be themed to a "his" and "hers."
4. Get liability insurance.
If you’re providing your own alcohol, you’re likely not going to be covered by your caterer or bartender’s liquor liability policy. No one likes to think or talk about the potential for alcohol-related incidents, especially not at a wedding. However, if you’re serving people drinks and something awful happens, sadly, you could be held responsible. If someone crashes a car, falls off a balcony, or damages the property, or if that underage third cousin sneaks some drinks and gets sick, etc., the hosts could be held liable. It’s terrible to think about it, but even worse to get sued. We suggest checking with WedSafe or WedSure for affordable day-of policies.
5. Know your state liquor & dram laws.
State liquor laws are archaic, and sometimes very strange. For example, it’s illegal to return alcohol in California and in some states you can’t buy alcohol on Sundays. Dram Laws also vary by state and determine who can be held liable in case of an accident. Because we can’t possibly predict what problems you can run into in each state, here is a website where you can check your state’s Dram Laws and make sure you have the necessary information. Its always better to be protected by advanced knowledge than surprised when something goes wrong.