A Planner’s Best Advice For Serving Alcohol at Weddings
Alcohol at weddings. It seems simple enough, but is it? How do you even start planning for having alcohol at your wedding?
Once you decide that you will be having alcohol at your wedding, there are some key points that you need to consider. Some are personal preferences but others are legal and/or venue requirements.
And let me start by saying that I do have some opinions on how alcohol should be served and I will gladly share these. But, at the end of the day, I will do whatever my clients want to do. I have just seen a lot of different ways alcohol is served at weddings and have a pretty good idea of what normally works best. I want you to make your decisions with all of the necessary facts.
So, before you get into the actual planning for alcohol at your wedding, you need to look at several factors.
Factor #1 – Insurance for Serving Alcohol at Weddings
Let’s just start with the boring details. If you are planning to serve alcohol at your wedding, you need to make sure you have liability insurance in place. You should make sure that this liability insurance, also known as wedding insurance, covers any accidents, unfortunate choices by your guests, and property damage. Some wedding venues provide insurance and coverage but many require you to have additional insurance.
Regardless, before signing a contract or making any concrete decisions, you need to find out what your responsibilities are with insurance. Wedding insurance, in general, is never a bad idea as it protects you and other guests but before getting insurance, talk to your venue or planner.
Factor #2 – Who Provides the Booze?
Again, this will vary venue-by-venue. Some venues require that they provide the alcohol and the bartender. Others may let you provide the alcohol at weddings but require you to have a bartender. A lot depends on the laws of the state and the venue regulations.
If Your Venue Provides the Alcohol
If your venue provides all of the alcohol, the bar setup (mixers, glasses, etc) and the bartender, this will—by far—be the easiest for you. You do not have to figure out how much alcohol to provide, or how many mixers to provide or what type of glasses to use. Your venue will most likely have several different types of packages to pick from and that will be the extent of your decision making. The rest of the planning will be left up to the professionals. The only real negative to this is cost as this is by far the most costly route to take.
If You Provide the Alcohol
If you decide to provide the alcohol, you will most likely need to hire an outside bartending service (or use one provided by the venue) to dole out the drinks. Most of the time, if you hire an independent bartender for your wedding, you will still be supplying all of the alcohol, mixers, garnishes, ice, glasses, etc. The bartender sets everything up but you provide it all.
***Never allow guests to serve themselves. Not only is this usually illegal, but can be very unsafe and irresponsible.***
The cheapest way to have alcohol at your wedding is for you to buy it and bring it to the wedding but you have a lot more calculations to do in terms of how much to get. The Practical Wedding and Evite both have alcohol calculators to help you figure out how much to buy. However, the general rule of thumb is to account for a drink an hour per guest. From there you can figure out mixers, garnishes, glasses and ice. It can be quite time-intensive.
If you are trying to do this on your own, it is always best to purchase too much, rather than not enough. It is really unfortunate when alcohol is miscalculated and runs out at the beginning of the reception.
Factor #3 – Cash or Open
At some point in the planning process, the debate of open bar or cash bar will come up.
My advice is PLEASE don’t have a cash bar. Most people do not show up to a wedding expecting to purchase the drinks. You are the host and you should be providing the drinks. If cost is your concern, look at ways to lower the alcohol bill without having your guests pay. For example, cut costs by providing just beer and wine.
There are two other options that often I hear discussed in wedding planning. One is to have an open bar until you hit a cap. The other is to provide certain alcohol—ie: beer, wine, some liquor— free of charge and have the rest available for your guests to buy.
If you decide to have an open bar that is capped, just know that this will be very frustrating to guests. They have become used to having free alcohol and they won’t be happy when they have to start paying. I’ve seen situations where the cap will be reached before the cocktail hour is even over, making for a very quiet reception.
The other option, if you are leaning towards a cash bar, is to provide certain items – like beer, wine, and some liquor – and then have other liquor available for purchase. While this is better than an all-cash bar or a capped open bar, it can still throw guests off.
A Few Additional Tips for Having Alcohol At Weddings
Tip #1 – Never have a fully-stocked open bar when serving alcohol at weddings.
Not only are these expensive but a fully-stocked, open bar is the quickest way to losing control of your wedding. This may sound a bit counter-intuitive for all of my talk about graciously hosting but think of it this way. When you take a kid into a candy store and don’t give them a budget, they go crazy, right? They eat too much candy and get sick (or have a sugar high). There isn’t much difference when you let an adult—much less one in full-on celebration mode!—run free with an open, fully-stocked bar.
A few options instead of a fully-stocked bar would be to have beer and wine, with a few specialty cocktails. OR, some people opt to have a full bar for a few hours and then go to beer and wine.
Remember, it is your responsibility to control your guests’ experiences. Everyone may be adults, but it is still your party. You really don’t want to have something disastrous happen because Uncle Billy has a fondness for Jack Daniel.
Tip #2 – Don’t allow shots unless it is controlled.
In the same spirit as the previous tip, not allowing open shots is a good way to keep the party from spinning out of control (quite literally).
The exception would be for special shots – ie: cultural moments, a planned shot with your sorority sisters, etc. Allowing anyone to order shots from the bar is asking for problems.
So, just say no to (most) shots. You want your wedding to be memorable, but for the right reasons.
Tip #3 – Create a few specialty cocktails that go along with your personality or your theme.
One of my absolute favorite trends for weddings is when the couple has specialty cocktails for their guests to enjoy. You can either take an already existing cocktail and rename it for the wedding or literally create your own concoction!
Make sure you name it something special. It can be related to your wedding, your lifestyle, your travels, your relationship—anything! It is such a fun—and yummy—way to bring your personalities into the wedding design.
Want another pro-tip? Whether you are providing the drink or your venue is, these can often be made in batches so that it is easier and quicker for the bartender to get the drinks.
Tip #4 – Special people get special bottles
Even if you aren’t having a full bar, it can be a nice gesture to get important people in your life their own bottle of special booze. Your dad may be a scotch fan so surprise him with that 21 Year Old Balvenie he has been eyeing. And definitely make sure your mom has her favorite Napa red on hand for the big day. I’ve also seen brides and grooms gift their wedding party with a fifth of a special liquor to enjoy during the day. The possibilities are endless.
And Most Importantly…
Weddings are a celebration and having alcohol at weddings is an important part of that celebration… Just make sure you think ahead about your alcohol choices, really look at what options will work best for your guest experience AND your budget, and—again—HAVE FUN!