So, you’re having a wedding! And you want to serve alcohol. Finally a fun part of wedding planning! Also, confusing, and potentially expensive. Questions about alcohol (what kinds? how much? where do I buy it?) are some of the questions I get asked the most by my clients, because if you’ve never thrown a party for a hundred or more people, all of a sudden providing them with libations can feel overwhelming.
This post is framed around providing your own alcohol for your wedding, whether you’re working with a caterer who will be serving it, hiring a freelance bartender and/or college student to serve it, or just doing a self-serve bar in the backyard. Before we get into it, I just want to confirm that yes, it is totally okay to have a dry wedding. If your crowd is not used to dry weddings they may grumble a little bit, but seriously, they can go get a drink after they leave.
And, if you’re using a venue that provides the bar or makes you use a licensed service, or if you just want to use a bartending service, great! Pro bartenders are a great thing and tend to be fun people, and what you may pay in premium you will make up for in ease and lack of hauling around cases of wine. That said, if they’re not charging you on consumption, or you’re providing your own alcohol for them to serve, I’d suggest still looking at my quantity suggestions below and comparing them against the ones they provide you with, as I find that a lot of beverage service providers tend to significantly overestimate the amount of alcohol you’ll need.
a Friday or Saturday night wedding with dinner and dancing:
To get started, let’s define serving sizes:
• 1 bottle of wine = 5 servings
• 1 case = 12 bottles
• 750ml bottle of liquor = 18 servings (1.5 oz servings)
• 1 bottle = 1 serving of beer
• 1 full sized keg = 165 beers
And, the all-important basic ratio:
• Full bar: 20% liquor, 15% beer, 65% wine
• Beer and wine only: 20% beer, 80% wine
(See more detailed breakdown below.)
I calculate one drink per guest per hour of reception, with the understanding that some people will drink more than that, and some will drink less. In my relatively vast experience, this is more than enough, and you’ll still have some leftovers. (Running out of booze mid-wedding = one of my biggest nightmares.)
So for example, for 100 guests, for a spring or summer Saturday night wedding, with a 4:00 pm ceremony and a reception that ends at 10:00pm, that’s 5 hours. For beer and wine only:
• 100 (guests) x 5 (hours) = 500 drinks
• 500 x 0.2 = 100 beers, or 8.5 twelve-packs (I’d buy 9)
• 500 x 0.8 = 400 glasses of wine, /5 = 80 bottles of wine, /12 = 6.6 cases = I’d buy 2.5 red, 2 white, 2.5 champagne (yes, this totals 7)
daytime weddings and weddings in different seasons or weather:
In general white wine is more popular, but in the winter red is more popular. For summer evening weddings I usually recommend an even split between red wine/white wine/champagne. In the winter go 40% red, 30% white, 30% sparkling. Note: if it is hot then no one/almost no one will drink red wine, and beer consumption will rise. Try to plan accordingly.
For daytime events you will also see a sharp decrease in red wine consumption, especially in the summer. Think about it—does red wine sound good to you at 1:00pm on a warm summer day? It probably won’t to your guests either. If you’re hosting an indoor winter lunch, than sure, people will drink red. However, for morning and daytime weddings, people generally drink champagne, white wine, and beer, or select mixed drinks (think: spiked punch, margaritas, mimosas).
For Sunday or weekday (not including Friday) weddings, most people tend to drink slightly less. That said, if it’s a holiday weekend, or a destination wedding where most people have traveled and aren’t working the next day, or you know that your crowd regularly parties during the week, this may not apply.
All of this comes with the caveat that you should look at your guest list and think about their drinking habits (as much as you can). I know that my parents and their friends usually drink wine and champagne at weddings, I have a fair amount of friends who pretty much only drink beer and whiskey, and also that many of my girlfriends are relatively dedicated champagne drinkers. So, if you know you have a ton of beer drinkers, up the beer ratio a little, etc.
Let’s talk Types of Alcohol:
At it’s most basic, a full bar is two beers (one light, one darker), red wine, white wine, champagne*, vodka, gin, whiskey, tequila, rum, and basic mixers.
Now—you do not need to have a full bar. From both my personal experience and feedback from a lot of other wedding industry folks, about 80% of weddings (at least in California) serve beer and wine only. This is more than okay, and in fact is what will mainly be consumed even if you have a full bar. It’s also worth noting that when serving wine, at most I recommend two whites, two reds, and one sparkling. (One of each is also fine!) Too much choice actually overwhelms people. And if you’re doing two of each, definitely go with two different varietals (say, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, a Malbec and a Pinot Noir).
Limited bar are also okay! Do you and your partner love bourbon? Great! Totally okay to offer it as your only liquor along with beer and wine (also, please invite me). The WIC would talk here all about the benefits of a “signature” cocktail…but I think it’s important to ask yourself—do you have a signature/favorite cocktail? (I mean, I do, and it’s a Pisco Sour, made with egg whites. Best. drink. ever.) If so, you should totally consider serving it! If not, no need to come up with one for your wedding.
I generally recommend getting at least two types of beer—something light and crowd pleasing (Corona and Trumer Pilsner are favorites, or, let’s be real, Bud Light) and then something more interesting if you or your crowd is into beer. I also generally recommend against kegs. (See quantities above; a keg has 165 beers in it.) Unless your wedding is huge, and you’re only serving beer, it’s unlikely that a whole keg will be consumed, and unlike bottles, undrunk kegs don’t keep. You have a few leftover twelve-packs at the end of the night? No big deal. Give them to guests (or to your waitstaff) at the end of the night, or just take them home and drink them at your leisure! A half-full keg, on the other hand, is going to go back to the store. Sad face.
Unfortunately for you, I know just enough about wine to order something I’ll like off a wine list, or buy a bottle in a store. Start with a budget (say, under $10, under $15, or under $30,) and go to a wine store or grocery store with a dedicated wine buyer and ask them to recommend a few bottles that fit into that. It will be helpful if you generally know what kind of wine you like so that you can give them some direction. Then have some family or friends over and combine wedding wine tasting with crafts, invitation addressing, or any other type of wedding-related activity that you’d like some help on. Way more enticing (hey, want to come over and taste wine for our wedding, and oh, help stuff, stamp, and lick eighty-five envelopes too?) and a ton of fun.
There are (in my non-wine expert opinion) a ton of great wines out there that cost under $10/bottle. If you spend $35/bottle will the wine be better? Well, for the most part yes. But, unless you and your partner are big wine people, and the quality of the wine at your wedding is one of your three most important things, please don’t feel the need to break your budget buying expensive wine. Do you like the way the wine you’re serving tastes? Great! Most of your guests probably will too.
As for where to shop, in California I generally recommend BevMo, Costco, Trader Joe’s, or Safeway (they have great wine sales.) That said, local wine stores are fantastic, and while they may not keep large quantities on hand, are probably going to be totally happy to special order a few cases for you. You’ll also probably get more personalized service, which may make up for the discounts you might otherwise get from the mass-quantity sellers.
I’m personally anti-champagne* toast, for the simple reason that I love champagne, and nothing wastes good champagne like a champagne toast does. For reasons mysterious to me, a lot of people seem to dislike champagne, and so when passed a glass for toasts they will take an obligatory sip, and then abandon their almost untouched glass. Where do you think that champagne (and the money you paid for it) goes? Down the drain, my friend. There’s a simple solution to this: let people toast with whatever they have in hand, and offer champagne at the bar all night. (If you really want to pass drinks before toasts, just send wait staff around with red, white, and sparking. Done.) That said, if you want to do a champagne toast, because you just can’t imagine your wedding without one, make sure that the bar staff only pours 1/3 or 1/2 full glasses, and calculate eight glasses per bottle instead of five for buying purposes.
Inevitably alcohol calculations are an art not a science. With these numbers you may run out of one or two things towards the end, but you certainly won’t run out of alcohol overall. And from my personal experience, wedding guests aren’t upset about having to switch their drink in the last hour of the night if the bar has run out of whatever they’ve been drinking up to that point.
And, most importantly, my golden rule of alcohol at weddings: If your guests complain about the type of free alcohol you’re serving them, they are free to go elsewhere.
One last pro-tip, just because: Homemade agua fresca is available in mass quantities very cheaply (think $15 for 2 gallons) at many Mexican restaurants and Mexican grocery stores, and makes for a great and easy mixed drink when mixed with vodka or tequila. If you fill up a glass drink dispenser (or two—multiple flavors!) and have the booze on the side, you can cover both your non-alcoholic offering and your “signature” cocktail. Win all around.
Also—don’t forget to buy ice!
*champagne = sparkling wine. Prosecco, Cava, or California Sparkling Wines are all way more than acceptable alternatives.