stocking-the-bar-at-your-wedding-receptionOne of the biggest cost variables when planning an event is the type and amount of alcohol you’ll serve to your guests.

Alcohol can play a big part in your overall budget but, if you run out of booze, suddenly the party craters at 8pm and everyone leaves in a hurry.

When it comes to planning your wedding, here’s where it pays to do your homework. You’ll need to know all of the right ratios, right brands and right balance between quality and quantity.

Everyone struggles with the basics. How much should you buy, or what kind? Or where is the best place to buy? Do you need to serve a full bar or just beer and wine? And how do you know how many drinks Aunt Marge is going to have vs. Uncle Joe?

Questions about alcohol and stocking the bar are some of the most often asked most by clients, because if you’ve never thrown a party for 50 or more people, all of a sudden providing your guests with the right amount of libations can feel overwhelming.

This info will help you demystify alcohol serving calculations so that you end up with (just about) the right number of drinks for your guests.

How much alcohol do I need for a Friday or Saturday night event?

To get started, let’s define serving sizes:

  • 1 bottle of wine = 4 servings
  • 750ml bottle of liquor = 17 servings (1.5 oz servings) :: 1.75ml bottle = 39 servings
  • 1 bottle = 1 serving of beer
  • 1 “1/2 barrel” sized keg = 160 beers :: “1/4 barrel” or “pony” sized keg = 80 beers
  • 750 ml sparkling wine = 8 toasting pours per bottle

The general rule of thumb for the types of alcohol you’ll serve should be these ratios:

  • Full bar: 33% liquor, 33% beer, 33% wine
  • Beer and wine only: 70% beer, 30% wine
  • If you plan to do a toast you’ll need 1 bottle of sparkling wine per 8 guests for toasting.

Depending on your guest list; some people drink more beer, some drink more liquor but the general, the rule is always 1 drink per adult per hour plus the toast.

This is with the understanding that some people will drink more and some will drink less. In our experience, this is more than enough, and you’ll still have some leftovers.

Remember, running out of booze mid-wedding = one of your biggest nightmares however, you’d be surprised how much of an overestimation the rule can be, conservative as it sounds. Keep in mind for every cousin who slams Jack-and-Coke, you’ve got an aunt who doesn’t drink at all so in the end it all averages out.

For example, if you have 100 guests that have RSVP’d and are of legal drinking age for a spring or summer weekend night event with a 5 hour reception:

Beer and wine only:

  • 100 (guests) x 5 (hours) = 500 drinks
  • 500 x 0.7 = 350 beers 14.5 cases of beer or two ½ barrel sized kegs and a case of beer.
  • 500 x 0.3 = 150 glasses of wine, /5 glasses per bottle= 37 bottles of wine

Full bar – Beer, wine and liquor:

  • 100 (guests) x 5 (hours) = 500 drinks
  • 500 x 0.33 = 170 beers or 7 cases of beer or one ½ barrel sized keg
  • 500 x 0.33 = 150 glasses of wine, /5 glasses per bottle= 37 bottles of wine
  • 500 x 0.33 = 150 mixed drinks, /39 servings per 1.75 bottle =  four 1.75ml bottles liquor

These are good starting estimates, but you should always look at your guest list and think about their drinking habits (as much as you can).

You can even ask them to check a box on their RSVP as to what option they want, beer, wine or liquor. This will give you a better estimate as to the percentages you will want to buy while still following the 1 drink per person per hour rule for all adults whether drinking or not.

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!

From our personal experience, wedding guests won’t be offended 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. If your guests complain about the type of free alcohol you’re serving them, they’re free to go elsewhere. 😉

What about events during the daytime or in different seasons/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 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.  Often times you can replace red wine with homemade sangria!

If you’re hosting an indoor winter lunch, than sure, people will drink red. However, for morning and daytime events, people generally drink champagne, white wine, and beer, or select mixed drinks (think: specialty mixed drinks like margaritas or mimosas).

For Sunday or weekday (not including Friday) events, most people tend to drink slightly less. That said, if it’s a holiday weekend, or a destination event 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.

What kinds of drinks should I serve?

At basic, a full bar would be stocked with the two types of beers your guests commonly drink (perhaps one light, one darker), red wine, white wine, vodka, gin, whiskey, tequila, rum, and basic mixers. Champagne is optional!

For mixers, a bare minimum of OJ, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, sweet-and-sour mix, Rose’s Lime, cola, and grenadine.  Other items to have: margarita mix, daiquiri mix, tonic water, seltzer, other sodas.  If you have mixed drinks you may also need garnishes such as, lemon, lime, maraschino cherries and salt.

Be sure to serve plenty of water and consider soft drinks and/or ice tea for your non-alcoholic drinkers.

Also—don’t forget to buy ice!

Do I really need to have a full bar??

Nah. It’s socially acceptable to serve beer and wine only which is what will mainly be consumed even if you have a full bar. It’s also worth noting that when serving wine, at most we recommend one or two types of whites, the same for reds, and one sparkling for the toast.

Too many choices actually overwhelm people. And if you’re doing two of each, definitely go with two different varietals in wine (say, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc for white, a Merlot and a Pinot Noir for red).

Should I only buy top-shelf brand alcohol?

This really depends on the budget, but for an open bar, I don’t see any reason to have a ton of top-shelf items.  There’s no real reason to go super cheap… but less-expensive well-boozes are just fine. Most people aren’t nearly as much of an aficionado of alcohol as you think they are.  They’re not coming to your event for a tasting so “serviceable booze” is a perfectly good idea to aim for.

After all, how many weddings that you were at do you remember the brands served?

That’s right, zero.

Got it. Okay, beer. Do guests frown on serving the “cheapies”?

No way! Miller and Bud Light are perfect for weddings.  Again, it’s not about the booze, it’s about the party!

Will serving boxed wine make me look cheap?

Absolutely not!  There are excellent box wines out there and the trick to serving boxed wine without looking cheap is to not serve it in a box but instead in decanters/carafes.

I’m on a really tight budget. What’s the bare minimum of booze I should provide?

We recommend a bit of sparkling wine to toast the bride and groom; one bottle per 8 guests. That said, you can outfit a decent bar for under $100; 2-4 bottles of $8 wine, a 750 ml bottle each of vodka, rum, tequila, and Canadian whiskey (about $10 each if you get the cheaper, middle of the road stuff), and the remaining budget goes into mixers and beer.  You should know… the prices vary depending on the store and local area prices.)

Anything else I can do to impress?

Yes!! Make a themed signature drink menu with 2-3 special drinks; something like classic margaritas with Cointreau or Grand Marnier and a good tequila or have your bartender go wild and make something totally custom!

What’s the #1 mistake people make in planning alcohol for weddings?

Paying too much for your booze — generally, paying for the name on the label, rather than the juice in the bottle.

Remember, especially with wine and booze, if you’ve heard of it, it’s likely because it was advertised somewhere.  Ads are not free; that’s money that could be spent by the producer on improving their products instead.

Where should I buy my booze?

Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Fryer Tuck’s can be great choices including specialty kegs. Local liquor stores are convenient, and while they may not keep large quantities on hand, they will gladly special order a few cases for you and even give you a discount on a big order if you ask for it up-front. You’ll also probably get more personalized service, which may make up for the discounts you might otherwise get from the mass-quantity sellers.

Don’t go to the store last-minute. Give them a couple of weeks to get everything together, especially if you want a specific wine and/or alcohol in significant quantities.  If you go shopping on Tuesday for a Saturday reception, you’ll be limited to what they have on hand; that’s not the worst thing to happen (good booze, especially good cheap booze, tends to be purchased in large quantities by the store), but it can limit your choices.

What if I have a bunch of alcohol left over?

Wherever you end up purchasing your alcohol from, check to see if they allow for the return of unopened bottles and/or cases for a refund.

In many cases, the rule is “if we can put it back on the shelf to sell it, we’ll take it back.” (note: some states don’t allow alcohol to be returned, so ASK FIRST).  If that’s the case, better to over-buy quantities and return what’s not used (I advise this all the time at work).

Do I need to hire a bartender?

If you intend to serve alcohol to your guests at your event, you’ll need to hire a dedicated “social host” to be the designated server of alcohol. Besides, your family and friends want to have fun at your event, not stand behind a bar and sling drinks!

What about liability and insurance?

We require all of our clients to purchase event general liability and host liquor liability insurance to protect yourself, your guests, the bartenders and the venue in the unlikely event of an accident.

You can find out everything you need to know about purchasing the required insurance policy by clicking here.