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The Wedding Booze Bible: Everything You Need to Know

  • Groom Duties

Alcohol is the lifeblood of your reception. You could blow $40,000 on ice sculptures, a coveted venue, and flowers coming out the officiant's ass, but if you run out of booze, suddenly the party craters at 8pm and everyone leaves unsatisfied.

So. While we typically recommend a "big picture" approach to wedding planning that frees you from the nitty-gritty, in this case, you'll want to get your hands dirty. Know the right ratios, the right brands, the right balance between quantity and quality.

For our guide, we've enlisted wine consultant Tyler Haas. In his professional capacity, Tyler "tastes" up to 100 wines and beers a month including--on the clock!--a $1,900 bottle of cognac. We hate him.  Then again, he's also stuck dealing with the hell that is wedding planning, so maybe it all balances out.

Taking a break from tasting cognac, Tyler sobered up to answer our many, many questions on wine, alcohol, and wedding-booze protocol.

The Plunge: Let's say you're having 100 adult guests. How would you break that down, in terms of how much beer, wine, champagne, liquor?

Tyler Haas: It depends on the guest list; some people drink more beer, some drink more liquor, but in general, the rule is 1 drink per adult per reception hour.

C'mon. Really? My friends and I drink a lot more than that.

You'd be surprised how much of an overestimation the rule can be, conservative as it sounds. Remember, for every cousin who pounds Jack-and-Coke, you've got an aunt who doesn't drink.

Fair enough. So what's the right ratio?

Roughly, the mix should be 1/3 beer, 1/3 wine, 1/3 liquor, with about 1 bottle of sparkling wine per 8 guests for toasting. 

So, for 100 people, I'd expect to go through about 30-40 beers an hour, 8-10 bottles of wine (you get roughly 4 glasses per bottle), and around 2-3 750ml bottles of liquor (more if people drink martinis -- I'm counting jiggers per bottle, which is about 17 drinks) per hour.  

For a 3-hour reception, I'd make it around 100 beers, 24-ish bottles of wine and 7-8 ish bottles of liquor.  That's the better part of a pony keg (or 2 1/4 kegs), 2 cases of wine, and 2 bottles each of my base liquors.  Oh, and about 14 bottles of bubbly for toasting.  Scale up or down depending on the number of guests, remembering:

160 beers per pony keg (that's a 1/2 keg -- you get about 80 from a 1/4, and around 50 from a 1/6).

17 shots of alcohol per 750 ml bottle of booze (around 22 shots per liter bottle, and 39 per 1.75L bottle).

4 glasses of wine per 750 ml bottle.

8 toasting pours per 750 ml bottle.

1 drink per adult per hour, plus the toast.

Let's say you're on a really, really tight budget. What's the bare minimum of booze you should provide for your guests?

The bare minimum would be 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 cheap stuff--but not rotgut), and the remaining budget goes into mixers and beer.  You should know... the prices vary depending on the store and local market prices, so I'm saying "roughly" a lot.) 

Fine by us. Okay, now what's the bare minimum for a full bar?

2 white liquors (vodka, tequila), 2 brown liquors (rum, whiskey), some wine, and some beer.  For mixers, a lot can be done with OJ, a small bottle of Rose's Lime, some grenadine, vermouth (sweet and dry), and margarita mix.

Switching gears, let's say money is no object. What's a nice "flourish" you can add that will really impress your guests?

Serve a tete de cuvee champagne.  Perrier-Jouet Grand Fleur (the painted bottle -- around $130 a bottle) is always popular for that (and it even comes in a gift pack with 2 painted glasses, $130-$140-ish).  Note that I'm being really specific here -- the other tete de cuvees that most people are familiar with (Cristal and Dom Perignon) are both overpriced, in my opinion (and, honestly, being both vintage blancs des blancs, they're really yeasty and crisp, not everyone's cup of tea), and not everyone carries Grande Dame or Palmes D'Or or Cuvee Louise or the other tete de cuvee Champagnes.  This would be for a country-club kind of crowd.

What if it's more of a beer crowd?

You could get some really cool, obscure beer--Dogfish 90, or something similar. It's harder to impress with beer, unless the crowd is full of hopheads, but it can be done.

Anything else you could do to impress?

Make a really cool signature drink with top-shelf liquor; classic margaritas with Contreau or Grand Marnier and a good tequila (I'm fond of Corzo, although Milagro is also quite good), or have your bartender go wild and make something custom.

Would you ever do box wine?

Absolutely!  There are excellent box wines out there -- I know of several art galleries (places with $10,000+ sculptures) in my area that serve box wines at openings!  The trick with serving box wine and not looking cheap is to not serve it in a box; have the wine served as passed cocktails (the boxes out of sight in the kitchen -- this is what the galleries do), or in decanters/carafes.  A 3L box of wine -- the equivalent of 4 regular bottles -- costs anywhere from $10 to $20 (I know of one that retails at $40, called Four, but I'll exclude it from this question as it's a bit too expensive to be considered "box wine."  Note that other states do have 4L and 5L boxes, but in Florida, where I work, the maximum legal size is 3L.

You can also go high-end on large-format wine; there are wines sold in Jereboams, big 3L bottles (they run from $40 to "hey, how much do you want to spend?") and even larger -- they'd be special-order items, generally, but if you've got the time it can usually be done.  Actually, come to think of it, that could be a nifty "flourish," if money's no object.

How "open" should an open bar be? In other words, you probably don't need to have Johnny Walker Blue, but you should at least have the basics. What's the right guideline?

Depends on the budget, but for an open bar, I don't see any reason to have a ton of top-shelf items.  For scotch, JW Red would be just fine, for example. There's no real reason to go with rotgut... but well-boozes are just fine. Remember, nobody will remember the brand of the vodka that went into their gimlet at your wedding-okay, unless they're really obsessive-they'll remember how fun the party is.

What are the must-have 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, daquari mix, tonic water, seltzer, other sodas.  

How about wine? What kind should you serve?

Pick two varietals, one red and one white.  At most, 4 -- light white, heavy white, light red, and heavy red; generally, I recommend a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, a chardonnay, a pinot noir or light merlot, and a cabernet or malbec.  Anything more and you risk running out of one particular type or producer; people won't really remember "they didn't have a pinot grigio," but they will remember, "I started drinking pinot grigio... and then they ran out." Generally, if you go for 2 varietals, pick a chard and a cab.  This is also partly to make life easier on whoever is pouring; that way, they don't have to keep track of a ton of wines, and you don't wind up with any more than a couple of extra open bottles.

Makes sense. Any other wine you'd consider serving?

Even though I've got a soft spot for oddball varietals, most people are unfamiliar with torrontes and pinotage (the first is an Argentine/Uruguayan white, the other is a South African red), and your wedding reception is probably not the place to introduce them. Stick with the major varietals unless you've got a really adventurous crowd.

Do you need champagne, or can you have sparkling wine from California or somewhere else?

You can toast with anything -- at my best friend's wedding (where I provided the booze as a wedding present), we toasted with an excellent semi-seco Cava, a semi-sweet sparkling wine from Spain (Cava is the type of wine, semi-seco is the sweetness designation).  I'm almost embarrassed to say it was only like $8 a bottle... but I had people coming up to me all afternoon telling me how much they loved the bubbly, and how it was so much better than Champagne usually is. Cavas almost always cost under $25 a bottle, most of them are under $15 and a good number of them can be found for under $10 in a big wine store.

Any other toasting options?

Sure. You can also toast with Prosecco (between $10 and $30 a bottle); in the current economy, it's the fastest-growing segment of the sparkling wine market.  These tend to be just a hair sweeter than a brut Champagne, and they're not nearly as yeasty/toasty, which can be good for people who don't drink a ton of bubblies.

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of most California sparkling wines (at the low end, they're not terribly good -- for technical reasons, the acidity is too low, and the grapes are over-ripe.  Not to mention, good grapes in California tend to go into still wines, since they're more valuable there, so it tends to be crappy grapes in the bottle).  There are exceptions; J Winery made good bubbly up until last year when their head winemaker left -- I've not tried what their new winemaker has come up with.  Schramsberg makes really good stuff too, but both of those are around $30-$40, which is as expensive as Champagne, so why not get the original?

Got it. Okay, beer. Do you frown on serving the cheapies like Coors Lite or Bud?

No, we sell a ton of Bud Light for weddings.  Again, it's not about the booze, it's about the party.  For a good QPR--

--Huh?

Technical term: Quality to Price Ratio. For a good qpr beer, I like Yuengling personally; not significantly more expensive than the mass-market domestics, but it's a damn sight more flavorful.

Recommended ratio for kegs? How much light beer, how much dark beer? 

About 50-50.  Remember that a pony keg (AKA a half-keg, the size that most people are familiar with) has about 160 beers in it, but a lot of beers are available in quarter kegs, and many craft brews come in 1/6 kegs (about 50-60 beers each).

How many pony kegs per guests?

Have a pony keg for every 80-100 people if you've got a bar and wine.

What's the biggest mistake people make in planning alcohol for weddings?

This is going to sound weird coming from a guy in the business of selling booze, but a lot of people pay too much for their booze -- generally, paying for the name that's 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.  The best wines and alcohols I've ever had were ones that don't do any advertising; they let their products speak for themselves.  And they cost substantially less than advertised stuff with comparable quality.

Another mistake people make is getting brut sparkling wine for toasting.... and then toasting when the cake is cut.  Why have a sweet frosted wedding cake with a dry wine (bruts are meant for serving with buttery seafood and chicken in cream sauces, or drinking on their own), it makes the cake seem cloying.  Get a demi-sec (fairly sweet) wine instead, so it matches the sweetness of the cake!  Or toast with no food.

Any tips for dealing with drunken guests?

Give your bartender liberal leeway in cutting people off. If one of your groomsmen is likely to remain reasonably sober, assign him the job of keeping an eye on guests who may over-indulge. (Editor's note: check out The Plunge's guidelines for how to deal with drunken groomsmen here.)

Thoughts on transportation options? 

Have the best man (or one of the more-likely-to-remain-sober groomsmen, or the bartender) keep the number of a cab company and a couple of $20s handy if any guests over-indulge.  If the reception is at a hotel, you might even be able to arrange for a last-minute room for someone, if need be.  You have to remember, as the hosts, it is YOUR responsibility (morally, and increasingly, legally) to make sure nobody who shouldn't drive gets behind the wheel. Every situation will be different, but there should be a plan in place BEFORE the reception.

Anything else?

If you're buying the alcohol for your wedding, 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're gonna 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.

That reminds us--what about return policies?

Check with your supplier. 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). 

Ideally, anywhere you go for alcohol for your wedding should have decent customer service; if you go to the store, they should have someone helping you pick out items (like me!).  Trust them; we taste a LOT more wine and booze than you do (when's the last time you sat down and tried 30 wines and vodkas in 3 hours?  For me, the answer is "last Tuesday."  Yes, we spat when we tasted, otherwise the hangover would have been epic.).  They'll know where the deals in their selection are (the $10 chard that tastes like it costs $15, the obscure Russian vodka that's absolutely great but that you've never heard of, etc); just ask for them.  Let the people know your budget and tastes, they probably can put together selections to match without too much effort.

Along those lines, should you tailor the booze to the guests that are coming?

Don't get hung up on the idea that "Uncle Tony only drinks Goose, so we've got to get a bottle for him," if you've got a Smirnoff budget.  If you're micromanaging the party to account for one guest's tastes... that's too much work.  

Also, remember that most people aren't nearly as much of an aficionado of alcohol as you think they are.  They're coming to the wedding reception to have fun, fete you, and (hopefully) give you a set of cookware from Bed Bath and Beyond that you'll exchange for a really nice stereo or a HDTV.  They're not coming for a wine tasting; "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.

You can get more of Tyler's thoughts on wine at his blog, corkdorksramblings, and he also posts in The Plunge forums as the username, well, "corkdork."

 


 

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