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Wedding Hacks: How To Save Money On Beer, Wine and Spirits At Your Wedding Reception

Officially merging your life and soul with another being — in front of friends and family —  is one of the biggest commitments in life. You’re going to need a stiff drink.

What many men hope will be the most fun part of the wedding planning — the booze — often turns out to be the biggest source of angst. This is true whether you imagined some mashup of “The Hangover,” “Animal House” and “Wedding Crashers” or a more sophisticated affair with fine wines and Miles Davis in the background. Don’t panic; we have five tips to help you keep the booze costs down.

BYOB, Shop Wholesale, Look for Buy-Back Policies

It’s no secret that caterers and event spaces tack on enormous surcharges as soon as they hear the word “wedding.” If the venue lets you — and that’s a tremendous if — supply the booze yourself and you’ll never have to question why a bottle of Popov vodka suddenly costs $40 instead of the usual $20.

“Go to a wholesale liquor store, buy in bulk and pay in cash,” says Texas-based wedding planner Ashlee Voda, of Mrs. Planner. “We especially recommend buying from places that do a buy-back, so you can overestimate how much you need and then will be able to return what you didn’t finish for a small restocking fee.”

How much should you buy? A general rule of thumb when planning weddings is that each person will drink one drink per hour of the wedding plus one extra for the cocktail hour, so buy your booze accordingly, and then buy a little extra, just in case — that way you won’t make the biggest booze-related mistake of most weddings, not buying enough.  (The typical 750 ml bottle of liquor will serve 17 people, a bottle of wine about five.) With a typical caterer, where you’re being charged for liquor per guest, you can expect to spend about $20 to $30 per person for a four-to-six-hour wedding. You’ll be shaving that bill down by buying on your own.

Limit Open Bar Time

Sometimes you just have to host an open bar. That doesn’t mean the bar has to be open through the entire wedding. Naturally, you’ll want to have the bar open at beginning of the reception so everyone can get a little lubed up and have something to ease them into dinner. But once soup’s on, most wedding guests don’t actually request refills.

“We say close your bar through dinner — they’re usually going into dinner with their cocktail from cocktail hour,” Voda says. “Then do the last call a half hour before the end of the event.” You can save yourself at least an hour’s worth of expenses by closing the open bar when no one’s really using it.

Skimp Where Your Guests Won’t Notice

They’re your friends and family, so you should know what their limits and likes are, right? If most of the guests are light drinkers, you can get away with a low spend on booze, beer, and wine. Maybe they’re heavier beer drinkers than anything else — get one domestic, one imported and one craft beer, and limit the rest to a red and white wine and the usual basic spirits (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, and a whiskey). Does your family do an annual trip to Sonoma and Napa? Then they’ll most appreciate a broader selection of fine but affordable California wines, and probably won’t notice that the only beers on hand come in a can.

You could also skip the Champagne toast altogether and/or limit the bar to just beer and wine.

Develop a Signature Cocktail

Here’s an expert-level way to mask the fact that you’re funneling your guests to a very small selection of liquors while flattering them for being connoisseurs of fine spirits: Offer signature cocktails. Most guests will go for them, allowing you to concentrate your liquor budget where you know it’s needed the most, instead of wasting dollars on an array of alcohols that only might appeal to one or another group of people. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can ensure all the signature drinks use the same liquor (we’re looking at you, vodka), reducing your costs even further.

Voda recommends picking a cocktail that’s easy to make and that uses a mixer that can be premade. Avoid cocktails that require extra work like muddling, like an old-fashioned, which will slow down service and end up costing you more in the long run. Opt for generic glasses instead of specialty glasses — a margarita is that a beer? I don’t follow. Could we say “margarita” instead?] tastes just as good in a rocks glass as it does in a fancy and expensive margarita glass.

Bonus points if you come up with a story about why you chose your signature drinks (“The smell of violets reminds us of our first date”) — the guests will love the backstory, and the signature cocktails will fly off the shelf.

Hide the Top-Shelf Bottles

Ninety percent of your guests won’t care if the whiskey you serve comes with an angry little rooster or an old man smoking a cigar on it. So don’t feel guilty going for house-tier booze for the hoi polloi — they’re going to have just as much fun drinking what you have as they would the pricey stuff, especially if it’s mostly going to be used in mixed drinks. For a few select liquors snobs, you might want to keep a bottle of the good stuff on hand — and keep it secret.

“There’s always that specific liquor that the family needs, that’s mom or dad’s favorite. You can easily buy a bottle of that and tell your bartender to just serve specific people, like the bride’s immediate family,” says Voda, who recalled doing exactly that with a client and two bottles of Johnny Walker Blue ($180 per bottle).

Juggle the Staff

Liquor costs don’t just come from liquor. You’re paying for the bartender, waitstaff, and barbacks, too. Since their time is valuable — and expensive — look into whether it’s possible to stagger the bartenders so that one opens, works the earlier hours and leaves after the big rush at the bar before dinner, and the second arrives before the rush, takes care of last call and does the cleanup. That way all the important booze-related moments get covered but you’re not paying for two bartenders when you only really need one. You can also talk to the catering staff and see if it’d be possible to ask servers to help out behind the bar or to have the bartender pitch in with the back end of wait service (running glassware, removing trash, etc.) during slower moments.

In some cultures, it’s OK to let the bartenders put out tip jars (in a classy, unobtrusive way, of course). It allows them to make a little extra money and takes the pressure off you to overtip at the end of the night (though you should always tip generously — 18 to 20 percent on top of the bill). Generally speaking, however, a wedding should not be an experience that forces fees on guests.

Optimize Your Champagne Toast

It’s the paradox of wedding catering: You have to have Champagne at a wedding, but almost no one really drinks it. That’s right, most of the Champagne poured at weddings goes undrunk after that one sip everyone feels obligated to taste for the toast. For most weddings, it’s safe to assume that you won’t need more than a single glass per person. (Unless you know for a fact that your group loves Champagne, in which case, stock up.) If you’re confident the bubbly won’t be missed, you can even go further and buy only a few bottles, telling most people to toast with whatever beverage they have in hand — chances are, the guests won’t complain.

“Probably 60 to 70 percent actually need Champagne,” Voda says. “For 100 guests, I’d get Champagne for 70 and tell the bartender and catering to only pour a quarter way high. The one toasting round is usually sufficient.”

Most bottles of Champagne serve six people, but the quarter-pour hack could squeeze eight or nine servings out each bottle — that’s a 50 percent savings on Champagne alone.

Another wedding Champagne tip? No matter what they say, most people actually prefer sweeter (“dry”) Champagne to the brut (really dry). Frankly, most people won’t care if you don’t pour real French Champagne, either, so consider serving sparkling wines from other countries like Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, and American and Australian sparklers. These bottles go for $15 retail–instead of $45 and up. Taste a few and see if any are good enough for your guests; many will be just fine. Serve this celebratory beverage very cold regardless of the brand or country of origin.

Pay per Head, Not per Drink

Or you can just make easier on yourself and find an arrangement where you pay per guest, not per drink. That’s the way that venues like to do it if they insist that you use them to cater your wedding, so if you’re OK with the all-inclusive thing — meaning you won’t have to do as much tweaking for each element of the wedding but also that you won’t get to fine-tune your own wedding as much — then it can save you money.

Here’s the thing, though: Caterers and venues that charge you per person as opposed to per bottle or per drink aren’t stupid, and will be generous with their estimation of how much booze the average guest consumes so that they don’t get caught flat-footed and a) run out of liquor before the dancing starts, and b) end up charging you less for the alcohol service than it actually costs them. So you’re going to have to be a pretty good judge of how much your friends and family like to party. If they’re inveterate drinkers who think nothing of closing down any bar they go to, then you’re likely to come out ahead by rolling the beverage service into the per-person cost of an all-inclusive venue. (Though if they’re really hardcore, you may need to make warn the bartenders to be prepared and have enough on hand.) If most of your guests are teetotalers or barely touch the stuff, then you’re almost certainly going to be overpaying with a per-person rate rather than being charged for the amount of alcohol you expect will actually be consumed.

The Biggest Mistake that Couples Make:

Not anticipating how much friends and family really drink.

 

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