What You Need to Know About Serving Alcohol at Your Wedding

Advice from wedding planners and wedding venue owners

Did you know that most weddings don’t serve hard liquor? We allow hard liquor at Mountain House Estate, unlike most other Northern California wedding venues.  The choice is yours to make, but there are some things you need to know.

Our goal is for you to have the absolute best wedding day possible. By observing events that didn’t go as planned, we’ve learned much that we’d like to pass along for your wedding day.

Few couples are knowledgeable about providing alcohol for a large number of wedding guests.  You’re most likely concerned with what to offer, how much to buy, and running out.  

In this article, we’ll go over:

  • How to handle the potential ‘problem’ wedding guests
  • How to stay budget-friendly 
  • How much you can expect your wedding guests to drink
  • and why you may not wish to serve liquor.

What alcohol should I serve at my wedding?

We all have a budget we need to live within; some people have a larger one than others.  We recommend that you serve beer and wine only as it is the most budget-friendly. Why? Let me explain.

Serve beer and wine for the most budget-friendly option.

You’ll likely want to have two to three choices of each. Perhaps an IPA, a lite beer, a white wine, a red wine, and a sparkling wine. That means a water glass, a beer glass, a sparkling wine glass for toasts, and a wine glass – at minimum.  You can add a white or red wine glass if you desire.

Serve a full bar and watch the costs add up.

Get your checkbook out for this one. Now you have everything above plus more glasses, vodka, gin, whiskey, rum, tequila, etc. And then you have the mixers for each kind of drink, coke, tonic, orange juice, tomato juice, and more.  Then there are the garnishes for each type of beverage: ice, limes, lemons, cherry’s, bitters, coarse salt, sugar cubes – want me to go on?  And you’ll need two to three times more bartenders to take the orders and mix the cocktails, versus just pouring beer or wine.

So a full bar will cost you three times what just serving beer and wine will cost.

How much alcohol should I buy?

And then there’s the next consideration – how much to buy?  When you only have a few variables, beer and wine, it’s easier to figure out – how much?  What you don’t know is how many people will be wine drinkers and how many beer drinkers.  Should you buy enough beer for all your wedding guests to only drink beer all night?  Did you buy enough wine if your wedding guests only drink wine all night?  Are all your wedding guests going to drink the whole time they are at the wedding?  Are all your guests going to stay for the full length of your event?

Now add in the variables of a full bar to that equation, and it becomes much more complicated to decide what to buy and how much.  We’ve seen wedding budgets where the alcohol and service of the alcohol cost was over 20% of the entire cost of the wedding.

Here are some unforeseen variables on the day of your wedding.

You are mortified about running out of anything – so you buy too much just to be safe.  Now you have added the task of bringing all that alcohol and assorted mixers to the venue while keeping them cold. Where do they get put? Is there enough ice? Do we have enough coolers to keep the ice from melting?

Whew, made it through the whole night without running out of anything important. Great! But because you purchased a lot “just in case,” you’ll have leftovers to take home.  Who transports everything?  Where is it being taken?  Is it an open container that must be transported in the trunk?  Does it sit in the trunk all night at the hotel?  The last thing you want to do on the day after your wedding is to deal with open bottles of wine and spirits.

In one of the worst cases of overbuying at our Northern California wedding venue, the wedding couple had over 40 cases of various types of alcohol left over. I wonder how long it took them to drink all of that?

You know your wedding guests, and may have an idea of what they like to drink, and also if there are any ‘problem’ drinkers on the guest list. Any wedding planner will tell you that 90% of drama at a wedding involves alcohol. The ‘best day ever’ can instantly change into a ‘shit show.’

How to handle the potential problem guests

If you know that there are particular wedding guests who like to drink a lot, identify who they are to the planner. The planner will pass the information along to the bartender and security to help keep things in check without you being involved.  They are pros, and they have their techniques.

Bar service, where the wedding couple supplies alcoholic beverages for wedding guests without charge, is called a “Host Bar”.  When the wedding guests pay for their drinks, it’s called a “Cash Bar.” In California, a cash bar requires special liquor licenses, permits, and Cash Bar Insurance.  Most Northern California wedding venues, including Mountain House Estate, therefore, will not allow a Cash Bar.

Ditch the red solo cups or large glasses

Using Google, you’ll find that there is about the same amount of alcohol in a 12oz beer, 5oz wine serving (at 12% alcohol, many are higher), and 1.5oz of liquor.  

One of the worst mistakes we’ve seen is couples buying red Solo cups or renting large glasses. This will result in over consumption every time. If you pour someone a beer, they will typically consume it before it gets warm.  That holds for a 12oz serving in the correct size glass or a 16oz beer in a Solo cup.  But the 16oz serving contains 25% more alcohol, thereby getting the person intoxicated much more quickly and increasing your beverage bill.  Having the right size glass for the appropriate size serving will save you money and headaches.

It doesn’t take much for a wedding guest to become legally intoxicated or impaired.

As we know, a person is legally intoxicated in California when they have a .08% blood alcohol content.  At .04%, a person is considered legally impaired.  Blood alcohol content only goes down .015% per hour in an average-sized person.  A person at .08% that doesn’t drink for two hours will be at .05% – still legally impaired.  The point being, it takes a long time for a person to get back to lawfully being unimpaired.

For many people, consuming two drinks in an hour, takes them to where they are legally intoxicated.  See http://www.businessinsider.com/drinks-before-driving-if-bac-is-05-2013-5 for a chart that will give you specifics.  Most wedding beverage calculators are based on two drinks in the first hour and one drink each hour after that.  With the knowledge you now have, you know that most people consuming at this rate will be impaired or intoxicated.

Also, this doesn’t take into account that there is no alcohol consumption prior to or during the wedding ceremony, or at the end of the night.  Some guests don’t drink.  It also doesn’t take into account that some guests will leave after the meal, particularly if they have children with them, or at some other time before the end of the night.  So if you purchase beverages for your 150 person guest list, for all the hours of the wedding day, you’ll certainly have too much.

How to safeguard yourself when purchasing event insurance

When you purchase your wedding day liability insurance policy (Event Insurance), you’ll want to make sure that it has a Host Liquor Liability coverage and that the insurance covers you.

Most couples don’t realize their liability in serving their alcohol to their guests.  Should something happen, the host (you) could be the object of attorney discussions due to your supplying the wedding guest with alcohol.

We recommend that the Event Insurance policy be purchased from a company specializing in wedding event insurance, and not as an add on to your homeowners policy.  Most homeowners policies will not cover Host Liquor Liability, which could leave you and your home at risk.  At Mountain House Estate, we do not accept homeowner policies as event insurance for this very reason.

Take it from us – we’ve seen many unforeseen circumstances and drama unfold at past weddings.

Yes, a little alcohol to loosen people up so they can have a great time is one thing.  But too much can result in drama and many other bad things that can haunt your wedding memories.  Please take our advice to heart and have the best day ever.

john mountain house estate

About the Author, John Alden

John Alden is a Wine Country Wedding expert and the owner of Mountain House Estate, a Northern California wedding venue located near Cloverdale,  Sonoma County. Over the past 5 years, John has tirelessly worked to keep the property in pristine condition and has unmatched expertise about wine country weddings. In his free time, he enjoys working on classic cars in his garage.