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If your wedding reception will be held at a hotel or other venue where the facility will be providing the beverage service, this article may not be overly important.  However, if you are providing the beverages, hiring a beverage service or are contracting the food caterer to provide the beverages for your wedding this article should help you with many of the fine points of beverage service planning for weddings.

If you are in charge of making the selection of beverages to be served at your wedding, here are a few basic guidelines to follow;

When preparing to make the beverage selections you will need to consider the type, style and theme of the wedding as well as the lifestyles of the guests that will be attending your wedding reception.  You may also want to consider the types of foods that will be served at your wedding reception. Next, you will need to get your brain to embrace the fact that you realistically will probably never be able to please the tastes everyone who attends your wedding reception.  BUT, the good news is that you can come pretty close to pleasing everyone. Keeping that in mind, try to target the mainstream tastes - rather than stocking trendy products that will likely remain in your storage room for years after your wedding.

From a wedding budget cost and handling standpoint, it is best to keep your selections basic. Since you do not know what specific type of beverages your guests will consume at your wedding reception, by minimizing the number of overall selections you will be able to stock sufficient quantities of each beverage type (and within a reasonable budget) to make sure that you do not run short of any individual selection. (HELPFUL HINT: Running out of something in the middle of a wedding reception is not a good thing...)

Non alcoholic beverages are always an essential offering.  A selection of soft drinks like cola, diet cola, a lemon/lime soda like Sprite or 7up, and sparkling water with lemon and lime twists will pretty much take care of the soft drink selection.  If your beverage service is to include a full bar, Coke is usually a preferred choice over Pepsi since it will be used as a mix.  Rum and Pepsi anyone? Depending upon your wedding reception budget, juices can also be stocked - and should be stocked - if a full bar (see list below) will be offered.  Regular and decaf coffee should also be available for most of the wedding reception.

Wedding receptions have different stocking requirements than other event types since the consumption levels of attendees can frequently be higher than average.  Again, it is best to keep the selection basic to minimize waste and overstock/leftover costs.  If large numbers of wedding guests are expected, you can also consider changing the type of product packaging to save money as well.

As an example of a packaging change, a keg of beer is equal to 6.88 cases of beer (give or take a bottle) which means you can save about 50% on the cost of product if you utilize keg beer vs. bottles.  As an added bonus, the required storage space is also significantly less.  Although some people believe that keg beer has a negative visual impact, there are CO2 operated tapper systems available that allow the kegs to be totally hidden from view under the bar or a back bar table.  Fabric covers for the visible part of the tapper systems are also available which further enhance the appearance. You can also simply drape the visible part of the tapper system with fabric.  Bulk wine (boxed) transferred into carafes can also save you 50% or more on the cost of wine versus using bottled wines.  Boxed Wine Chilling Tip: Inside the wine box is a bag that takes much less space to store - and that will chill faster out of the box than in. Take the bags out of the boxes (be sure to label the bags with a permanent marker) and place the bags in a cooler with ice - or ice and water.

Following are 2 different bar menus containing the required essentials needed for beverage service;

Beer, Wine, Soft Drinks
I'll bet you can probably figure this one out on your own...

Full Basic Bar
Canadian Whiskey
Tequila - if you really think you need it...
Sweet and Dry Vermouth

Optional Liqueurs and Cordials, i.e. Bailey's, Amaretto, etc.

Beer Selection - Regular and Light Domestic with an optional Import or Micro Selection
Optional Non Alcoholic Beer Selection - Sharp's, O'Doul's

Wines - White, Blush, Red 
(Chablis, Blush, Burgundy on the low end of the budget scale or Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot on the higher end of the scale)
***Think about the carpet before serving red wines in your home***  Tip: White wine will remove red wine stains.

Soft Drinks - Cola, Diet Cola, Lemon/Lime Soda, Sparkling Water

Mixes - Tonic, Club Soda, Lemon Sour, Orange Juice, Lime Juice, Grenadine
Optional Mixes - Grapefruit Juice, Cranberry Juice, Bloody Mary Mix

Garnish - Lemons, Limes, Olives, Cherries

Essentials - Ice , Glassware, Napkins, Wine Opener or Carafes for Boxed Wines,  Pour Spouts, Stir Sticks, Bar Towels

Equipment - Portable Bar or Topped/Skirted Table with a small table for a back bar area,
Coolers for Ice and Chilled Product

Using skimpy glass sizes at your wedding reception not only gives the appearance of being cheap, it significantly increases the traffic at the beverage service areas - which increases congestion at the bar areas and increases ice and glassware usage. 12 ounce glasses are recommended for mixed drinks, beer and soft drinks since it gives your wedding guest a reasonable portion and allows you to more efficiently utilize beverage service personnel by decreasing the number of times a guest will return for a refill. On the other hand, using a glass size larger than 12 ounces, especially in warm weather, will create significant waste since the ice will melt or the product will usually warm before it is consumed - which adds to wasted glassware and product usage. Wine should be served in 6 ounce glasses with a 4.5 to 5 ounce portion for the same reasons.

For large picnic type wedding receptions, beverage carriers are a nice gesture BUT they increase waste since people tend to take extra which ends up as waste due to warmed product. Allowing wedding guests the ease of obtaining a large number of beverages at one shot also decreases the amount of control you have when it comes to excessive consumption  - or consumption by minors.

Depending upon the type and style of your wedding reception, a bartender to guest ratio range from 1 to 50 to 1 to 100 will usually provide efficient service - when more than 1 bartender is required.  However, if a single bartender is required or if guests are expected to all arrive within a short period of time, a ratio of 1 to 50 and less is recommended depending upon whether it is beer, wine, soft drink service or a full bar service.  Beer, wine, soft drink service is much faster than full bar service due mainly to the required discussion with each wedding guest relative to available selections - plus it takes a bit longer to pour a mixed drink than to pour a portion of beer or wine. (Hint: Have a clearly visible display of the available beverage selections on top of the bar or back bar to reduce the amount of time required to explain what beverages are available to every guest.)

In the case of weddings where the reception is held at a location that is a distance from the wedding ceremony, guests will usually filter in over a period of time which allows you to use a slightly larger bartender to guest ratio. On the other hand, if the wedding reception is held at the same location as the wedding ceremony a smaller ratio is required for efficient service since a larger number of guests will require service simultaneously. Some beverage service companies will add staff members for the guest arrival/high consumption period and reduce the staffing once consumption has stabilized.

The size of the room, number of wedding reception guests, and traffic flow are the main considerations when determining where you will place your wedding reception beverage service area(s).  In no instance, with the possible exception of a butler passed champagne or a theme drink offering, should a beverage service area be placed immediately by the wedding reception facility entrance since this practice lends itself to increased congestion of a high traffic area.  By properly placing the beverages and food away from the entrance you will give the wedding reception guests a reason to enter the room rather than to linger at the entrance.  Food and beverage areas should also be separated to minimize congestion and to create traffic flow throughout the room. Proper traffic flow and movement by the wedding guests can also add to the energy of a wedding reception.

Although some wedding planners and event planners will argue this point to death and will want to set up multiple bars and beverage service areas, in most situations - unless it is a very large room, several rooms and/or there is a really large number of wedding guests - combining the smaller beverage service areas into a larger service area will increase the service efficiency since splitting the service areas usually creates uneven traffic flow to each of the service areasMore often than not, when services areas are split, one service area will be overly busy while the other will not be busy enough to justify its existence.   Unfortunately, this creates slow service in the populated area and wasted unused labor at the other unpopulated area.  It also creates increased stocking requirements and added waste. On the other hand, combining the service area usually increases efficiency.  Bartenders usually work more efficiently in teams rather than alone and it will also save in overall equipment, labor and product costs. 

In most cases the minimum available linear service area of 5' to 6' per 100 guests is the absolute minimum. Example: The minimum bar area for 250 guests (assuming 1 bartender per 75 guests) should be roughly 15' to 18' from side to side.

The 1st 2 hours of a wedding reception is the highest consumption period
. You can save money on your wedding beverage service by interrupting the peak consumption period by scheduling dinner to be served within that period of time or by scheduling some other activity to take place, i.e. a presentation, a toast, etc.

Consider staged service during the wedding reception.  If your wedding reception is scheduled to last for 5 or more hours and you want to offer a full bar, consider offering the beverages in stages to save money.  For example if only hosted beer, wine and soft drinks are offered until after dinner you are establishing a consumption trend for the lower cost per portion selections. If mixed drinks are added to the hosted beverage selections after dinner many people will not switch to mixed drinks and will continue to consume the lower cost per portion beer and wine selections.  Those who do actually switch to mixed drinks will usually consume less mixed drinks overall.

Champagne (even the cheap stuff) has the highest cost per portion of just about anything that can be served at a wedding reception.  It is even more expensive than a mixed drink on an actual cost per portion basis.  Consider limiting the service time of champagne or using it only for a toast rather than serving it for the entire event unless money is no object. You can also save money by offering champagne from the bar area during the initial reception period (where there are other beverage selections available) rather than serving via butler passing. If given an option, many people will order an alternative to champagne at the bar area and you will save the labor expense of butler passing as well!

You can save 50% or more by using bulk wine in liter carafes for wedding dinner service rather than bottled product. If you are placing wine at the tables rather than pouring, avoid multiple selections if possible since you will end up with significant waste. If both red and white wines are required, depending upon the menu selection, consider renting 1/2 liter carafes for the red wine which will minimize the waste - unless your wedding dinner selection dictates red wine as the popular selection.

WEDDING RECEPTION DINNER WINE TIP: If  wine is to be placed at the dinner tables, be sure the placement is timed to coincide with the food service. If wine is placed at the tables too far in advance of the food service (or if food service is delayed for some reason) wine consumption will increase above the normal consumption level and you may run short of wine during dinner. 

Hire a professional bartender rather than having a friend, employee or Uncle Fred to provide the bartending service.  An experienced bartender will usually pay for himself/herself.  Based on full bar service of 100 guests, experienced bartenders who are familiar with portion control can save you an average of $18.00 per hour in product costs and waste, will know enough not to open every bottle in sight, and will provide a higher level of quality service and safety for you and your guests.

Consider combining beverage service bar areas rather than splitting them. Traffic flow will seldom be equal between 2 or more beverage service bar areas at a wedding reception.  One bar area will be high traffic meaning less than efficient service to those guests while the other is low traffic which means wasted labor expense because the staff at that service area is serving very few people. Service is more efficient when bartenders work in teams and it reduces the cost of labor, service equipment and opened product.

Purchase your product from a liquor store or beverage service that will allow you to return and refund, or take back and credit, you for unopened product. That way you can be sufficiently stocked to ensure that you do not run out of any product selection and have minimal leftover cost. (Note: bottled beer and wine cannot be returned in most cases due to label damage and potential product damage due to chilling and warming.)

Consider stocking canned soft drinks rather than using 2 liter bottles or pop dispensers.  They are easier to handle and pour and the leftover product can be used later. Soft drink dispenser units can save money on a cost per portion basis for larger wedding receptions.  However, you will need to consider the cost of the potentially wasted partial soft drink dispenser canisters of product remaining at the end of the wedding reception. The cost of remaining (wasted) product can add up, especially if you have multiple selections and multiple dispensers. It actually takes no more time to pour a can of pop into a glass than it does for someone to use a dispenser to pour the beverage.

Consider Disposable Glassware
It costs significantly less to use disposable plastic ware rather than actual glassware when considering the cost per unit and the cost of loss and breakage. From an appearance standpoint, clear plastic glasses are preferred to colored plastic unless you are planning a picnic type wedding reception.  Plastic glassware requires significantly less storage space than real glassware and the unused full packs of plastic glassware can be returned after your wedding reception. (On the other hand, you will get charged for each and every piece of rented real glassware whether you use them or not...)  Clear, hard plastic disposable glassware is also available with a look of etched glass for a more upscale appearance.

CHAMPAGNE TIP: If you are planning to rent real champagne glasses for champagne service at your wedding reception, consider using standard champagne glasses (flats) for butler passing.  Use fluted glasses only for table service since they tend to tip very easily and a floor full of broken fluted champagne glasses will certainly detract from the elegance of butler passed champagne service.

When you are comparing pricing from caterers and beverage catering companies, be sure to compare apples to apples rather than comparing cost estimates. Since consumption rates will vary from group to group, compare the cost per unit, i.e. cost per drink, or cost per bottle, case, keg rather than the estimated total cost.  Also be sure that the associated costs are clearly outlined.  Do the prices include tax and gratuity or are they add-ons?  Is there a separate charge for labor or is it included? Also consider the number of minors in attendance, especially when comparing prices that are based on a flat cost per guest. For example, if you are hosting the alcoholic beverage service for 100 wedding guests for a flat fee of $8.50 per person and there are 10 children in the group you are actually paying $9.44 per adult for the alcoholic beverage service.  Have the prices adjusted accordingly...

When planning your wedding reception beverage service consider the fact that most people are not able to drink unlimited quantities of free alcoholic beverages for a long period of time - although some will certainly try.  When a wedding reception is expected to last more than 5 hours (or even if it is fewer than 5 hours), consider the staging option outlined above which will shift some of the consumption from hard liquor.  Also, consider having a cooling down period for the last 1/2 hour of the wedding reception where only non alcoholic beverages are available - rather than serving alcoholic beverages until the very end of the wedding reception and allowing someone to consume that last "one for the road".

Non alcoholic beverages, including coffee, should be offered until the very end of the wedding reception.  Although coffee will not actually sober someone up, it will help to dilute the amount of alcohol in their system, help them metabolize the alcohol faster, and help keep them a bit more alert.

Make it clear to your bartenders in advance that although you want your wedding guests to have a good time, you are equally concerned about their safety and that the bartenders should monitor consumption and alert you if a guest has exceeded his/her limit.  Be sure to appoint someone from your wedding party to check with the bartenders from time to time about the condition of the guests.  Although professional bartenders have the experience to track individual consumption, recognize signs of intoxication and tactfully slow an individual's consumption when needed, you should take the responsibility for the overall safety of your wedding guests and intervene when necessary.

Although consumption of alcoholic beverages by a minor is considered to be acceptable within some family circles, it is still illegal in most states unless in the home of the parent or guardian of the minor who is consuming the alcohol. From a liability standpoint there is little or no liability in many states when alcohol is served to guests UNLESS THERE IS A CHARGE FOR THE ALCOHOL OR UNLESS AN ILLEGAL ACT HAS providing alcohol to a minor. It is recommended that you check your local laws before allowing a minor to consume alcohol at your wedding reception.

As far as insurance goes, most homeowner's policies written since the late 1980's contain "Host Liquor Liability" coverage.  However, some insurance agents are not familiar with this coverage provision and many agents confuse it with commercial "Dram Shop" liquor liability.  The Host Liquor Liability coverage can also usually be extended by your insurance agent to cover a wedding reception held at another location rather than having the added expense of purchasing coverage specifically for the wedding reception.  If in doubt about your coverage, contact your insurance agent and inquire about "Host Liquor Liability" coverage which covers free service of alcoholic beverages to wedding guests, NOT "Dram Shop" which is coverage specifically for commercial sales or service of liquor.

Important Note:  If you are planning to collect money from your wedding guests in exchange for alcoholic beverages, i.e., sales of tickets that can be exchanged for drinks, a charge at the bar, etc. this may likely be considered a commercial sale which "Host Liquor Liability" insurance coverage WILL NOT cover. Dram Shop or commercial liquor liability insurance is usually required if money is exchanged for alcoholic beverages. If you have hired a beverage service or caterer who has a liquor license to provide bar service for your wedding reception or if your wedding reception is being held in a facility that provides bar service, their "dram shop" liquor liability insurance should cover the liability of service of alcoholic beverages.  NOTE:  It is highly advisable to obtain a copy of both the liquor license and the certificate of insurance for the beverage service or caterer who is providing alcoholic beverages to your wedding guests.  It is also advisable to check the local regulations pertaining to "cash bars" to make sure that you are in compliance with local laws unless your wedding reception is being held in a liquor licensed facility, i.e. hotel, restaurant, etc.

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