Raising the Bar

Martha Stewart Weddings, 2008

Most brides, when prodded, can rattle off the names of all of the wedding dress designers they're considering. Or describe every hors d'oeuvre that will be passed around at the cocktail hour. Or share their (long) short list for first-dance songs. But press them for details about the bar, and chances are, you'll get "What about it?"

Discussing the specifics of your bar is arguably not as fun as debating the merits of the Vera Wang stunner versus the Oscar de la Renta dress. But alcohol, according to Carla Ruben, owner of Creative Edge Parties in Manhattan, accounts for 20 to 25 percent of your catering budget, so not giving your bar due consideration can amount to a costly oversight.

There are a surprising number of decisions to mull when it comes to the drinks at your reception: open or limited bar? Per-person or by-the-drink charge? Buy your own liquor or buy it from your caterer? And we'll go over each and every one of them so you won't be left with a hangover you can't afford.

Open Bar
Straight Up
While most wedding rules have loosened in modern times, one remains firmly entrenched: As the hosts, your main duty is to be as hospitable to your guests as possible. Traditionally, this is why an open bar has been the norm. "With the exception of cost, there really are no disadvantages to an open bar," says New York City-based planner Marcy Blum. "The most gracious way to serve alcohol is to make sure everyone has what they want when they want it."

If you're holding your reception in a restaurant or hotel, planning for an open bar is relatively easy. Typically, the venue will provide the alcohol and their storage space and prior stocks guarantee you won't run out. Not to mention that the venue will be up-to-date with a liquor license and the proper liability insurance.

Things get a little more complicated when it's held elsewhere. You'll make it easier on yourselves if you hire a separate cocktail caterer who will provide the physical bar, liquor, ice, bartenders, glasses, and cleanup services or make sure that your regular caterer will furnish those same services.

And although you can purchase the liquor and mixers yourselves, you run a higher risk of not ordering enough (download our guide for an estimate on how much to buy). "The beauty of buying product from a caterer is that you won't run out. My philosophy, especially in remote places where you can't just run to the store in an emergency, is always to bring more," says Linda Abbey, vice president of the New York City-based caterer Great Performances. "Not just of alcohol, but also of the mixers."

No matter where your reception is, know that you'll have a few options in terms of pricing. Carefully review which proposed payment structure -- whether per person or by consumption -- works best for you. Often, caterers will set a price per hour per person. "I like to be very straightforward with pricing. When you agree on a per-person rate rather than charge for each drink, the bride and groom can stick to their budget," says Ruben. "There aren't any surprises."

With a Twist
However, as Blum points out, it's a rare person who drinks as much during the fifth hour of a wedding as during the cocktail hour. Consider combining payment structures, an idea most caterers are open to. Have an open bar at a set price per hour during the cocktail hour. Then after dinner, if you want to leave the bar open, you can arrange payment on a per-drink basis. 

Another idea: Ask about buying your own wine. That way, you're billed only for the amount consumed. Just confirm that the liquor outlet you bought from offers refunds for unopened bottles in original condition. And since chilling the wine in ice will ruin the labels, arrange to set the bar up well in advance so you can cool the bottles in the fridge instead.

On the Rocks
The one thing that can derail an open bar? Poor service. "As a general rule of thumb, I recommend one bartender per 50 people for an open bar," says Abbey. But at the beginning of a cocktail hour, when all of the guests arrive at once, even double that may not be enough. (If you have four bartenders for 100 guests, the line for drinks would be 25 people deep.) To ensure no one has to wait for a refreshment, arrange for waiters to meet guests with trays of wine, simple cocktails, and sparkling water. After all, there's no sense in offering your guests unlimited options if they're forced to wait 15 minutes for their first drink.

Limited Bar
Straight Up
Hosting a limited bar in no way limits the festiveness or the sophistication of the affair. The trick is to have a strong point of view; that way, you'll appear discriminating, rather than cheap. 

The most common way to achieve this? In addition to wine, beer, and Champagne, offer a signature cocktail. To please the most people, choose a drink with a vodka base, but something more original than a vodka-tonic. "It should speak to the couple or the place," says Blum. "Not a bride-tini or a cosmo." 

For example, the bartender at the venue of a recent Aspen, Colorado, wedding Blum planned is known for a delicious cocktail he designed with vodka. "We renamed it the 'Mountain Do' and printed the recipe on the coasters," she says. 

Of course, it can also be a simple drink as long as it's meaningful. Jennifer Chase, who wed Adam Chase in Kansas City in May 2006, used photos of the couple's recent European tour as table decorations at their reception and served Bellinis (sparkling wine and peach nectar drinks that originated in Italy) but renamed them Chase-Bellinis. "Our guests loved it," she says.

Taste, adds Ruben, is the most important aspect of the drink. "A lot of people pay attention to the color, but it's more important to have a delicious drink that matches the mood of the party."

With a Twist
If you're looking for something even more distinctive, go green. Scott Schambelan, co-owner of Bay-tenders, a beverage catering company in San Francisco, finds that there's been a strong trend toward organic drinks at nuptials. "For cocktails, we've been designing drinks with healthy mixers and fresh organic fruit," he says. 

But be careful of getting too carried away. Even if you fall in love with a cocktail, you have to be sure it translates to mass service. Drinks with sugar rims, for instance, are labor-intensive and may result in poor execution. Drinks that can be prepared ahead of time in big batches and freshened with sparkling wine or soda just before serving work especially well.

Just as with the cocktails, there's a movement toward local and organic beers. While often thought of as a necessity rather than a specialty, beer can give you another opportunity to add a personal touch to a limited bar. Try offering a selection -- say three to five artisanal brews or a dark and pale ale instead of a regular and light version. It doesn't cost much more, and guests will appreciate the more selective choices.

The same advice applies to wine. Instead of just one red and one white, consider serving two whites, two reds, and a blush at cocktail hour. "It's the difference between looking frugal and looking thoughtful," says Blum. Ask the venue for a tasting with the sommelier, just as you would taste the food prior to creating the menu.

And having a limited bar doesn't mean you can't accommodate special guests. If your uncle drinks Johnnie Walker Black, buy a bottle just for him. Introduce him to the bartender and tell him the bottle's there for him. What a special touch -- one that may cost $40 rather than a few hundred!

On the Rocks
Your bar is simply incomplete until you take into account your guests who don't imbibe. "They shouldn't feel like second-class citizens," says Abbey. Make sure to serve a nonalcoholic version of your signature cocktail or something seasonal and unspiked, such as refreshing mango iced tea for a summer wedding.

Regardless of what you're serving, remember that the right presentation can make any drink more elegant. In addition to the usual lemon or lime wedge, consider offering simple but unexpected garnishes, like raspberries. Keep a bowl of them on the bar -- drop one in a glass of Champagne or sparkling water for a subtle palette pleaser.

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