Most wedding receptions involve liquid refreshment. If your reception is in a venue which takes care of everything for you (such as a hotel) then all you really need to do is decide which drinks to serve, and whether you want to have a pay bar later in the evening or continue to provide free drinks all night.
If your reception is somewhere else, like a marquee, then a bit more planning is required:
You may need to purchase all the wedding drinks yourself and transport them to the venue (see “Booze Cruise” below).
You will also need serving staff, although if you are using outside caterers then they will usually be able to arrange this for you.
Also you will need a “bar” at the end of the evening. Again, most wedding caterers will be able to set up and run a small bar, even if it’s just a table in the corner of a room.
What to offer your guests on arrival
It’s a good idea to welcome people to your reception with a drink. The traditional choice is champagne, but sparkling wine is an alternative. For summer weddings, Pimms and lemonade in long glasses works very well. Make sure you have a non-alcoholic option. Orange juice is a safe bet.
During the meal
If you are providing a meal at your reception – and most couples do – then you’ll probably want to serve wine at the same time.
Choose the wine to match the food. If you have caterers involved they should be able to advise you. When you’re choosing wine for a large gathering it pays not to be too adventurous. You might be a big fan of sweet German Rieslings, but plenty of your guests won’t be.
Again, make sure you have a non-alcoholic option. Water is generally fine (put it on the table either in jugs with ice, or bottled). Elderflower pressé is also a classic wedding soft drink.
If you are having speeches at any point in the day then it is traditional to provide champagne for toasts. Again, sparkling wine is an alternative if you are working to a limited budget for your wedding drinks.
After the meal – on site bar?
If your reception venue has a bar already on site, you don’t have to worry too much about this. You will, however, need to decide whether to have a free bar all evening, or to ask your guests to pay for their own drinks at some point.
Providing a free bar can leave a hefty bill at the end of the evening, but many couples feel uncomfortable about asking people to buy their own drinks. One option is to put a certain amount of money behind the bar and ask guests to pay once it runs out. This one boils down to personal choice.
After the meal – DIY bar
If you or your caterers are arranging a bar, then you shouldn’t really need to ask guests to pay. Compared to the other costs of a wedding, it is surprisingly cheap to provide enough wedding drinks for a large group of guests, particularly if you do a run to Calais
For white wine, a dry Sauvignon Blanc is a good choice, and it goes with most food. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are generally good quality and not too expensive. For red wine, most people will enjoy a medium-bodied Spanish Rioja, and you can match it with pretty much any meal.
The golden rule here is to keep it simple. Obviously there should be plenty of soft drinks. Coke, lemonade and one or two types of juice is fine. Orange juice is pretty compulsory. Cranberry juice also goes down well. Make sure you continue to provide water too.
Spirits can be tricky if you are setting up your own bar. Buying enough spirits to give your guests a decent choice is expensive, and it is hard to judge how much and what quantity and type of mixers you will need. Wine and beer are fine for most wedding bars.
You can use up any leftover wine from the meal, assuming you have eaten beforehand. You might then want to give people a change by having different wines for the rest of the evening. Remember that the best wines should be served with the meal, and not wheeled out at 10pm when many of your guests will not be in the best state to appreciate them!
For beer, a one type of lager and one type of ale is plenty. Ale should be served in a glass – for lager it’s easiest to hand them out in the bar in bottles.
There are a few rules of thumb that will help you decide how much to buy:
For wine to accompany a meal, half a bottle per person is a good guide.
For the split between red and white wine, fifty percent white and fifty percent red is a safe bet, although in summer people will drink slightly more white than red so it’s better to aim for 60/40.
For champagne, one bottle will serve 6 people, or 7 at a push. For toasts you will only need one glass per person.
For everything else, and in particular for the bar afterwards, you need to estimate based on your knowledge of your guests and how much they like to drink! It’s always better to buy too much than too little, as you can always keep what‘s left over, or give it to friends or relatives. Leftover wine will obviously last for years. Most beer is good for 6-12 months, but check the use-by dates when you buy the beer to make sure it is not too close to expiry.