Planning to Bring your Own Alcohol to a Wedding
In Ohio, the laws for alcohol are fairly clear cut but the processes for planning a bar are sometimes needlessly complicated. I often get requests from overwhelmed wedding parties that don’t know where to begin. The process is not as simple as walking into the liquor store and picking up a few bottles of of this and that, but if you rely on qualified professionals the process will be well planned and within your budget.
- Talk with Your Venue Liaison
Universally, this should always be the first step. Before stocking up on liquor, check with your venue. Ohio liquor laws require that if a venue has a liquor permit, any alcohol consumed on the property MUST come from the venue. I have encountered and turned away brides that express skepticism on why they cannot just bring what they want, but liquor laws are clear on this matter.
Some full-service event spaces do not have a permit and supply alcohol as part of the vendor contract. This is a dicey area with a bit of grey area. If they are going out and purchasing for you and marking up the alcohol or charging a ‘service fee’ this is most likely a violation of the spirit of liquor laws. The bartender or caterer may also offer or prefer to stock the bar. If they are doing it as a courtesy, then this is not an issue. Any kind of mark up or service fee on retail prices is illegal and a disservice to you as a client.
- Liquor Laws and Insurance
You will want to look into an additional insurance policy if having an event on your property. You will want to be covered in the unlikely event something catastrophic happens, so you are not held liable financially. When you bring booze to a big bash, accidents can happen. Consider protecting yourself and everyone involved by obtaining liability insurance from your home owners insurance. Any professional venue will have their own insurance. A professional bartending company should have their own insurance but ask for proof before signing any contracts. Hire a non-professional at your own risk. If the worst should occur your insurance may deny coverage.
- Choose Your Bar Type
Most brides and grooms decide to have an open bar, which allows guests to drink beer, wine, and liquor without limit. But since this can be a pricey endeavor when bringing your own alcohol, some couples choose a limited bar instead. As the name suggests, limited bars typically only serve wine, beer, and sometimes a few select liquors or signature cocktails. A cash bar, which requires guests to pay for their own alcohol requires a permit. Keep in mind that selling any kind of alcohol without a permit is illegal. If you are bringing your own alcohol, you cannot legally charge people for drinks unless you have a temporary F2 permit for fundraising. You can however have a donation jar or have people donate booze to help stock the bar.
- Initial Planning
So, you have chosen a venue and have to bring your own alcohol. Now what? Start by understanding your objectives. If you know exactly what you want, you are almost ready for an estimate, but you are in minority. Submit your list to the bartender and/or liquor store and ask for feedback and an estimate from the store. Do not worry about locking down the exact amounts yet that comes a little later. if you are in the majority and have no idea where to start, I would start by thinking of my guests and rank what will be most popular: beer vs wine vs spirits. Remember it is your wedding to plan how you please, but you are planning for two families, so do not just have what you like!
From there you will want to start planning the details. Some initial questions you will want to ask is what kind of bar do you want? What are your objectives? Do you want to stick to a budget? Do you want to keep it simple and cheap with just a couple signature drinks or a full bar? Does your family just like simple domestic beer or do you have a bunch of hop heads? These questions need not overwhelm you. Your bartender or liquor store manager can start you off with a proposal and you can add these details to the estimate as the information trickles down.
Ohio liquor law stipulates a state minimum price point that all permit holders must adhere too. Most liquor stores and grocery store keep prices state minimum and the only variance you may see is a slight tax rate different depending on what county you are in.
Discounts are for cases of wine only, per Ohio Liquor laws. 10 percent is standard, and we usually base the wine discount on how far the delivery is going. Anything within 30 minutes will still get 8 or 9 percent discount.
I have seen people swear by driving to Kentucky or Michigan to save money on hard alcohol. Nothing is more baffling to me than the idea of driving several hours to maybe save a dollar or two per bottle. Granted spirits generally are cheaper in any other state. I have seen people claim price differences of 50, 60 percent! This is frankly impossible and probably a product of exaggerated 3rd hand anecdotes and misunderstandings. By my calculation you would need to be purchasing 4-5 cases of liquor just to break even on the gas mileage. If you are planning on buying beer and wine locally that’s more driving and more time you are taking that you probably do not have.
- Planning Amounts and Forsaking the Wedding Calculators
Trying to nail the quantities is by far the biggest area of apprehension when planning a bar. Balancing overspending vs underbuying is a universal problem that can be mitigated with good planning. I generally forsake wedding calculators as the be all, except to get just the very basic impressions of quantities in mind. I find that wedding bars are so unique, and you are throwing so many different possibilities and combinations of people together it cannot be treated like a mathematical formula. I like to say it is sometimes more art than science and formulas are definitely not some magical bullet that will tell you what you will need.
Start by estimating how many people will actually be showing up the wedding. You will then want to revisit this after RSVPs are due. You will give that to the bartender and liquor manager and ask for their input. Lean on their experience but it is ultimately your event, your decision and you know your people better than any. Sunday or weekday weddings consume far less than Saturday. The average reception is 4-5 hours. If you are serving pre-ceremony you may want to bump up everything just a little bit. Outdoor bars tend to consume higher levels of beer. Winter weddings are more a red wine and cocktail affair.
Pick a Liquor store that takes returns and delivers. Why pick up when you can have it delivered? Delivery saves you time, energy, and money. My policy is never to charge delivery fees for an event within an hour of our location.
Ohio is a control state for liquor so hard alcohol cannot be returned once purchased. Any store that takes liquor returns could have their permit revoked. It is perfectly legal to take back wine, beer and low alcohol mixers. I encourage clients to overbuy beer and wine and plan to return what they don’t use at their convenience. Be more conservative with liquor and understand if some of the liquor runs out, your guest will be content to switch to something else for the last hour of the event.
- Into the Breach. Picking the Types and Varieties.
Once you’ve determined how much alcohol you need, it’s time to figure out what types to serve. I typically recommend a couple domestics, an import, and a craft beer or two. You will want to decide on cans vs bottles vs kegs. It’s a huge misconception that Kegs are cheapest, and they can be logistically a nightmare. Each type will need a tap rental, more ice, something to chill in, and you cannot return an unused keg for anything but deposit refund. Cans are easily the cheapest and easiest to work with and some venues do not allow bottles. Get with your venue liaison to see what is allowed and what equipment they have on site. If you insist on a keg, try to keep it to one signature beer and the rest bottles or cans.
For wine, a couple reds and a dry and sweet white will suffice for the average wedding. You will have to make a decision on what price point you have in mind. Big bottles or boxed wine is perfectly acceptable. I understand the sentiment of wanting to serve classy Napa Valley wine and I am perfectly happy taking more of your hard-earned money. However, I think with 200-300 guests, it’s unrealistic.
Sparkling wine is optional and with a toast it varies. It takes at least a case for most weddings to get everyone a glass. You may consider just doing a half flute to control costs or just having a wine toast. Pick sweet or dry or get both.
Finally, you need to decide what you want to do for the spirits if at all. Going just beer and wine is done and perfectly reasonable if money is a factor. Offering a signature drink is generally a good way to also control costs and keep it simple. If you want to offer a full bar and need to save money, ask for 1.75 bottles and keep it in the middle shelf. Instead of Tito’s Jack Daniels and Crown Royal consider Sobieski, Jim Beam and Seagram’s 7. Those choices might save you a hundred dollars alone. Come up with a plan for what drinks you want to offer or have the bartender give you 4-5 options. You might also just opt to stick with simple drinks like orange juice and vodka or Seagram’s 7 and 7up. Consider your crowd but remember you will not please everyone. Typically, I recommend vodka, rum, gin, American whiskey, Canadian or Irish or Scotch is standard. You may also then consider brandy, tequila, peach schnapps and something for shots like fireball or crown apple depending on your crowd.
- Factor in Mixers and Garnishes Last
In addition to the liquor, brides and grooms may need to supply a handful of popular mixers like soda, tonic water, juice, and club soda. Lemons, limes, and ice may need to be readily available as well. First, check with the bartender, caterer, and the venue to see if they offer a mixer package. If the venue has ice, juice, and soda on site, you may only need to get a few more things for cocktails. Any liquor store that has experience with the planning will have a mixer list for you to choose from. Just get the ones that complement the kinds of drinks you will want served. Lean on your bartender to help guide that process they have seen it all!
- Final thoughts
Planning a wedding or event bar can seem intimidating at first glance. Every wedding has its own unique flair and the bar will be no exception. Come up with an overall objective and budget and then break the planning down using the factors listed in this article. Remember that you have hired professional bartenders, planners, or a liquor store with hundreds of events experience and lean on their input when necessary. If you really have no clue where to start email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to see a typical estimate for your amount of guests. I enjoy helping people figure out the alcohol even if we do not end up doing business together.
My name is Jonathan Kerkian. I am the owner of Corkscrew Johnny’s in Richfield Ohio. I have over 5 years’ experience planning and delivering the supplies for weddings and other events. If you want to know more, email me or go to www.corkscrewjohnnys.com. Cheers!