When Katie and Nick Dunn kept having to postpone their venue wedding, they decided to nix the whole plan and have a backyard wedding at Katie’s parents’ house—her childhood home. And, while a backyard wedding may sound simple, it actually requires a lot of DIY-ing, including buying all the alcohol to stock the bar. “At one point, our whole garage was filled with alcohol, and I couldn't actually park my car in there. You’d open it up and it was just a mountain of cases of alcohol and beer,” she says.
Elyse Dawn of The Wedding Planning Guide is seeing a lot more backyard weddings with fewer guests during the pandemic. “Doing it at home or on a private property, you have to think of every detail yourself, whereas a venue would have a rain plan, tables, and bathrooms. If you're going to have more than 20 people at your house you're going to have to think about bathrooms,” she advises. You are also going to have to think about how to build a bar.
Luckily for the Dunns, the groom is a mixologist who has worked at bars and restaurants, so he “definitely had a good grasp on what you need to have a full and good bar,” says Katie. But, there was still a learning curve, and they ended up running out of liquor too soon, but having cases of wine left over. And the White Claws? “They went,” she notes. “We had one White Claw left over.”
Buying alcohol in bulk is a bit complicated. “There’s actually a lot of math involved,” says Fallon Carter of Fallon Carter Events. Luckily, there are drink calculators and helpful tips online from places like Total Wine & More. Experts and couples who have been there have advice too.
How Much Alcohol Should You Buy?
The first step that Katie and Nick took before ordering alcohol was to go through their list of about 100 guests one by one and rate each one as a light, moderate, or heavy drinker (we’re sure the guests would love to see this list!). They then assigned a drink range to each category (i.e. three to four drinks for an average drinker; four to six drinks for a heavy drinker). The pair also tried to account for anyone drinking more than expected as well as all the half-drunk cocktails that get placed down and forgotten about at a wedding. Once they had their rough calculation, they figured how many drinks would come out of a bottle of wine or a handle of hard spirits to determine how much to order. They ended up buying three handles of vodka, three handles of tequila, five cases of wine, two cases of sparkling wine, cases of beer, and bottles of bourbon and gin. Oh, and the White Claws.
Carter says this method is a good way to go; she always advises couples to take a survey of their guest list, identify how many people are over 21 and try to roughly estimate if it’s a “rowdy” crowd or a more subdued crowd. “The demographic of your guests will impact the type of alcohol you buy and how much of it,” she says. The date and time of your wedding will affect this as well—people may be inclined to drink less at a Sunday afternoon wedding than they would on a Saturday night.
Total Wine & More suggests 50 bottles of wine, six bottles of spirits, and 150 bottles of beer for a 100-person event lasting three to four hours. When the time increases to more than four hours, the liquor provider suggests 60 bottles of wine, eight bottles of spirits, and 180 bottles of beer. The numbers change, of course, depending on your guest count and the length of your wedding. The site also offers consultations, which they recommend scheduling three to five months in advance.
Carter’s methodology is to assume guests will have at least two drinks in the first two hours and continue at about a drink an hour for the rest of the night depending on the length or your reception. She also suggests hiring a mixologist or at least speaking to one to get advice. “They’ll tell you how much Aperol [to get] for your Aperol spritz,” she says.
Regardless, according to Dawn, it’s always a good idea to buy more alcohol than you think you need—especially because when buying cases in bulk. You can typically return anything that has been unopened and not chilled. Or, you can always keep what you don’t use.
What Kind of Alcohol Should You Buy?
For beer, Katie says she wanted to keep it mostly to “light drinkable” beers like Corona and Modelo, and they offered one heavier beer—a local IPA. For wine, they opted for more white wine than red since the wedding was in May. Dawn, says in her experience, it’s common to go through white wine faster than red at a wedding. Buying libations are something Dawn says she’s seeing more of these days with couples offering craft microbrews from their home states. Another trend: those White Claws again. Dawn says even at weddings that offer only wine and beer, she is seeing White Claw or another type of hard seltzer offered as an option.
Also, keep time of year in mind. At a spring or summer wedding, you’ll want to stock up on more white and rose wines, refreshing cocktails, and hard seltzers. For a fall or winter wedding, you may want to lean a bit more into red wines and heartier cocktails and spirits like scotch and bourbon.
Katie says they placed their order for the alcohol about three weeks in advance (about the same time frame Total Wine & More suggests) over the phone from a local liquor warehouse store and they got some discounts for buying in bulk. Dawn and Katie suggest talking to your local liquor store owner as they have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to how much to buy and what.
“They can give you guidance because they see the trends of what people drink and what gets returned,” says Dawn. “They might say, ‘This never gets drunk.’” Local liquor stores will also often offer delivery and pick-up service, which Dawn highly recommends taking advantage of. It’s one last thing to have to worry about on the day.
Katie and Nick kept their cocktails pretty simple; they bought tequila, vodka, gin, and bourbon. As is the case with alcohol, buying mixers in bulk is also cost effective, so the couple went to Costco and purchased boxes of seltzer water and juices for cocktails. They sliced up lemons and limes themselves and bought spouts for the handles because, while their caterer supplied bartenders, it did not provide any of the bar accouterments. They also had to order a large amount of ice from a local vendor—both cocktail ice and ice for the coolers.
Both Dawn and Carter recommend hiring a bartending service, and the level of DIY will depend on the level of service you choose to get. For Carter’s events, the cocktail experience is very important, and she sees value in splurging for a full bartending service complete with garnishes and the proper glasses.
“There is an art to making a cocktail and you don’t want to miss that with having a backyard or at-home wedding,” she says. “The catering team and bartenders will think about the best mixes and garnishes. When I walk into a bar in Brooklyn—I want the same experience in your backyard. I want the mint and the lime. [The bartenders] know how to chill the glasses. You want an immaculate experience when it comes to beverage.”
Dawn takes a somewhat more relaxed approach. She sees couples using clear plastic cups for backyard weddings. And, she also recommends couples who are on a budget or who have not hired an elaborate bartending service mix cocktails ahead of time and have them chilled in the fridge or in a dispenser for guests to serve themselves “if it’s not going to take away from the vibe” (think rustic spiked ice tea or lemonade). On the flip side, she’s also seeing a lot more involved signature cocktails from couples, so it’s all about prioritizing. Do you want a very fancy signature cocktail mixed by a professional? Or, are you okay with simple gin and tonics and premixed cocktails?
What if You Have Excess?
While online drink calculators and DIY calculations are good prep, you can never really fully predict how much or what your guests will drink. Dawn has seen a couple run out of wine early on in the wedding. For the Dunns, liquor went faster than beer and wine, and they were left with a surplus of the latter as well as extra mixers. But, they were able to return some of the excess. Cases of wine are returnable as long as they have not been cooled yet, and juices and soda can go back too. “You’re only getting like $50 back for [the mixers], but it does make a difference when you’re paying for everything yourself,” says Katie.
They also kept some wine and beer to drink themselves. When it comes to creating your own bar, Carter recommends getting what you like. “I have had couples that start thinking, ‘This uncle likes this scotch.’ Don’t bog yourself down worrying about each person’s happiness,” she says. Ultimately, if you’ve stocked up fairly well (Dawn recommends multiple types of wine, including sweeter options for light drinkers), everyone will find something to enjoy drinking.
Katie’s number one piece of advice: “Buy more liquor than you think you need.” If you have too much, you can bring it back to the store—or bring it home and drink it yourselves!