Thanks to the craft cocktail revolution, happy couples tie one on in style when they tie the knot. “Signature” wedding cocktails are a mainstay of modern nuptials, meant to perfectly encapsulate their personalities, courtship, spirit preferences, and budget.
It’s a tall order. As Brides reported last June, Americans are getting married later in life, meaning the couple — not their parents — is likely footing the bill. Finances notwithstanding, it’s challenging to orchestrate a menu that satiates everyone from your college-roommate-turned-cannabis-farmer, to your partner’s conservative great-aunt, Sister Mary Prudence.
Cocktail lovers, take heart. We spoke to bartenders across the country to compile their tips on how to tackle wedding cocktails, from shopping to service to last call. Here are four key tactics, 30-plus recipes, and countless ideas for spirited receptions.
In Weddings, As in Life, Service Comes First
It’s unromantic, yes; but what you serve and how you serve it depends first and foremost on logistics. Wedding planners suggest at least one bar with two bartenders for every 100 guests. If your event will have fewer folks behind the bar, or will be nominally staffed by your cousin, that’s cool. Just don’t pin your hopes on an elaborate, 25-ingredient signature drink with a smoked garnish for 200 guests.
“Always keep it simple,” Spencer Osburg, bar manager of Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg, California, says of wedding cocktails. “Talk to your bartender and let them come up with something that will suit you and not kill them to make.”
Cocktails like the Negroni or Sidecar can be pre-batched, so bartenders can mix them up quickly and keep lines moving. You can also customize these drinks with different spirits and seasonal ingredients.
“The bottom line is making sure your guests get the cocktail in hand,” Osburg says.
Give Your Guests (Actual) Choices
If you plan to offer multiple wedding cocktails, be sure to provide some variety for your guests, all of whom might not share your love of amaro or Scotch. An ideal assortment of signature drinks comprises different spirits, strengths, and flavor profiles.
Not a fan of ginger beer? Swap your mule for a sour, the classic combination of liquor with equal parts sweet and sour mixers.
Danielle Lewis, beverage director of GT Fish & Oyster and GT Prime in Chicago, calls sours “a good baseline. You can enhance them with fresh fruit, syrups, or liqueurs.” Well-known sours include Margaritas and Daiquiris. Personalize them with your favorite flavors (Spicy Blackberry Margarita!) or preferred spirits (Armagnac Daiquiri!).
For your whiskey drink, opt for crowd-pleasing classics like the Sazerac or Old Fashioned. “My go-to wedding cocktail is a Manhattan,” Lee Zaremba, beverage director of Somerset and Devereaux in Chicago, says. These too can be customized (see recipe below).
Be forewarned, though, that big, boozy whiskey drinks pack a punch. To prevent overzealous guests from overindulging, consider limiting the quantity of whiskey cocktails your bartenders will pour.
Champagne and sparkling wine cocktails tend to be lower in alcohol.
“I suggest a take on a French 75 using a spirit like singani or pisco instead of gin,” says Rebecca Smoyer DeLeon, bar manager of Checker Hall in Los Angeles. “So guests can have multiples while still being able to remember the event.”
Approach the French 75 as a rubric (spirit + citrus + sugar + bubbles) and tweak it to your preferences. Fruit juice provides citrusy sweetness in a Pineapple French 75, and sparkling apple cider stands in for Champagne in this autumnal twist.
On a Budget? Think Big
Large-format drinks check a number of practical boxes. They are easy to execute and cost-effective, often low ABV, and can be served family-style in pitchers or coolers.
“I recommend making big-batch containers of red and white sangria,” Brian Daigle, beverage director of The Kennison in Chicago, says. “It’s super inexpensive and incredibly easy to make at home in large quantities. Putting the sangria in self-serve containers with spouts removes waiting at the bar.”
“Punches are the best bang-for-your-buck wedding cocktail,” Wiznitzer says. For inspiration, consider the Bourbon Peach Punch, Blackberry Prosecco Punch, Campari Spring Punch, or the Black Currant Sparkling Punch (recipe below).
Drink by Color
Couples who select a color theme for their receptions can incorporate carefully chosen hues into their cocktails.
Reds and pinks show beautifully in this simple twist on a Gin & Tonic, spiked with pomegranate syrup or grenadine. Ditto peach and the Mandarin Margarita, yellow and the Duke Lemington, or light green and this Chartreuse and Tonic, which has the added benefit of being low-alcohol.
If the idea of serving Chartreuse to your straightlaced relatives leaves you feeling, well, green, might we suggest old-school Gin & Tonics, cheerily festooned with seasonal mint or rosemary?
At the end of the day, your guests are there to celebrate you, not dissect your signature cocktail colors and composition.
It’s a wedding! Everything else is just the icing on the cake.
Recipe: The Modern Savage
This Manhattan riff comes courtesy of Old Major restaurant in Denver. “This cocktail is beyond delicious and very easy to batch,” Gene Fereda, beverage director, says. The sarsaparilla bitters and choice of bourbon give it a subtle Southern drawl.
- 1 ounce bourbon (Fereda prefers Old Forester 86)
- ¾ ounce Nonino Amaro
- ¾ ounce Cocchi Torino
- 2 dashes sarsaparilla bitters
- Combine all ingredients.
- Add one ice cube, if serving right away.
- Stir rapidly with a chilled spoon.
Recipe: Black Currant Sparkling Punch
“We all know how weddings are full of toasts and celebration… it can be quite a long night,” says Nick Canteenwalla, bar manager of Honey Salt in Vancouver. The hard liquor in this punch is balanced by fresh fruit and juices and is topped with sparkling water (not Champagne) at service.
- 1 cup vodka (Canteenwalla prefers raspberry flavored vodka)
- ½ cup creme de cassis
- 1 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup fresh orange juice
- ½ cup simple syrup
- 3 ½ cups sparkling water
- ⅓ pound red and black currants
- 1 orange, sliced
- 1 lemon, sliced
- Combine everything except sparkling water in a punch bowl.
- Refrigerate at least two hours, or overnight.
- For service, ladle over ice in rocks glasses, filling each halfway.
- Top each glass with chilled sparkling water.