On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe respond to a lister question about how to create an optimal wedding bar program. The two discuss pre-batched cocktails, what kinds of spirits to include, and why having multiple bar locations is crucial. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair, New York City headquarters. I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the Friday VinePair Podcast. You know, Zach, I feel like we’ve been — this topic we’re going to talk about today is one that has come up a few times, we got another reader email about it, and it just feels like the right time to talk about it because it is that time of year and that time of year-
Z: We’ll get there.
A: -is wedding season. Although I don’t know about you, I feel like I’ve noticed, it seems in the past few years, wedding season isn’t as heavily traditionally June and July as it used to be. I feel a lot of people are moving into late summer, early, and fall weddings. Seems to be very on-trend, at least in this area of the country. The email that we received from a listener recently was basically, he’s getting married and wanted some-
A: Congrats. And wanted some help with the wedding bar. I think that the wedding bar is one of these things that has a lot of stress because if I’m being honest, the drinks are what really do ensure that people have a good time at your wedding. That’s why most people are there.
Z: What about the food?
A: The food is always going to suck. I think you have to just accept.
Z: Oh, I don’t agree.
A: Oh, I do. I think you have to accept that-
Z: Or you just picked the wrong caterer, man.
A: No, I think you have to expect that the food is not always going to be as amazing as a really nice restaurant. Never, never.
Z: Well, sure. Okay, I don’t think that’s anyone’s expectation but I don’t think that means it sucks.
A: Right. Yes, but it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be the least memorable thing I guess is what I’m going to say. Here’s the rule I always tell you about the food. You just have to make sure it doesn’t suck, right? It’s good, it nourishes you, and no one — if the food’s not right, the chicken’s rubbery, or the fish was cold or the salmon had the coagulate coming out of it and it’s over, people remember that. As long as the food is good, decent, people are like, “The food was great,” because that’s actually not why they’re there. They’re there to celebrate, to have fun. I actually think in the food department, you can correct me if you disagree, I think that the hors d’oeuvres are actually even more important than the main course.
A: Have a lot of really delicious sh*t that’s being passed around. Yes, like the places I do remember where the food has been good to someone who did a whole oyster bar or a raw bar thing or there was cool like I don’t know, stuff happening with truffles, we know how I feel about those or just fun food that was easy, sushi, that kind of stuff from the very beginning. Because when you sit down also, people are dancing, whatever. I think the one way you can ensure that people don’t have a great time at your wedding is if there’s any issues with the drinks.
A: That’s because people come to a wedding to have fun. They’re getting dressed up, they’re giving you hopefully a very nice gift, and they’re at the wedding to have a good time. The problem is that depending on where you get married, there’s more restrictions probably with the drinks than there even are with the food, right? I’m sure there’s some things where you can like, “Oh, are you sure you don’t have one other caterer I can talk to?” Or, “Are you sure I really can’t have 1,000 Shake Shack burgers show up at the end of the night?” or whatever the hell you want to do. There’s some things to do with that, but depending on where you’re getting married, the alcohol regulations are what they are. Some places you can bring in your own alcohol, some places you have to order. I think it is up to the drinks to power people through the night. That’s what we’re going to talk about. I don’t want to focus too much on the one question that this person had, what drinks would you — what spirits would you sub in or out for big brand names, which is because I do think a lot of places people don’t have that opportunity. I don’t know, what do you think, Zach? Do you think that the drinks-? Do you agree with my assessment that the drinks are the most important thing about the wedding?
Z: Well, besides the celebration of two people coming together to form a union.
A: Okay, yes, blah, blah, blah. Everyone’s already there for that. That’s great, the drinks-
Z: No, no, you’re not wrong, you’re not wrong. I would say the hierarchy is like — drinks are very near the top in terms of what ensures a quality wedding, I would say the quality of music. However, you go about it-
A: Yes, totally.
Z: Whether it’s a band or DJ or your own playlist. That’s a big part of it, too. Then I think on the drinks front, since that’s really what we’re the experts on more than music. Although, I guess you’re kind of a music expert too, but not me.
A: I used to.
Z: I think that to the question that our listener posted that I want to do — I do want to touch on not specific replacements, but this idea because his point was or his comment was he’s looked at all these different bar packages that these, that the vendors have put together, and that it’s very centered around extremely recognizable brands that they’re charging a lot of money for that. What I would say is that when you’re at the point where you’re venue shopping and this, for those of you having weddings in 2023 probably too late for this, but you never know what your options might be. Certainly, anyone listening who’s at some point going to get married and hasn’t yet or again or who knows what, the flexibility that a venue gives you is, I think, an underrated but very important consideration when venue shopping. Especially if you’re listening to this podcast, if you’re a regular listener, you care about what you drink and it sucks to be in a situation where you pick a venue and find out, well, you know what? They have very strict rules whether that’s because of the state you’re in, which in some cases may just be unavoidable, but in a lot of cases it’s just venues to have that additional source of cash flow. They won’t let you bring in what you want, they won’t necessarily work with you. They have a very streamlined process that they expect you to fall in line with because that’s a big revenue driver for them is being able to charge you significant markup on the drinks people are going to drink. They got to make money somehow, I get it. When Kaitlin and I got married, one of the single most important considerations for us when looking for venues was how much flexibility they give us with the food and drink program because, for both of us, that was a huge part of what we wanted. It was more important to us than other considerations about a potential venue. To each their own. Some people might really have their heart set on a specific location. They might be deeply committed to the idea of something outdoors or something just with whatever features. You and your partner need to figure out what matters to you all. Again, like I said, if you’re a regular listener to this podcast, probably a thing that matters a lot to you is, like I said, being able to not just have quality drinks for you but being able to serve them to your friends, family, and well-wishers. I think that’s step one. Then I think the other thing I will say, and this is just my opinion and you might very well disagree, is that when it comes to the spirits portion of an evening, I’m really a big fan of a limited selection. Or even honestly, what Kaitlin and I did was I came up with three pre-batch cocktails and those were your spirits options. We had lots of beer and wine also. I did that for two reasons. One was to have a little bit of control over cost and to be able to say that we had cocktails without having to have a fully open bar. Part of it, I got to create three custom cocktails that I could share with my friends, family, and stuff and that was cool. Also, because it was distinctive, right? I recall your comment from a previous episode about getting a tequila and soda at weddings. I think that’s fine, but I also think that it can be cool to have this point of differentiation in the same way that you would remember the wedding that had a raw bar or served you, I don’t know, something with truffles or whatever. Having well-executed signature cocktails for the wedding is a cool feature that I think more people should look into if they’re able to do that if the venue will work with you on that.
A: We’re going to agree and disagree a little bit, I think.
A: I think the way that I approach this and the advice I give to people who ask me to look at their wedding plan is one, I worked a lot of weddings in college. I was actually a bartender at weddings. The one thing that I always tell people is the most important thing, more important than how much beer and wine you’re going to serve, if you’re going to have a limited selection of spirits or a massive selection of spirits, if you’re going to have batch cocktails or not batch cocktails is how many actual bars are you going to have. The reason for that is people should not wait for drinks or wait very minimally for drinks. That is usually, I would find the reason you would have guests complaining the most. Like, “I waited 10 minutes for a drink. This is super annoying.” Especially right after the ceremony, figure out some way there’s drinks handed out if that’s what people want or people walking around with them. Or that there’s more than one bar. At my wedding, we had four but again, that was important to us. We recognize we could either — because what we realized was it was the same amount of staff that they would’ve put behind two. We just said, “Well then, can you just do four and split the staff? “They were like, “Absolutely, that’s not a problem.” It gives the illusion as well of less of a line. Even if it’s going to take a little bit longer, it’s like, “Oh, I’m only waiting behind one person versus waiting behind six.” I think that that is something that’s really worth thinking about when you’re thinking about your wedding is how many guests are you having and how many bars will they be, where will there be, and where are the bars located. The other thing you have to think about with bar location is this, and I’ve seen this happen at lots of weddings . If you have a wedding where the music and dancing is very important to you, you need to have a bar that is right off of the dance floor. If you don’t, you are going to lose your guests over and over and over again to another location as they go to get a drink and then come back and continue to dance. I think sometimes that’s venue logistics, which never really makes sense to me especially these venues where this is what they do all the time. The fact that the bar isn’t in the same location, it’s always very odd. That’s really important. Then I do think there’s some things you should think about and some things that I don’t think matter as much. I think one of the most important things for you to think about is what spirits you want to have behind the bar and having a very solid option for all of the core spirits. Tequila, bourbon, Scotch, vodka, those types of things that people really enjoy. You don’t need Midori back there. You don’t need a Sharpshooter. If you’re really into Sharpshooter, it’s fine. You can find it at this point, fine, but you don’t need those things. Don’t have Campari behind the bar unless you are going to, which is going to be my next point, pre-batch Negroni or something. There’s no need for you to make sure there’s Campari, et cetera. Just have the core spirits. Then what I have found is the worst thing that happens at weddings, this is where I will agree with you, Zach, is that you have someone try to build a full bar program. The problem is that often, including myself. I was a 20-year-old working weddings as a bartender. I didn’t know how to make your spec a Dirty Vodka Martini. I didn’t know. I was there to quickly measure out the pour and work as fast as I can. The vermouth is usually sh*t. You are not getting bartenders who work at Katana Kitten or Death & Co. and this is their night off. That’s not what you’re getting, and that’s totally fine. First of all, understand that by putting the additional ingredients back there, the vermouths and the bidders, et cetera. All you’re doing is putting the bartender in a position to be often mansplained to by a guest who’s like, “Can you make a Manhattan?” “I don’t know.” “Maybe let me show you how to make it.” Don’t do that. Just have the cores with easy mixers. If people want to drink blanco tequila straight on the rocks, let them do that. If they want to have it with soda, let them do that. Have very easy things. Then if you want to have cocktails, I do firmly agree with Zach, have them batched. Have a few of them. I think one of the things that is lame a little bit lame about weddings sometimes is the bride and the groom’s cocktail, and it’s only available for the first 30 minutes during either the happy hour, whatever, or the right — as people were sitting down. That’s become a new trend now where people get a drink before they go into the ceremony, which is also interesting. Do not do that. If you’re going to have cocktails, have them the entire time and have them pre-batch. It’s really easy for the staff and they can be told, “This is how you do it. This is the Martini we’re serving, it’s a simple Gin Martini. All you have to do is pull it out of the freezer and serve it or pull it out of the ice bucket and serve it.” That’s it. Pour it in the glass. I think that that’s really important. Then when it comes to the spirits, I’m of the mind that if you can get the best quality for — There are still brands that people are somewhat aware of. I think that the problem with weddings is that people — You have a whole different group of people that are there, and if you’re like, “Oh, I know, I’m going to get these brands that they’ve never heard of that I know are like these sleeper hits.” People aren’t at your wedding to be educated. This is not the forum for them to learn about this, this tequila that punches above its weight. If you know that out of the main tequilas, people drink that, for example, I don’t know, Teremana is the best at the price, then just do Teremana. Pour the rocks tequila. Don’t find some obscure small-batch tequila that no one’s ever going to find because they’re going to ask the bartender. The bartender’s not going to know. You’re not opening your own private bar or restaurant for the night. You’re throwing a party.
Z: I think the thing to note here is it’s important that if you’re picking something that isn’t reasonably recognizable that you be able to communicate why. If you and your partner went to Calisco and visited this distillery and it’s the tequila you love best then, by all means, serve it but tell the bartenders like you should be able to communicate either you directly or if you have a wedding planner or whomever should be able to pass that basic information on so they can say, “This is the happy couple’s favorite tequila and they’re thrilled to share it with you. Should you like tequila or whatever the thing may be?” I don’t think you can’t necessarily go outside of very conventional brands but I do think you have to have reasons for that. If your reason is just like it was cheap, then okay but that’s also going to say something about you to your guests and that might be a fair thing to say. Everyone has a budget and some people’s budget is going to go more into some parts of their wedding than others, and that’s fine too. Again, those of you listening to this probably are going to want to allocate a fair bit of your wedding budget towards the food and drink if you’re anything like Adam or me. I also think that the batch cocktails, a thing I should have mentioned before and then your comments really remind me of, is the other real advantage for them is that they allow you to serve cocktails that are also very quick for the bar to prepare. Instead of the Manhattan that is not a very complicated cocktail but is a multi-step cocktail that involves stirring and stuff, you can have something that is either already pre-diluted and at the right temp and can just be poured or at worst poured into a shaker or into a glass and stirred, and ready to go for the bartenders to make things as quick as possible. Because I agree 100 percent with Adam, no one wants to have to stand in line for 10 or 15 minutes while every person orders their own special drink that has to be made a certain way. That’s not very fun when you’re going to a cocktail bar. It’s way less fun when you’re at a wedding. I think the other thing I wanted to say about on the spirit’s front in particular, and this is something that I learned a little bit the hard way is it’s also really good if you’re going to do this especially if you’re going to have pre-batch cocktails to have at least one of them be a relatively low-proof cocktail. Because for one, people have all kinds of different tolerances, but it is a wedding and people do like to drink throughout the evening; they just may be ill-prepared for what four or five drinks over the course of three or four hours might do to them. Even if for you or me or for many listeners that doesn’t seem like all that much to drink but giving them a low proof like a punch or something like that, that is fun to drink, that doesn’t have a lot of booze in it but is a little boozy gives them a little something to work with is I think a really good option. Make that perhaps even relatively explicit on the way, however, you’re choosing to list people’s options. It’s like, “Hey, this one is our lighter drink or whatever,” so that people who want to just have something in their hand but maybe don’t want to drink wine or beer can have an option.
A: Some kind of spritz or something. I think also this is where you have to think about the other things that you’re serving. One of the things I think is really important to be aware of is if you are going to do cocktails, you have to assume that people are going to drink them because now this is something cool that you’ve done. You’ve batched Old Fashioned, you’ve batched Margaritas, like whatever you’ve done so people are going to want to drink those, especially in the beginning. There’s going to be a lot of spirits consumed. I think that means very much that you need to try your best to ensure that you have at least one lower-alcohol wine. Don’t blast people’s face off within a high-alcohol, full-bodied Chard and, like, a high-alcohol Cab. Try to have some kind of wine and the same thing for beer. If you’re a beer person too, don’t stock the cooler with double IPAs. It’s not good for anybody having one crisp session pilsner, lager, et cetera at 4.5 percent to 5 percent is great. Having maybe some seltzer, like we talked about last Friday, all of that is a really good idea, so that people do have other options so that they can maybe have a cocktail or two and then be sessionable the rest of the evening. I think sometimes the thing you hear about at certain weddings where it gets a little sloppy is when there were a lot of really good drinks but they were all really high in alcohol and people just get a little too sh*t-faced. I also think that this is where you should stress a lot less about sparkling wine, especially. “I need a sparkling wine for the toast.” First of all, it doesn’t have to be Champagne. It really doesn’t. At this point, *especially depending on how big your wedding is, you can get away with a really nice Prosecco, Cremant, like, Cava, et cetera. Then finally, the one faux pas that I see happen a lot at weddings, especially weddings where there is this ability for people to bring in their own stuff is please, please, please don’t bring special bottles with you or have your dad have them, or your best man, or a buddy, or whatever that get shared with only a few people. It’s amazing to me how often I’ve been at weddings where I’ve seen that where in the corner of the wedding, there’s people who’ve popped a really fancy bourbon and they’re all sharing it. It’s really tacky and I think it happens a lot more than you would realize where people are like, “This was the special bottle that was given to me and I really want to drink on my wedding day.” You have a lot of guests there and then you start creating this hierarchy and you never want to have a wedding where people feel they were important enough to be invited, but clearly not important enough sharing whatever you were drinking with a few other people. Just not cool. Then finally, and this probably goes without saying, don’t have a f*cking cash bar. Do you know how many places I worked where I had to work at a cash bar? I understand if it’s expensive, then figure out what you can still afford to serve. Whether that’s then just beer or just white wine or just straight liquor. Whatever it is, figure it out. Cash bars, again, are a way that you just hear so many guests complain, and I worked a lot of those in college actually. The guests start to get really resentful and they also leave early.
Z: Yes. I think, again, this is a tricky thing because I certainly understand that for a lot of people, it’s daunting to look at the cost of what having an open bar looks like realistically in a wedding of any size really. Certainly, if you have more than, I don’t know, 50 or 75 people, it starts to really get up there and it depends on how you’re paying for the wedding, who’s paying for it. That can be a real eye-watering figure. Like I said, look, Adam, I think, though, that if you or your family or whoever is paying is not able to or unwilling to cover the cost of it, then just don’t have it. I think that’s just a better bat. I agree that it’s a little tacky and just sets a weird vibe. It’s weird for the, as you experience, it’s weird for the service staff to be keeping track of who owes what and taking payment and stuff like that and you just don’t want, I think you’d be better off saying, maybe it’s hard to say with your whole chest, say just here’s what we’re providing. You have beer, wine, and that’s it. If you are the person who attends a wedding and absolutely has to have spirits, then there’s a bar across the street or whatever. That may not be the case in every venue, but I just think it’s yes, just don’t ask your — guests are almost always, spending a fair bit of their own money to be there, especially if they’re traveling, but even if they’re not and if you can’t cover it, then don’t have it.
A: Exactly. I think, all in all, after that, you should be totally fine. I think the biggest thing that you should take away from this is the point you already made, Zach, which is if you are going to do anything out of the norm, then you need to be intentional about it and you need to create signage, explain it to your guests, et cetera. People do appreciate that. If you’re going to have six cocktails, explain why it’s those six cocktails, just do a sign at the bar, whatever. It makes people feel really involved in the experience. Same with the spirits that you pick. If you’re going to pick stuff, you’re going to have Aquavit behind the bar, I’m sure Tim will because Tim likes Aquavit. Then explain why. “Oh, because that’s how I love to have Aquavit and a beer.” Great. Good for you. That’s awesome. Those things I think are very, very important. Then at the end of the day, don’t stress out about it too much. The other thing too is the most important thing is for you to be there enjoying yourself, out on the dance floor so that people are out there partying with you, and it’s not as important for you to worry about if the drinks are getting executed correctly. Which is again, why I think you’re better served to create drinks that are less of a headache than trying to do things that are super involved. Don’t try to create the drinks you had at pouring ribbons or in the past or at Death & Co. or Mister Paradise or any of these other bars. These are amazing cocktail bars for a reason. Don’t try to recreate their signature cocktails at your wedding. Don’t do it.
Z: If you need to hire them to come to your wedding.
Z: That’s your only option.
A: Exactly. Create cocktails that are delicious and are classic and easy, and you will have a very, very, very good time.
A: All right. Happy wedding season.
Z: Enjoy it, folks. Please be responsible-ish,
A: Yes. Zach, I’ll talk to you on Monday.
Z: Sounds great.
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