Don’t expect guests at your party to buy their own beverages. (Photo: Gabriel Gurrola, Flickr)

Juggling the myriad details of planning and/or hosting an event is no easy feat. Whether you’re planning an office holiday party for 30 or a wedding for 250, the factors to consider to keep a large group happy can be overwhelming.

One thing many forget to give adequate attention to is alcohol etiquette for events that call for a drink. Novice planners often don’t think about how certain choices can look or make their guests feel when they saunter up to the bar.

The No. 1 misstep I see is not having enough options for guests to choose from, or having super-specific options like only sweet wine or stout-style beer. No matter how small your event, one option or two super-niche options are never going to please a group. For the guests who came to your event looking forward to a nice drink, they will be disappointed when you don’t have an option they want to indulge in.


I don’t mean you have to recreate a restaurant bar for your guests. Folks don’t go to events thinking they can order anything. Instead, you should provide several crowd-pleasing options. For example, if you’re only doing beer and wine (which many people do, for budget considerations), offer a dry white, a medium-bodied red, a sweet option, a craft beer, a light beer and a highly recognizable option such as Fat Tire. Anyone whose palate is not satisfied by these common options will already know to have his/her preference in a flask or their trunk.

Another misstep I see is clients who want to “play favorites” with guests. Of course you love your wedding party and your immediate family more than your old dorm roommate, but you simply can’t purchase a nicer wine option for some people at the party. Imagine the scenario you put the server or bartender in when someone who isn’t on the “favorites” list asks for what your sister is having!

Perhaps one of the worst etiquette breaches I see is the client who wants an open bar but doesn’t want to pay for all the drinks from it. Please, please, please don’t ask your family and friends to travel to your event—which, depending on the event, may have required them to buy a new outfit, get you a gift, take a day or two off work, rent a hotel room, etc.—and then make them purchase their own beverages when they get there. If you can’t afford a nighttime party where everyone drinks as much of whatever they want, that event is simply out of reach for you. Please don’t ask your friends to finance it for you.

As a solution, I see many party planners who think, “OK, I’m going to offer complimentary beers and wines, but a cash bar for mixed drinks.” But I encourage them to consider the awkwardness of this situation. A sign or two on the bar may help some of your patrons figure out what’s going on, but inevitably, someone is going to order a mixed drink they think is free and then be confused when the bartender asks for payment. Also, again, please think about the awkward situations you put your hired help in when you create confusing scenarios like this. It isn’t you standing behind the bar who has to explain this. It’s the hired employee.

Speaking of the bartenders, it is your responsibility to take care of them. I have mixed feelings about tip jars at events like office parties, but they are absolutely in poor taste at weddings and similar parties—not to mention that most folks do not carry cash anymore and feel awkward about accepting the drink and walking right past the tip jar because they have nothing to put in it. You hired them; you need to take care of them—which means don’t put them in embarrassing situations, and make sure to slip them an envelope with a handsome tip at the end of the evening.

There are so many options for having nice food and nice beverages on a tight budget. For example, if you have an afternoon event instead of an evening event, people will drink less. For certain events, giving guests a couple of drink tickets is a nice solution that allows people to have a good time on your dime without you worrying about them getting out of control.

My best advice for avoiding these and other breaches of etiquette while still hosting a memorable event is to consult a professional in the beverage industry. I see so many clients who, before coming to us, have tried to outsource this step by polling their friends on social media, but trust me, 25 friends will give you 25 answers and leave you no closer to a solution. An event beverage planner will know the best prices, quantities and choices for your event, and although there are no hard-and-fast rules on how to spend your money, we can definitely guide you and steer you away from a situation you don’t realize is embarrassing until you get into it.

Emily Pinner is a Chattanooga native with restaurant and retail management background. After managing Riverside Wine & Spirits for seven years, she created an event planning department that has connected her with lots of other local vendors. Her mission is to take the stress and guessing out of beverage planning for events.

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