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How to do wedding beverages right on the big day

Event specialists and mixologists on the setup, cocktails and what to drink

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You've got the rings, the outfits, the venue and the love of your life. Now, let's party! Here are some tips on creating the perfect cocktail bar, from personnel to signature cocktails.

Event specialists and mixologists explain how to do beverages right on the big day


The setup

A good ratio of bartenders to guests is one bartender for every 50 to 75 guests.

 "There's always a crush at the beginning," says Jack Stahl, events specialist at Palate New Orleans. "You might add a second bartender for at least the ... first hour when consumption is higher."

 The decision whether to leave out a tip jar for bartenders can be a sticky one. Some venues have their own rules, but Stahl and Catherine Hall, sales and events manager at the Orpheum Theater, weigh in.

 "Our rule is, don't solicit tips — it's gauche," Stahl says. "But if people are going to (offer a tip), accept it graciously and be discreet about it."

 Hall agrees tip jars — even if it's a cash bar — can diminish the formal ambience of a wedding reception.

 Stahl says a good metric to keep in mind when purchasing alcohol is two to three drinks per hour per guest. There is a variety of liquor packages, from mixers only (the couple supplies the alcohol) to premium plans with Champagne and digestif offerings. On average, a liter of liquor contains about 25 drinks, a wine bottle contains six to seven and a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine serves about five. Many venues and catering companies partner with breweries in Louisiana and the region to offer local beers. However, offering too many options can be problematic.

 "Keep it simple," Stahl says. "Three choices can be too much. All you really need for wine are a moderate red and white. Sauvignon blanc is a great sipping wine and goes well with food, and as for red wines, stay away from heavier, more complex wines. That's a problem I see a lot: Trying to get everything for everybody."

 If you're expecting that fussy uncle that only likes blended single grain Scotch, or your new cousin-in-law who only drinks wine made from nebiollo grapes, rather than ordering in bulk, purchase a single bottle of the requested drink and keep it behind the bar for them.


Cocktails by the yard

Craft cocktails are trending, but preparing each by hand can cause a traffic jam at the bar. Premixing cocktails and serving them by the pitcher is an alternative, but Hall only recommends batch drinks for large events (700 or more guests).

 "We typically make things on hand," she says. "There's such an art to making specialty cocktails, and people like to see their drinks being made, as opposed to being poured out of a carafe."

 If service allows, there are a few standards that can be prepped and poured before guests arrive that won't lose their appeal (or flavor) from resting in a glass for a while. Hold off on the ice until just before serving.

 "Sangria is a good premixed cocktail — it's easy to pretty it up in the glass by adding fruit," Hall says. "Sweet tea or lemonade with vodka is a good summer cocktail, especially with a little mint."

 Stahl suggests beverages like Pimm's Cups or margaritas by the batch, and Ted Urrutia, production and bar manager at Palate New Orleans and in-house mixologist at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, gets requests for Moscow Mules and Dark & Stormy cocktails.


To craft or not to craft

Stahl recommends exercising caution with hand-crafted drinks — things can get out of hand quickly when bartenders start muddling, shaking or cracking eggs to make cocktails at a reception for 300 people.

 "We hired a mixologist for an event during Mardi Gras, and there were cardamom pods being crushed with a mortar and pestle," he says. "There certainly are a lot of requests for (craft cocktails), but it can be time-consuming for bartenders."

 The venue also can affect bartenders' ability to make specialty drinks. Outdoor venues may have limited refrigeration to keep specialty ingredients fresh and may lack sinks for washing bar tools. Space could be a problem too: Bartenders may not be able to store all the necessary equipment for specialty cocktails, let alone liquor, mixers, wines and glassware.


Now, what to drink?

"Fruity, beachy cocktails are trending," Urrutia says. "As we're getting into the hot summer months, people are asking for festive, colorful cocktails. Tequila is making a huge comeback. White tequila with soda and lime ... is the new gin and tonic for the summer. People are learning that (tequila is) less of a depressant than other types of liquor, and that it's beneficial  to endorphin levels, especially agave-based [tequilas]."


 Many couples are opting for "his" and "hers" drink offerings.

 "Bride and groom set-ups are really popular right now," Hall says. "A typical set-up is a cocktail like an Old Fashioned for the groom and a French 75 for the bride."

 Couples also increasingly request custom cocktails. Urrutia has created drinks like the Hibiscus Blossom (rum, sparkling ginger ale and hibiscus syrup) and the prickly pear margarita (a new take on a classic margarita that gets its dark purple hue from added fruit juices, garnished with an orange segment and a salt- and sugar-rimmed glass) based on a couple's common interests. While the couple's personality should take center stage in a custom drink, Urrutia advises working with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Hall suggests calling the drink by the couple's last name — The Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so.

 For couples with a DIY spirit, Urrutia suggests creating a twist on a classic drink, like a Manhattan. Lighten it up with soda water for a refreshing, summery take. Substitute an ingredient or two in a standard cocktail, or add a new garnish or a dash of flavored bitters.

 "An Old Fashioned is always popular," he says. "I've made them with grapefruit or cantaloupe instead of the traditional orange [or cherry] — just get creative and have fun with it."

 Stahl echoes Urrutia's sentiment about just enjoying the cocktails — and the party.

 "At the end of the day, people just want to drink," he says. "Don't get carried away with all the different muddling and other details. Just have a good time."

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