How can I discourage over-drinking at my reception?

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Tasty Drinks
Anyone have any good tips on preventing guest over-drinking at our reception?

A dry wedding isn't what we're aiming for, but we have a few family members who tend to party a little too hardy for our tastes. We're still in the early stages of planning, but our wedding will include dinner and our bar will probably be at least partially open, since we have a lot of friends who are low on cash.

Any ideas?


Our best suggestions would be to only serve beer and wine, and have a bartender who's comfortable cutting folks off if necessary. We also love the Tribesmaid who gently informed her guests, “Our wedding will have an open bar. It will also be heavily photographed, so any drunken shenanigans will be well documented and thoroughly mocked for years to come. Proceed with caution.” Obviously, if you have family members who are wrestling with alcoholism or early stages of recovery, your mileage may vary with these gentler techniques.

We'd love to hear from readers — how are you handling the balance between “Woo-fun!” and “vomitous drunk mess” at your reception?

Comments on How can I discourage over-drinking at my reception?

  1. Something we use for work parties that seems to work decently well: giving people drink tickets. Also, having a limited bar seems to keep things under control (wines, beer, maybe one mixed “signature” drink…. or not).

    Have someone (trusted wedding party member, family member) pass out 2 (or 1 or 3, whatever you’re comfortable with) drink tickets to each person as they enter the reception (you can buy a roll of tickets at a party store or online). It seems to help if you have your ticket distributor ask the person if they plan on drinking at all, that way you don’t end up with the person who got 2 tickets and doesn’t drink alcohol at all, giving their tickets to someone else. Provide an ample supply of non-alcoholic drinks that are also yummy and tempting.

    Then, make sure you let your bartender know to only give out a drink with the “magic ticket” (bartender = hired/volunteer bartender, trusted friend, family member, or whoever is going to be manning the bar… definitely need SOMEONE though). Make sure they are an assertive person and won’t give in even when someone whines about not having an extra drink.

    This works really well at work parties… it doesn’t keep the determined ones from predrinking/sneaking in a flask, but at the very least – you aren’t sponsoring their drunken night of revelry, if that’s what they so choose to do.

    • Drink tickets have their downsides. Firstly, it would make me feel like I was at a work convention, not a wedding. Via wedding etiquette, guests should be treated to either a 1.) limited open bar (usually a few types of beer and wine, and perhaps a few of the couple’s favorite mixed drinks), 2.) full open bar with beer, wine, and liquor- doesn’t have to be top shelf or fancy!, or 3.) no bar at all. Cash bars- in my opinion- are rude because you should be hosting your guests’ food and drink throughout the reception. The upside to no cash bar is that you get to control what your bartenders are serving, which can help naturally curb people’s alcohol intake. Keep things consistent throughout the night, so your guests don’t have free drinks during cocktail hour and then get surprised with a cash bar after dinner, or have liquor the first hour and then find out they can only have beer and wine later on. More importantly, recognize that the heavy drinkers will just take drink tickets from the light drinkers and over-imbibe anyways, or sneak drinks in. I think the best hosts realize that adults who overindulge will not be thwarted unless you have security checking pockets at the door.

    • Tickets are a great idea, I think, but perhaps to avoid an “office” feeling, personalised tokens could be made or brought instead, like gold pirate coins or paper flowers. Anything that seems to suit, really.

      And to avoid the sneaking alcohol in, I went to one event where the invitation simply said “drinks will be provided” without mentioning that they would be subtly limited per guest, which meant that a few hard partiers were cleverly caught off guard. 😀

  2. When we were first planning, our date was booked at a possible venue for the evening so they offered us a lunch option. We had never considered it but started to think of the benefits and guests not going hard on the booze was one of our top pro points. It wasn’t about money saving as we got a package but as you say, some of the family members go too hard, too soon. It was an easy way to avoid an awkward situation.
    If you’re keen on an evening meal, maybe ask your venue to feature a mocktail and make that the choice drink. Tee up with your close friends to only drink that to make that the ‘cool’ choice. Also if you’re having kids attend they can feel special.

    • we had a lunch wedding reception and the bar only served soda, beer, wine, and sparking wine (there was water and ice tea on the tables which the hotel staff kept topped up). Our soda and alcohol bill came in at about .75 drinks per person, that means that most folks were happy with water and ice tea, as I expected! We had our friends over to a dive bar afterwards, with an open tab, but even then they consumed more fried junk food than alcohol (tab for 40-60 people came in around $450, including snacks).

    • We did a lunch reception, too, for several reasons, but alcohol was one of them. Some of our friends/family tend to get drunker than we wanted at our wedding, so having a lunch event was one way to cut back on that. Lunch is shorter and there’s just less expectation of heavy drinking. We had an open bar, but just with a couple of choices each for beer and wine. People drank less than we thought they would; I think we had planned on 1-2 drinks for every adult and we had a lot left over. We also served water, coffee, soda, and lemonade. (Bonus: the alcohol and overall wedding were much cheaper!)

      We had a couple of wedding-party members who we thought might overdo it, so we asked them ahead of time to respect our wishes and take it easy. It worked–they enjoyed themselves but didn’t get wasted.

      For my out-of-town relatives my parents hosted an afterparty at their home to lengthen the family time together. Apparently that got kind of boozy, but we were headed on our honeymoon so we weren’t there to be part of it.

      • This is a great compromise! You still get to have alcohol, but the time of day as well as limited bar options help get the results you want. OP, this is good advise.

  3. What about those who may have a family member that is either an alcoholic or recovering? How do you walk the line where you want to keep that family member safe from their addiction but don’t want to lose out on alcohol for everyone?

    • I commented below, but how we approached our family who we knew had alcohol issues, was we talked to them about it before the reception. Something like, “Just so you know, there will be an open bar, but we know you’re working through your issues so just a head’s up. We will be telling the bartenders to be really strict about cutting people off, and here’s hotel info so you don’t end up driving, and if you decide to leave early to avoid temptation, that’s okay too…”

      Bartenders were really good about cutting people off, and my family members were really good about being on their best behaviour. This approach probably wouldn’t work as well for anyone who isn’t already in a stage of recovery or at least acceptance of their addiction, though. I’m not sure how we would have handled that, to be honest.

      • I’ve seen suggestions elsewhere to try to fit an extra “and guest” for them to invite their AA mentor (or equivalent in other programs).

      • I think that while it is the person’s own responsibility, as Brigid said, I like the idea of the heads-up you suggest. I wouldn’t mention the cutting-off or the driving bits, because those suggest to me, “it’s OK for you to drink.” I might instead say something like, “Just so you know, there will be an open bar at the wedding. Is there anything I can do to help make it easier for you to be around that?” Then I’d leave it to them to suggest stuff like seating them away from the bar, or making sure that there would be non-alcoholic options available for a toast, or what have you.

      • I’ve heard of recovering alcoholics bringing their ID’s up to the bartenders at the start of the night with instructions to not serve them alcohol, no matter what. That way, if the alcoholic felt their control slipping during the evening, they know they are not “allowed” a drink, so they don’t have to worry. Of course, the alcoholic shouldn’t be forced to do this. I think this works best if they ask a relative or friend to go get them their nonalcoholic drink of choice rather than go to the bar themselves, so they can stay as far away from it as possible. One of the most important lessons a truly recovering addict has to learn is that the world doesn’t change just for them, their addiction will always be there to tempt them (especially something legal like alcohol, which is at many adult events), so even though you can help make these situations easier on them, you cannot plan every event around them.

        • That’s a really good reason to have the non-alcoholic drinks in dispensers away from the bar if you can. It also splits up the crowd flow a bit, and keeps the kids away from the booze which makes a lot of adults happier in general. If your bartender is in charge of those drinks, just make sure the dispensers are within that bartender’s line of sight.

      • My partner is a recovering alcoholic, and he felt that having a bar at our reception would be too much of a temptation, especially considering his drinking buddy friends will be invited (they all completely understand and support his alcohol free lifestyle) That, coupled with his parent’s tendency to drink to excess, led us to sit down and look at our options. We are providing all the soft drinks (and special ones for the toasts) and there will be tea coffee etc available (winter wedding) and we will not have a bar. We have put in the invitations however, that although there will not be alcohol served, should you wish to bring your own, we fully support it 🙂 we’ve also given details of local wine merchants etc. on the info sheet. So far we’ve not had a single person complain, and my partner’s AA friends have said they find it really nice that there won’t be as much of a temptation!

    • To be honest, if this family member is recovering, it is their responsibility not to drink, it’s not your responsibility to make sure they don’t. If you’re doing assigned seating, I wouldn’t sit them right next to the bar, but they need to be aware of the temptation that attending a wedding presents.
      If this is someone who is not actively seeking treatment, but is someone who drinks too much and becomes a mess, then maybe it’s best to limit the alcohol at the entire event. Just have a cake and champagne party, or limit the bar to either beer/wine only, or only offer alcohol during cocktail hour and then have soda, juice and a mocktail during the rest of the reception.

    • The very best analogy for addiction that I have heard is diabetes. Like a diabetic, an addict is continually placed in situations where they have the opportunity to consume a substance that will result in very negative health consequences. They are continually faced with watching other individuals enjoy said substances, and each addict must learn ways to cope with that reality; the world will not change around them. Ultimately, every individual (addict or not) is responsible for his or her own choices and knows what they need to do to make those choices. I know of no addicts (and I know many) who attend weddings and are surprised to find alcohol on the premise. Although the motivation to want to help an addict friend or family member feel comfortable is admirable, I think that some of the discussions here are a little belittling to addicts (although I do not think anyone has intended this). Additionally, despite any “precautions” you may take to prevent an addict from drinking/using, if an addicts wants to use, they will, and nothing you can do will stop that.

      Trust that any addicts (in a program or otherwise) have at minimum learned their triggers and what works or doesn’t work for them and don’t treat them like a pariah by going overboard in “warning” them that (shock!) some other people may drink. Confirm with your bartender to stop serving anyone who has consumed too much, and be sure there are plenty of tasty non-alcoholic choices for anyone refraining from alcohol.

  4. I think having the bar only be open until a certain time is a good way to handle this. I don’t love the idea of only serving beer and wine unless you can’t afford anything else, only because mixed drinks are fun and some people really like their scotch (and sip it responsibly). In the end, one the things I just decided to accept when I got married is that whether they act like it or not, my friends and family are all adults, and I am going to persist in treating them as such, especially when it makes my life less complicated to do so.

  5. Two Words
    Drink Tickets.
    We are having a cash bar with drink tickets. Select people will get tickets under at their place settings. We will not have enough tickets for everyone and the people who have a tendancy to go overboard will have to pay to do so. I’m not interested in having drunk or even tipsy guests….I’ve had some pretty horrid experiances at weddings with open bars….

    • Respectfully, won’t this make the non-drink ticket guests feel like they are less important than the drink ticket guests? Even if you don’t see it that way, I wouldn’t want some of my guests feeling second-class next to the “special” ones.

      • I agree. IF you can’t afford to give it everyone, give it to no one.
        Also, how will you let those ‘select’ people know they have a ticket?

    • With all due respect, if I saw the person next to me had drink tickets, and I didn’t, I would probably find the maitre de and let them know there was a mistake. When they informed me that there was no mistake and that I wasn’t given any, I’d probably take my gift and go home. That would be extremely insulting to me. There’s a pretty good chance that would be the end of our friendship as well.

    • In that case, I think it’s best to give everyone one (or two) drink tickets rather than selecting some people and not others. Then if you want to slip some folks some extra tickets because “Hey thanks for helping to set up” or “thanks for all the help with preparations” you can gift those extra tickets to people without others necessarily feeling left out–all most will probably see is that there are tickets and not be policing how many someone else has. Just let those people know, these are for yourself, please don’t share.

  6. I’m not sure what the structure of your reception is–my husband and I had a very small afternoon wedding (10 guests) and took everyone out to a restaurant for an early dinner afterwards.

    We did have some alcoholism concerns at the outset, but it all worked out. I’m guessing this was due to the fact that we were all seated together over a meal that took about 2.5 hours from start to finish, instead of the 4+ hours of most receptions. There wasn’t as much down time, so people were otherwise occupied with ordering food, consuming food, and chatting.

    Not sure if that’s helpful, but it worked well for us!

  7. Love the idea about photo-caution!

    We had a fully open bar (everything including top shelf — major venue selling point for my husband, haha), despite a few family members who have had / are struggling with alcoholism. We were just really up front with the bartenders ahead of time, who were good about cutting people off if they needed to be — and one family member took it upon himself to introduce himself to the bartender, and told him not to let him drink too much because “he knew he had a problem and didn’t want to ruin our night”. (Bartender told me this!) So for us, just being honest with people worked out really well.

    I do have a bit of a disaster story regarding a dry wedding gone bad, though: I was the Maid of Honour for my friend’s wedding… and she had a certain bunch of family who were super religious and anti-alcohol, so they decided to have a dry wedding, because even having a bottle of wine on the table would set that certain continent into an uproar. This resulted in: the Best Man, knowing it was going to be dry in advance, having a flask in his jacket pocket, already drunk during the ceremony (and he had to drive us to the reception!); many guests heading to the hotel bar to get a drink, leaving the reception; and worst of all, a bunch of the groom’s buddies getting the bride/groom’s hotel room key from the groom’s mother, ordering room service and passing out drunk in their bed, which we found when I went to help her get changed out of her wedding dress at the end of the night. It was really, really sad to see how people couldn’t just respect their decision (and also how caving to one crowd caused so many more problems than a few people freaking out over a bottle of wine might have been)! Probably wouldn’t have been so bad if they weren’t in a hotel with alternative places to get alcohol, though.

    It’s important to find that balance, I think.

  8. What about closing the bar early? Like not having it open all night? I think that if we weren’t straight-edge and thus having a reception that also has booze that we’d a bartender to cut people and then close the bar with no “last-call” announcement, just close it and start serving water/iced tea/soda etc….

    Just a thought 🙂

    • I have friends who did this something like this. They used drink tickets for cocktail hour so that it was one drink per person. Then they served coffee, tea, and water with dinner and cake. They did all of the speeches, cake cutting, first dance, bouquet tossing, etc. immediately after dinner, and then had an open bar for a couple of hours while people danced and mingled. It basically divided the reception into a formal piece with dinner and an informal dance party afterwards. Plus, her older/more conservative friends and relatives were able to leave when the music got loud (if they wanted to) without feeling like they were missing out on anything because all of the traditional “wedding” stuff was over.

      • That’s what we’re doing, it’s pretty much the ‘traditonal’ set up of a British wedding (at least the ones I’ve been too). It seems to work well because as you say people can pick and choose which bits they want to come to. Then you can invite people just to the evening bit- the reception which means they’re not completely left out but you don’t have to pay £60 per head for acquaintances or distant relatives but you don’t leave them out completely.
        That still might not be the answer for everyone but I feel have separate sections of a wedding really helps guests and the people getting married, you can layout what you’d like in those slots and guests know whats expected of them. I think sometimes offbeat weddings get accused of being selfish or ‘confusing’ (unfairly) because while we sway from the well trodden path of the WIC we also create an event society (and most importantly our loved ones) have never been to or experienced.
        It’s tough to deal with when your mum or grandfather is saying but without XXX how will people know it’s a wedding? Or the dismissive – it’s tacky.
        I think the key to overcoming this (on the day before that you’ll just have to keep firefighting, or being mysterious) is to give your guests some social cues to follow.
        Eg – ‘drinks/a bar will be provided.’
        I saw this in a comment above, I love how open ended it is.
        The newly weds would like to have a picture with each guest in the photo booth, see you there between 4-6. Drinks and snacks also provided.
        We request your presence not presents but if you’d really like to treat us with a gift then please donate to this charity/donate to our honeymoon fund/check out our registry/surprise us!

  9. We were also concerned about this at our wedding so we limited the types of alcohol available. Unfortunately our party-hardy crowd wasn’t going to follow the rules and many of them went and bought what they wanted and brought it in. Fortunately no one got sloppy, well, maybe some did but we were too busy to care by that point.

  10. Our venue’s policy was that the bar could only be open for two hours. You could consider having a time limit, rather than/as well as a cutting-off policy. We had alcohol available from noon to two (lunch wedding!) and I don’t remember any problems — I was definitely the drunkest person at the wedding.

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