Ordering liquor for catered events


We host BYOB catered events at our cafe—we don't have a liquor license—and provide a bartender, glassware, ice and mixers. I give guidelines of how much liquor they should buy, but guests are sometimes upset when there’s a lot left over. What do I do?

– Owner-Operator, Delaware County, PA


First, consult your state liquor authority and/or your attorney to confirm that your current practice is legal. For example, you may need a day permit for each event.

Many liquor stores will, in fact, accept returns of unopened bottles (or cases of beer) provided that the product has been stored correctly and extras are returned promptly after the event. It is a good idea to make a deal with some preferred vendors where you refer clients to them and they maintain a liberal returns policy. That should take care of the customer dissatisfaction problem.

Be sure, too, that this problem is not simply a symptom of your estimates being too high for a typical event. For an open bar, I recommend planning for an average of 1.5 drinks per guest per hour for the first two hours, and one drink per hour beyond that, with a roughly even distribution of beer, wine and liquor.  That number usually gives me a comfortable cushion, even if guests make a run on one type of beverage. For a younger or heavy drinking crowd, you can up that factor to 1.5 per hour over the entire duration of the event.

Of course, keep in mind the type of event you have planned. Cultural differences, the time of the event, and even the weather will affect bar orders. Another way to simplify and reduce liquor inventory is to give your party’s host some simple cocktail recipes. Rather than having a full bar for a small party, they can do a signature cocktail for the evening.

Finally, there are plenty of drink calculators like this one online to help with the estimates.

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