How to Estimate How Much Alcohol You Need for a Party

A group of friends toasting at a party
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When you're planning a party or event, there are many factors to consider, beginning with food and drink. Hosting a party without enough food or beverages will not be popular with guests, who could complain and might even leave your party early. You don't want to be known as a bad host. So if you've invited people, show your generous, welcoming spirit.

The antidote is to plan to make sure there is enough of everything, starting with alcohol.

But how do you know how much is enough? How do you estimate how much alcohol you need for your party? And is there a way to purchase enough without breaking the bank?

What Determines How Much You Should Buy?

There are several factors to consider when you calculate the amount of alcohol you'll need for a party. Among them:

  • How long will the party last and how many people are expected to show up?
  • How are you moving your alcohol?
  • Do you know if your guests are heavy drinkers?
  • How much variety will you offer? And if you offer variety, how will you balance the beer, wine, and mixed drinks you'll offer? 
  • What kind of party are you planning? Is it a cocktail party where drinks are the focus or a sit-down dinner where it's all about the food and the wine plays a secondary role?

So How Much Should You Buy?

With so many variables, deciding how much alcohol to purchase can be more art than science. Here are a few reliable rules of thumb that will help you plan:

  1. For a cocktail party where you plan to have only wine and perhaps champagne, set out one bottle for every two guests, served every two hours.
  2. Calculate one drink per average drinker per hour. Then, to be safe, increase that amount by about 25 percent.
  3. If it's a very hot day or you're serving salty or spicy food, your guests could drink even more so up your purchases of alcohol by as much as another 25 percent, depending on whether you're hosting heavy drinkers.

    How Can You Save Money on Alcohol Purchases?

    There are several strategies you can use to save money on your alcohol budget. They include:

    • Serve only wine, beer, or both. The more variety, the more liquor, mixers, and garnishes you will need to complete your bar—and the more you'll spend. Instead, keep things simple. Your guests will understand if you opted to serve only wine and beer, and they will appreciate what you have for them. Plus, with wine and beer, it's so much easier for polite guests to bring a bottle for the host.
    • Offer cocktails, but limit the bar to mixed drinks of your choice. Of course, deciding which cocktails you'll serve is all about balance. Narrow the field to two cocktails, which shortens the list of items you'll need to buy and should be more than enough for your guests. We recommend one gin or vodka drink and one rum, tequila, bourbon, or mezcal option. You could narrow these options further by going with one light, refreshing cocktail and one with a little more bite. If you need help deciding, google "top 10 cocktails" in your area and pick two that fit the above criteria.
    • Create an alcoholic punch, which will stretch your liquor budget. A punch is the summer lifesaver. They are a gorgeous, colorful addition to your table, and they will help guests get into the celebratory spirit. Place your punch bowl at the center of a dedicated table and surround it with plenty of glasses or pretty coated-paper cups. As for quantities, here's a reliable rule of thumb: two bottles of chilled wine to two bottles of chilled ginger ale or non-salty sparkling water. For a punch with more kick, add a few splashes of rum or brandy to darker punches, vodka or gin to white or lighter-colored punch. For a fruitier taste, add a few splashes of cranberry-pomegranate or cherry juice to red punches, apple or white grape juice to white or lighter-colored punches. As the party progresses, you can always add more wine and sparkling liquid, but try to stay with a 50-50 proportion. For a wow factor, freeze berries or edible flowers in ice cubes; when your guests arrive, add them to your already chilled punch. Add more fruit, colorful edible flowers, and thinly sliced citrus as floaters (clean the citrus skin well before you slice). If you serve a red punch, add red and purple fruit with orange flowers and citrus slices. If you choose a rosé, you could top this glamorous punch with raspberries and pomegranate seeds. For a fruity white, paper-thin orange, lemon, and kiwi slices would be pretty. With a tannic white, edible white or pink rose petals, thin apple or pear slices, and a few mint leaves would make a lovely addition. Go easy with mint, though, because it will affect the taste of the wine.
    • Add a selection of chilled nonalcoholic drinks to quench your guests' thirst and keep them hydrated while they're consuming alcohol. This should include water, which is essential for entertaining if you don't want your party or event to get out of control. You might also have iced tea, sparkling water, and soda of various kinds. Place a bucket or bowl of ice next to the drinks. You might place these drinks on the same table as your alcoholic punch: punch on one end, nonalcoholic drinks on the other, with glasses, ice, and napkins in the center.
    • Don't forget one or two big, messy bouquets of supermarket flowers to keep the mood festive. Place them strategically in the party space.

    What Easy Food Goes Well With These Drinks?

    A meat and cheese board is always a crowd pleaser: Lay out a very large wooden cutting board, and fill it with good-quality sliced sausages, pâté, and other preserved meat; good-quality cheeses with dedicated knives; and small containers of honey or fig jam, Dijon mustard, dates, and little cornichons (tiny French pickles).

    Add some fresh fruit, too, if you wish. Alongside this, serve a big basket of sliced baguette and other great bread with a block of fresh butter. To add variety, you should order appetizers. Consider the following from your local Cosco's or gourmet specialty store: Individual quiches; meatballs or tiny chicken kebobs; and savory, puff pastry or phyllo filled with cheese and veggies. Calculate quantities by figuring at least two or each item per guest. If you know your guests will eat more, then adjust your totals accordingly.

    How Do You End Your Party or Event?

    When you bring out a big tray of coffee, chocolates, and tiny cookies, your guests will understand the party is winding down. Serve strong coffee with milk or cream and sugar, high-quality chocolate bonbons, and the smallest and most delicious cookies you can find in a bakery or other high-quality purveyor. Figure one small cup of coffee, one chocolate, and two cookies per guest. Your guests will leave happy. 

    Now sit back and breathe. Congratulations. You've just been a great host.