Raise the Bar—Feature Texas Spirits (and Ales and Wines) at Your Wedding

Punch up your party by serving specialty craft cocktails, local beers, and Hill Country wines, and rolling out a memorable bar theme.

We’ve all been there, standing at a crowded, prosaic, makeshift bar inconspicuously located in the corner of a banquet hall, sizing up an uninspired lineup of drink options: Coors Light, Heineken, Sutter Home, Yellow Tail, Jim Beam, Smirnoff.

Nothing against these ubiquitous brands, but a more thoughtfully curated selection of beer, wine, and spirits can actually be a highlight of your wedding reception, especially if accompanied by an imaginatively decorated bar. You can even add some Texan flare to the celebration by pouring a few of the many superb artisanal products bottled around the state.

Of course, top-shelf liquor and custom bars add cost. If your budget is limited, mix in a couple of standout beverages alongside some midrange popular brands. “Specialty cocktails are becoming more and more standard at weddings,” says Lee Daugherty of Dallas’s elegant gay jazz cabaret Alexandre’s. “They create a lasting memory.” Select a distinctive Champagne for your toast or a Texas wine to pour with dinner. A few personal, specific touches go a long way.

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If your goal is a bar with dramatic impact, it helps to have an eye-catching theme. Many bartending services specialize not just in selecting and pouring drinks but also setting up bewitching bars. “We aim to create one-of-a-kind experiences,” says Jason Myers, co-owner of Magnolia Bay Custom Bar Services. The Houston company has created a variety of special setups, from a Kentucky Derby–inspired spread featuring mint julep–based cocktails to sleek ivory-hued bars. 

“Our wine barrel bar is a big hit,” Myers says. The package includes rustic wine casks, a polished wooden bar top, and a lighted marquee sign. Another wedding trend: clubby lounge areas filled with cocktail tables and couches where guests can relax and mingle. “We recently created a tequila bar,” he adds. “We poured several custom cocktails using a variety of top-shelf brands.” You can even use juices and mixers to create a cocktail that complements the color of your wedding theme. At a minimum, Myers recommends adorning your bar with live flowers or colorful linens so that it “flows well with the wedding decor and doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.”

Another crowd-pleaser at weddings these days is liquid-nitrogen cocktails, which emit flavorless, colorless vapor—these drinks look a bit like cauldrons of exotic boiling brews (the “smoke” vanishes after a minute or two). Freezing Point (Houston) and Frost 321 (Austin, Dallas, San Antonio) both specialize in setting up nitro cocktail (and ice cream) bars at weddings.

If you select a hotel or restaurant with on-site catering for your reception, the venue will likely require you to use its staff and purchase in-house beverages, often at the same markup you’d pay at a restaurant. If a distinctive bar is important to you, choose a place that lets you supply your own alcohol and staff, and be sure to ask if it charges corkage fees, has lists of preferred bartenders, or has specific instructions for outside bar staff. Most event spaces require bartenders with Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) certification, often requiring that you hire one or two security officers, too. Keep in mind that by law, guests are not permitted to serve their own alcoholic beverages—including wine with dinner and during the toast—unless it is a private venue (e.g., a reception in your backyard).

Hiring a renowned mixologist will dazzle the cocktail connoisseurs at your wedding, but be prepared to pony up accordingly. “Pulling employees away from their bar on a busy Saturday is difficult,” says Terry Williams, general manager of Houston’s acclaimed Anvil Bar & Refuge cocktail lounge. “But a big budget can potentially help solve that problem.”

Finally, whenever booking caterers or bartenders, confirm in advance what sort of beverage vessels they’ll provide. “A lot of venues are moving away from glassware because of the cost,” says Myers, whose company includes high-quality plastic cups in its standard packages, with glassware offered for an extra charge.

Feature Texas Spirits

In the past decade alone, the number of licensed Texas distillers has skyrocketed from eight to more than 60. At most major liquor outlets, you can easily find virtually any type of spirit bottled in the state, even tequila (which to be labeled by that name must be produced in Mexico’s Tequila region, but several companies—Dulce Vida, Agavales, Riazul—import the product before aging, bottling, and distributing it in Texas). Austin-based Tito’s Handmade Vodka is the state’s most famous and widely distributed liquor brand, but craft whiskey has rapidly become the state’s most popular craft spirit. Top distillers include Firestone & Robertson in Fort Worth, Rebecca Creek in San Antonio, Balcones in Waco, and Garrison Brothers in the Hill Country. 

Providing four to six different key spirits (vodka, gin, whiskey, rum, tequila, and perhaps bourbon) will suffice. Featuring too many types or brands will only complicate things for your bartenders and your guests, and can result in frustrating delays. “Everyone piles out of the ceremony at the same time and heads straight to the bar,” Williams says. “Simpler is better.”

In terms of quantity, err on the side of providing a bit more liquor than you’ll likely serve. Running out of alcohol can really put a damper on your celebration. Figure on enough beer, wine, and liquor to serve a total of four or five drinks per guest. And don’t skimp on the mixers. Artisan brands like Fever Tree tonic water and Fee Brothers bitters make superior cocktails, and Daughtery notes that “using fresh juice can make drinking even the most mundane mojito a memorable experience.”

Be sure to provide some nonalcoholic drinks for teetotalers and kids. Again, you can up the fun factor by eschewing big-name soft drinks in favor of beloved local brands, such as Houston’s Saint Arnold Root Beer and Austin’s Me & the Bees Lemonade. Consider providing ingredients for virgin cocktails and punches too, or even a smoothie bar. And during your toast, offer Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider or a homemade booze-free option, such as sweet tea or peach lemonade.

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A nitro cocktail prepared by Freezing Point, Houston

Specialty Drinks

Make a lasting impression by serving signature cocktails at your reception, or perhaps during a special toast. Guests will enjoy the novelty drink, and you may even save money on your reception by featuring one or two top-shelf cocktails as a splurge, alongside a less expensive selection of conventional beverages. Mix things up by featuring a couple of contrasting cocktails, such as a sweet fruit-based rum or vodka drink and a spicy or smoky whiskey or tequila concoction. 

If you’re looking to serve local bottles at your wedding, consider some of the acclaimed breweries that have expressed support for LGBT rights.

Daugherty recommends creating seasonal variations on classic cocktails, such as his summer-fruit-inflected take on an old fashioned, which he playfully calls the Rhubarbra Streisand. “Rhubarb bitters give a Southern kiss to this staple cocktail that’s become popular again, thanks to a resurgence in the whiskey industry,” he says. “And the colorful raspberry and mint garnish makes a great visual.”

If you lack the staffing to prepare such cocktails individually, “make a batch recipe,” Williams says. “This allows bartenders to easily serve as many people as possible.” Specialty sangrias and Champagne punches are also simple to make in advance.

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Magnolia Bay Custom Bar Services

Lone Star Craft Brews

Texas is a rising star in the beer world. Nearly 200 brewers belong to the state’s foremost beer-making organization, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. If you’re looking to serve local bottles at your wedding, consider some of the acclaimed breweries that have expressed support for LGBT rights, such as Lakewood in Garland, Deep Ellum in Dallas, and Hops & Grain and Jester King in Austin. All of them posted celebratory social media posts when same-sex marriage became legal, and Lakewood often hosts LGBT Pint Night parties at gay bars in Dallas. The oldest craft brewery in the state, Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company regularly sponsors LGBT events. Others with sterling beer reputations and decent distribution include Austin’s Real Ale and Live Oak Brewing, Fort Worth’s Rahr & Sons, and Community Beer Co. in Dallas. 

Whether you serve bottles from one specific brewery or several, plan on offering four or five different beer types. A good strategy is to include one or two lighter and more traditional options (lagers, ambers, blonde ales, pilsners) along with a malty brew (brown ale or German-style bock or dunkelweizen), a dark beer (stout or porter), a hoppy IPA, and perhaps one or two varieties favored by beer aficionados, such as Belgian-style saisons and tripels, barrel-aged sour ales, Scotch ales, or barley wines.

Of course, at any good-size gathering, you’re apt to have guests who want a glass of something familiar. It’s always a good idea to have a case on hand of the state’s most famous lager, Shiner Bock.

Oak Valley Vineyard
Oak Valley Vineyard

Gracious Grapes

Texas wines are starting to gain national recognition and are finding their way onto menus of the state’s best restaurants. Fifth in the nation in wine production, the state has more than 350 wineries, most of them located within eight AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). 

Because top bottles can easily run $40 to $50 and are often sold in limited quantities, you may want to pour less expensive, mass-distributed wines throughout your reception, saving special bottles for dinner. Among major labels, Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle (Washington), Castle Rock and Ravenswood (California), Wolf Blass (Australia), Oyster Bay (New Zealand), Trapiche (Argentina), Borsao (Spain), and E. Guigal (France) consistently offer excellent wines at reasonable prices. You’ll save even more money serving Barefoot Wine, an acceptable if unmemorable brand of E & J Gallo that’s long been a major supporter of LGBT events and fundraisers. Speaking of affordability, there’s nothing gauche about box wine anymore. Not only is it ideal for big parties, the eco-friendly packaging ensures quality. Bota, Black Box, Big House, and Fish Eye all make eminently quaffable box wines.

Among distinguished Texas labels, Nice Wines in Houston, which is operated by LGBT activists and life partners Ryan Levy and Ian Eastveld, produces outstanding premium wines using grapes sourced from vineyards the couple owns in Napa and Mendoza, Argentina. Other high-end Lone Star luminaries include the classic Rhône-style GSM blend from Pedernales Cellars, the big-flavored cab-merlot Meritus blend from Fall Creek, and the rich viognier (with hints of peach and pear) from Perissos Vineyards. A little less spendy and still first-rate are the Italian-focused wines of Driftwood’s Duchman Family Winery, the cabernets of Becker Vineyards, and the eclectic offerings (mostly Spanish, Italian, and southern French varietals) of McPherson Cellars.

One realm of viticulture that’s improved tremendously of late is dry rosé wine. Forget about the sweet, flabby blush wines you guzzled indiscriminately in your youth. Today’s best rosés typically offer great value, in addition to being hugely versatile, food-friendly, and refreshing on hot Texas afternoons. The pinot noir rosé from Nice Wines and the mourvèdre rosé from Spicewood Vineyards both pair nicely with just about any savory main dish, from barbecued brisket to grilled salmon to vegetarian lasagna.

Of course, part of the fun of featuring a Texas wine is conducting your own research.

Take care in choosing a sparkling wine for your all-important toast. Knowledgeable bartenders can help you form a plan that fits your style and budget. Magnolia Bay, for example, offers a Champagne toast package complete with crystal flutes and whatever bubbly you’d like. Wine can only be labeled “Champagne” if it’s produced in the Champagne province of northeast France, but there are hundreds of superb sparkling wines made all over the world. When in doubt, look for bottles labeled “méthode champenoise,” which indicates that the wine has been produced the traditional way (by secondary fermentation in the bottle).

Few Texas winemakers produce sparklers, although Wedding Oak Winery in San Saba turns out a pleasing muscat-based bubbly Bridal Bliss that’s marketed specifically for weddings, and prolific Bryan-based Messina Hof Estate launched its first sparkling wine, a slightly sweet rosé, in 2015. Among midpriced toast-worthy options produced elsewhere, consider Roederer Estate Brut from California’s Anderson Valley, Argyle Vintage Brut from Oregon, and—an exceptional value—Freixenet Cava Cordon Negro Rosé from Spain. Or go semilocal by pouring the outstanding, crisply complex Blancs de Blancs from New Mexico’s Gruet Winery.

Of course, part of the fun of featuring a Texas wine is conducting your own research. Some of the state’s best wineries are set amid the dry, oak- and limestone-studded terrain of the Hill Country. Make a romantic weekend of it. Becker Vineyards books engagement and wedding rehearsal dinners, and Duchman, Spicewood, Oak Valley Vineyard, Fall Creek, and the Vineyard at Florence all have LGBT-welcoming event venues. You may just discover a perfect spot for your reception, in addition to scoring a few cases of sublime local wine.

Cocktail Recipes

Here are four Texas-spirit-based drinks that will add color and panache to your reception.

Popular Demand
By Terry Williams, Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston

1 ½ oz Highborn Texas Dry Gin
¾ oz lemon juice
¾ oz rose syrup (see recipe)
1 oz Fattoria Moretto Lambrusco Secco

Shake first three ingredients and strain over cubes into Collins glass. Top with crushed ice and Lambrusco. Garnish with rose petal and one blackberry. To prepare rose syrup: Cook 2 ounces of dried rose buds at just below simmer for one hour in simple syrup (two parts water,
one part sugar). Remove from heat, allow to stand for one hour, and strain.

Rhubarbra Streisand
By Lee Daugherty, Alexandre’s, Dallas
1 sugar cube|4 fresh raspberries
2 oz Hermann Marshall Bourbon
3 dashes of Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters

In mixing glass, muddle sugar cube, raspberries, and bitters into paste. Add bourbon and shake with ice. Double strain into old fashioned glass over one large ice cube. Garnish with raspberry nesting in a mint bush.

Tito’s Toast
By Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Austin

1 oz Tito’s Handmade Vodka
⅓ oz Texas wildflower honey
¼ oz fresh lemon juice
3 oz Champagne

Combine first three ingredients in shaker with ice. Shake and strain into Champagne flute.
Top with Champagne, and garnish with strawberry or lemon.

TX Brown Stetson
By Firestone & Robertson Distilling, Fort Worth

2 oz Firestone & Robertson TX Blended Whiskey
½ oz honey
½ oz warm water
1 oz fresh-pressed grapefruit juice

Stir first three ingredients. Add grapefruit juice and mix in shaker filled with ice until completely cold. Strain into classic martini glass and garnish with slice of grapefruit.