Fall/ Winter 2008: The Experts

The Mixologist

Two parts vodka, one part panache: A veteran bartender spills on what it takes to achieve reception success.

By Hillary Geronemus

Here’s the funny thing about wedding décor: If your party’s well-planned, guests will spend more time mingling at the bar and on the dance floor than they will ogling the centerpieces. At least, that’s what cocktail expert Philip Corona thinks. “People may not remember the flowers or the linens; they will remember if they had a good time,” he says. The general manager for MAX Ultimate Food, an upscale catering company in Boston, Corona (no relation to the beer, just a happy coincidence) has helped orchestrate everything from two-person intimate dinners to 300-plus wedding extravaganzas. With his own impending nuptials on the brain, he shares a few bar-planning s
trategies he’s picked up along the way.

What’s the first thing to consider when planning a bar menu? Keep it simple. There’s no need to have all the fixings for Long Island iced teas or Slippery Nipples. These kinds of drinks don’t reflect how special a wedding is, anyway. A bar should be someplace to get a cocktail that is simple yet elegant, and wines that will complement the food.

Is a cash bar genius, or tacky?
Definitely tacky. I’d much rather sacrifice tenderloin for chicken than have a cash bar. Your guests traveled all this distance, and they want to be taken care of. As soon as you limit them to a cash bar, you limit how they react and how much fun they’ll have. I hate to say that liquor will get them going, but…

What are a proper bar’s essentials? Aside from beer, wine, and juice, all you really need is gin, vodka, and whiskey. With these three, you can make just about anything you want. When it comes to wine, just offer one red, like a pinot noir, and one white, like pinot grigio. A lot of people think you need variety, but the fewer bottles you open, the less waste there is when the party’s over. And don’t be afraid to ask for a tasting ahead of time—you try the food, so why not the wine as well?

How do you keep your guests from getting sloshed? The one downside of an open bar is that some guests don’t know when to say when. It’s best not to offer sweet, frilly drinks that go down too easily. As bartenders, we do monitor guests and will make a drink weaker than usual if someone concerns us. The key is to not let them know—we might add a floater of liquor on top, or a little booze in the straw, so at first taste, the drink seems stronger than it is. Regardless, it may give you peace of mind to offer cab vouchers to anyone who wants them.

To toast or not toast with champagne? I’m seeing fewer people doing the champagne toast. It can be so wasteful. It’s like serving cake while everyone is dancing—maybe 20 percent of the guests actually partake. As long as you have wine on the table, you’ll be fine. If you do want something bubbly, think about making a signature cocktail using Prosecco and fruit purées.

How do you really impress guests? First and foremost, they want to feel like royalty. So instead of just pre-pouring cocktails into glasses and leaving them on a tray, have servers walk around with a shaker and pour them into glasses. And personalize the drinks. If you met on Cape Cod, offer a Cape Codder. If you fell in love with lychees on a romantic trip to Thailand, have a lychee martini. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the standard. One couple knew their friends and family were big beer fans, so they had pitchers at the tables and even played beer pong during the cocktail hour. After all, this is your night, so make it about you.

How much can—or should—the newly-weds drink at the reception?
I always recommend brides and grooms down a glass of water for every cocktail. Have the bartender put it in a cocktail or champagne glass to give the illusion that you’re imbibing like everybody else. The night will go so quickly. If your memory is foggy, then all you’ll have is the photographs.

MAX Ultimate Food, 101 Hampden St., 617-427-9799, maxultimatefood.com.


Corona’s tricks for keeping the costs down without seeming like a cheapskate.

Maximize Your Mixers

Feature a signature cocktail using fruit juices, or simple syrups, which are essentially sugar and water. Sangria is a good choice, as is a tropical rum punch. Not only does this personalize the event, but it helps keep costs in check by watering down the drinks. Three of these equals just two traditional martinis, liquor-wise, Corona explains.

Timing Is Everything

Close down the full bar during dinner and serve only wine at the tables. Once the meal is done, reopen the bar for late-night revelry.

Hit Up Costco

Ask your caterer and reception venue if you can buy your own wine, beer, and liquor. While you may have to pay for a liquor permit, you’ll avoid the (typically 30 percent) markup and save by buying in bulk. Afterward, the leftovers are yours to keep. What better way to start married life than with a fully stocked wine cellar? –H.G.