Weddings, holiday gatherings, conferences—a common thread with these events is alcohol consumption. Yet, one in four people are trying to reduce their drinking, 30-percent of American adults don’t drink, and nearly half of the world’s adult population reports not consuming alcohol at all. It’s important to plan for the non-drinkers at your events and offer them more options than water, soda, and coffee.
Whether you’re planning a wedding with no bar, need beverage options for guests who don’t drink alcohol, or want to create a fully inclusive conference environment—we’ve got you covered with tips and ideas for alcohol-free events.
Keep non-drinkers in mind while planning your event
The first thing to decide is whether your event will be entirely alcohol free, include a little alcohol (i.e., for a toast or during cocktail hour), or if you’ll allow guests to BYOB.
Once you settle on the parameters for alcohol at the event, keep these things in mind as you plan:
- It’s absolutely acceptable to skip boozy drinks at an event, whether it’s because of personal preference, client choice, budgetary constraints, venue restrictions, or religious reasons.
- If the event isn’t fully dry, ensure non-drinking guests know they have options. Every event, whether there’s an open bar or simply a champagne toast, should have easy-access, delicious, non-alcoholic options beyond club soda and water.
- Skip games that require guests to drink: It puts the pressure on, and guests who choose not to drink may feel they need to explain themselves. Bridal showers, weddings, birthday celebrations, retirement parties—no matter the occasion, respect your guests choices.
- Though some guests may decline the invitation to a sober event, most likely the dry event will get a positive response. Non-drinking guests will feel comfortable staying longer, and guests who partake won’t miss the alcohol.
How to tell event attendees there will be no alcohol
If you choose to let guests know ahead of time that your event is sans-alcohol, share the information via word of mouth or a notice on the wedding or event website rather than on the invitation. A message that you won’t be serving alcohol and that none is permitted on the premises should suffice—no additional explanation required.
Tips for alcohol-free galas, weddings, holiday events, and parties
Thankfully, there are plenty of options beyond serving sparkling grape juice in lieu of alcoholic beverages. Wow guests with these ideas for sober social events:
1. Opt for a mocktail bar or design a signature beverage.
Mocktails are no longer limited to ‘virgin’ versions from the usual menu—creative non-alcoholic drinks offer impressive flavor profiles and all the visual punch of the alcoholic varieties, without the spirits. Sparkling juices or ciders may satisfy guests’ want for bubbles, without the booze, but vibrant drinks with layers of color and dazzling syrups are conversation starters on their own.
2. Go big on the garnish.
Edible garnishes aren’t only for alcoholic drinks. Garnishes are for more than aesthetics—they’re about enhancing the drink with flavor and aromatics, too. Complete each glass with twists, skewers, or a sugar or salt rim to complement the unique flavor profile. Or, create a garnish buffet to let guests experiment with their own unique options. Creative edible garnishes—some on the wilder side—include:
Candy: Cotton candy, gummy worms, spun sugar, candied citrus, candied ginger, skewered brownies or cookies, toasted marshmallows
Fruit: Fresh berries, dragonfruit, cranberry and orange skewers, kiwi, pear, starfruit, fresh figs
Flowers: Calendula, orchid blossoms, lilac, lavender, chamomile, wood sorrel
Herbs: Basil, thyme, mint, sage, rosemary, lemon balm
Vegetables: Cucumber, pickled asparagus, jalapeño slices, crispy tempura carrot
Warm seasonings: Cinnamon stick, fresh ground nutmeg, cardamom, anise pods, vanilla beans
Food items: Waffles, donuts, jerky, cheeseburger sliders, bacon slices, crab claw
Sweet rim garnishes: Brown sugar, nonpareils, chocolate syrup, dried flower petals, crushed peppermint, cinnamon and sugar, crushed graham cracker, toasted coconut, coffee grounds
Savory rim garnishes: Paprika, truffle-infused salt, crushed salted nuts, celery salt, lemon pepper, chili-lime salt, grated horseradish
3. Stock the bar with options from top-quality non-alcoholic brands.
Non-alcoholic options are becoming popular with options rolling out from new brands and favorite spirits producers. As worldwide beer sales continue to dip, non-alcoholic beer sales grew by 23 percent in 2019. Millennials are less interested in alcohol, which means there’s more opportunity for successful booze-free products and events. Hosting a dry or alcohol-limited event isn’t as unheard of as it would have been in decades past. Check out the offerings from new brands and favorite brewers that are cashing in on the growing 0.0 ABV trend. Keep in mind that ‘alcohol-free beer’ doesn’t always mean no alcohol content—legally, anything under 0.5-percent can be labeled as ‘non-alcoholic’ in the United States.
4. Hop on the dry bar trend.
- Serve tangy, sweet Shrub mocktails
- Tempt guests with gourmet hot chocolate in a variety of flavors—dark, milk, white, caramel, chili-chocolate…no flavor is off-limits.
- Bring out the attendees’ inner kid: rent a slush machine to serve up non-alcoholic frozen drinks.
- Serve famous alcohol-free drinks: Harry Potter fans will appreciate a butterbeer, while the Shirley Temple will bring on the nostalgia of feeling like a grown-up as a kid at events.
- Create a beautiful lemonade bar with fizzy, frozen, or still options, a perfect choice for a summer soiree. Stock it with lemonade in every flavor: Honey and lavender, strawberry, pomegranate, mint, basil—the only limit is your imagination.
5. Encourage people to dance, even without alcohol.
Hire a ballroom dance instructor (or hip-hop, or jazz) and treat your guests to a group lesson. They will join in the spirit of learning—and go home with a new skill they can show off at their next wedding.
6. Rethink your theme.
Create an environment that’s less likely to include alcohol and guests won’t miss not having beer, wine, or cocktails.
- Host a garden tea party with finger foods, pretty desserts, and an incredible selection of tea varieties for a classy, sober event.
- Cater a barbeque, with the focus on the meal. Serve each guest a curated tasting tray—think ‘beer flight,’ but with a variety of fall-off-the-bone tender morsels of meat cooked in flavorful sauces and marinades.
- Recreate the musical ‘Grease’ with a 1950s-themed soda shoppe—serve burgers and fries, fountain sodas, and milkshakes.
- Say vows as the sun rises atop a mountain. Guests can sip gourmet coffee from camp mugs after climbing from their tents—they’re likely to prefer caffeine to cocktails at sunrise, anyway.
7. Keep guests busy and entertained with interactive food options.
With the crowd focused on hands-on eats they won’t reach for drinks:
- Offer a fondue table
- Create a ‘decorate your own dessert bar’ and include donuts, cookies, ice cream sundaes, and parfaits to suit every sweet tooth
- Use edible centerpieces that encourage nibbling
- Keep hands busy with roll-your-own spring rolls
- Give guests control with a build-your-own taco, stir fry, or poke bowl meal
8. Turn your gathering into a coffeehouse.
Serve fancy lattes, complete with impressive foam art, and line up spoken word or acoustic music performances to entertain guests. Putting guests in an environment that doesn’t usually include alcohol can make the absence less noticeable.
9. Give them something to talk about.
Host a trivia competition where each table becomes a team. Throughout the reception, have someone call out trivia questions—related to the bride and groom, or not!—and encourage the teams to brainstorm the answers. Send the winning team home with a prize.
10. Pick a unique venue that puts the emphasis on the experience rather than the alcohol.
Rent a roller skating rink, bowling alley, tennis court, or paintball area. Charter a sailboat and crest waves across the bay. Gather at an amusement park and ride until you’re all dizzy. Sprawl on picnic blankets and take hayrides at an apple orchard—and let everyone help make fresh apple cider to bottle and bring home. Putting the focus on the venue or activity gives guests less opportunity to miss having a drink in-hand.
11. Opt for delicious warm, non-alcoholic beverages.
Instead of toasting on New Year’s Eve or letting the wine flow at holiday dinners, serve hot cider, non-alcoholic gløgg, or a hot spiced cranberry citrus punch to complement the cozy mood.
12. Keep guests active and busy.
Put the focus on fun, rather than who is carrying a highball glass. Encourage a little friendly competition with lawn games, gather around a bonfire with s’mores and hot cocoa, or create life-size board games like chess, Candyland, or Connect Four.
13. Remove the expectation of alcohol.
Host brunch rather than dinner or hold a weeknight celebration rather than a Saturday night soiree. The alcohol is less likely to be missed by guests if the timing is right.
14. Consider the guests’ triggers.
If reasons for hosting a sober event include friends or family in recovery, non-alcoholic beer or wine or mocktails presented to look like alcoholic drinks may create cravings. It may be best to skip the fake booze—and even alcohol-marinated foods—in favor of completely different options. However, don’t assume: Ask their preference.
15. Replace the toast.
It’s okay to skip the toast entirely, especially if the event leans non-traditional anyway. While great-aunt Mary may cringe at the idea, toasts aren’t required. Just let the Best Man, Maid of Honor, and other traditional toasters know this preference ahead of time.
Tips for alcohol-free or alcohol-limited work and professional events
Defining the alcohol culture at conferences, networking events, team-building experiences, and post-work gatherings improves the experience for all attendees—both drinkers and non-drinkers. Honoring dietary restrictions is commonplace, and non-drinkers should be afforded the same treatment.
Awkward situations can arise at events that rely on alcohol. Non-drinking attendees may want to keep recovery, medical conditions, or pregnancy a secret. Attendees may wish to keep a clear head while networking, could abstain due to religious or personal reasons, or simply may not like alcohol. Other attendees questioning the lack of drink can make the situation complicated or embarrassing.
Minimize the pressure to drink at professional events with these ideas:
16. Reward employees without alcohol.
A round on the boss may be a relaxing way for some to end the week, but it can put undue pressure on non-drinkers. Rather than happy hour after work, treat employees to lunch during a workday.
17. Choose a venue that doesn’t lean heavily on drinking.
Instead of holding a business meeting at a brewery or pub, meet at a coffee shop, cozy loft venue, or co-working space. Find unique spaces here.
18. Rename networking events.
’Cocktail Hour’ implies drinking, while ‘Social Hour’ puts the focus on building connections.
19. Skip the free drink tickets.
Instead, serve free or inexpensive non-alcoholic drinks during a post-conference networking event or annual sales team meeting.
20. Institute a policy against excessive drinking.
Clarify the expectation that attendees are expected to limit their intake of alcohol. Those who drink excessively are cut off or asked to leave.
21. Ask waitstaff and bartenders to avoid asking for alcohol orders.
“What can I get you,” rather than “Would you like to try a margarita?” or “Can I get you another beer?”
22. Allow non-drinkers to blend in.
Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks should be served in identical glassware so attendees who wish to go incognito can avoid awkward questions from insistent co-workers.
23. Build an event schedule that doesn’t rely on drinking.
Promote post-session events and gatherings that don’t revolve around alcohol or take place at a bar—and build non-drinking options into the evening networking schedule.
Tips for planning limited-alcohol events
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing: Stanford University’s policy requires “Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Beverages” at all parties, ensuring every event-goer has something refreshing to sip. Non-alcoholic drinks should be as easy to get, fun, colorful, and tempting as the alcoholic options so they don’t appear to be a less desirable choice or afterthought. Limiting alcoholic offerings or increasing non-alcoholic offerings can help non-drinkers feel more at ease, and may even stretch the budget.
24. Go semi-dry.
Skip liquor and have only wine or beer.
25. Make alcoholic drinks the option, rather than the norm.
Create a menu of non-alcoholic drinks and allow guests to add a shot rather than automatically including spirits.
26. Prepare before meeting with the caterer or bartender.
When signing on a caterer, stick to your request for equal quality non-alcoholic drinks, and don’t settle for boring options. If the bartender is creating a signature cocktail for the event, make sure they create a coinciding mocktail.
27. Limit alcohol to bar service.
Rather than have servers automatically fill glasses at tables or pass drinks, keep soft refreshments on the tables and let guests get alcoholic options at the bar. This way, there is no perceived obligation to accept a drink.
28. Make the window for alcohol service short.
Only serve alcohol during cocktail hour or the toast rather than all night.
Accommodate non-drinkers in your event layout and seating chart
Even if the event includes alcohol, you may choose to set aside spaces for guests who do not want to drink.
29. Make one or more tables alcohol-free.
Some guests may need to distance themselves from drinkers, and including alcohol-free tables in your seating plan gives them this option. Let guests know you’re offering alcohol-free tables with a simple note on the event website—this way people can opt in without drawing attention.
30. Assign spaces where alcohol is not allowed.
Only allow alcohol inside and designate the cozy outdoor fire pit or balcony overlooking the city as booze-free spaces. The venue may make this easy: Some liquor licenses restrict where alcohol can be served, which often means drinks may not leave the building. Or, flip it and designate indoor spaces as alcohol-free, with the option to drink at an outdoor bar.
Finally, make it easy for non-drinkers to see their options—without drawing too much attention. It’s your responsibility to provide a variety of non-alcoholic beverage options guests can enjoy without having to make special requests or feel like they are asking the staff to go above and beyond.