14 Ways to Create a Responsible Drinking Culture at Your Events

Alcohol and events can be a great mix, but can leave some attendees out.

Event Meeting Responsible Drinking Culture Food Beverage

When you want to learn about creating a responsible drinking culture at events, who better to turn to than Taylor Amerman, global alcohol responsibility manager for Brown-Forman, which owns brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Finlandia vodka and el Jimador tequila. 

“Some would say my job is ironic, contradictory, or confusing, but that’s what I like about it,” Amerman says. 

One way the company supports the responsible culture is to respect the choice not to drink alcohol at an event. While it varies a bit from country to country, about 30 percent of people do not consume alcohol; your attendees will fit that profile. 

“We like to say that it should be an invitation, but not an expectation, to consume alcohol,” she says. “We want you to have a positive experience, especially at events we sponsor.” 

It also has to do with reducing risks and liability that come when alcohol is served. So how does Brown-Forman encourage that responsible drinking culture at events it holds or sponsors — and how can you do the same with your events? Amerman has these following suggestions.

1. Always put people first. Even little things, such as the name of the event, can send a message you might not intend. For example, what do you call your evening get-togethers? If it’s a cocktail reception or a happy hour, that’s putting the alcohol first, not the people, Amerman says.

2. Offer drinks that are enticing for nondrinkers as well as drinkers. Do those who are abstaining get a discount or second nonalcoholic offering? “We need to be cognizant of this element of diversity and inclusion,” Amerman says.

3. Be very clear about labeling any food that is prepared with alcohol. “If I accidentally eat some bourbon chicken it’s no big deal, but if someone in recovery eats bourbon chicken, it’s a really serious issue,” she says. “Even if it’s just a little bit, or the alcohol has been cooked off, it still needs to be labeled in the food description, just as you would for food allergens.”

This goes for the desserts, too. “I went to an event recently and they had three different types of cupcakes, each made with a different type of alcohol. That was a nice thing to do for our company, but there are people at Brown-Forman who don’t drink alcohol and they couldn’t have dessert that night.”

4. Mix and match the welcome drinks. While it is a nice welcome to have wait staff serving signature cocktails as people enter, it also implies that the event is going to be all about drinking. “At the very least, have multiple options on the tray. Sure, greet people with some champagne, but also have water and nonalcoholic drinks. It’s not enough to say, ‘I can go get you a water,’ because that makes it a secondary, lesser experience,” Amerman says.

5. Hold the sugar. With recent studies saying more than half of Americans have a desire to drink less, and an undeniable trend toward health and wellness, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks should be good-tasting and healthy, not full of sugar and artificial ingredients.

6. Treat nonalcoholic drinks the same as their alcoholic counterparts. Clearly label mocktails on the same drink menu as the other drinks, says Amerman, and serve them in the same glassware at all the bars, rather than from a separate table area, which some could find socially shaming.

7. Avoid table service. It is all too easy for attendees to overindulge when waiters are constantly refilling the wine glasses. If you do have table service, every glass should automatically come with a glass of water.

8. Check credentials. If you offer open bars, be sure that all servers and venues have the appropriate licenses and training. You'll also want to have a plan in place to discourage over-consumption, such as measuring drinks, providing drink-ticket limits and having a set cut-off time for last call.

9. Watch out for underage drinking. If there is a potential for underage people to attend the event, be sure to have a secure way to identify them. Wristbands are one easy option, but you might also want to consider using ID-scanning software that can detect not only whether someone is of age or not, but also if the ID is fake. Amerman suggests double-checking anyone you suspect could be underage, both at the door and at the bar. Hiring a third-party security team can help ensure safety and reduce your liability.

10. Order food. When alcohol is being served, food should be available, too. Arrange for high-protein options and avoid salty or greasy fare, which only makes people more thirsty. 

And make the costs even. Amerman says, "The cost of food should be commensurate with the cost of alcoholic beverages, so if the drinks are free, the food should be, too. The worst thing is when the drinks are free, and you have to purchase food."

11. Incorporate exercise into your meetings. Whether you offer morning yoga or walking breaks, the healthier people feel, the less likely they are to think about their alcohol consumption.

12. Be bold and think about not serving any alcohol at the event. “If it’s a four-day meeting and you want your people to be their best possible selves, while it might be startling at first, maybe skip the alcohol for a dinner or two. You might be surprised by how appreciative people are!”

13. Watch for unlawful behavior. Learn about bystander prevention related to sexual assault, harassment and other power-based personal violence. While alcohol doesn’t cause these behaviors, it unfortunately is involved in 50 percent of these incidents, says Amerman. “I highly recommend every event planner gets certified in these intervention skills. It’s not just the worst-case scenarios; sometimes it’s small things that add up, such as inappropriate jokes and gender comments. Don’t laugh it off or look the other way. There are techniques you can use to intervene and stop that behavior," she says.

14. Take the lead. Since event planners tend to remain sober at their own events, why not be the first to order and get a nonalcoholic beverage with pride? You will help make it more socially acceptable for others to do the same.

Tracy Stuckrath of thrive! meetings & events is a food-allergy expert, culinary consultant, professional speaker and inclusivity strategist.