Providing alcoholic drinks for your guests is often a big part of planning your wedding reception. I constantly hear couples concerned that their guests won’t have a good time at their wedding, and I know (whether they say it or not), many couples correlate “fun” with their guests having access to alcoholic beverages. But, there are many, many questions about how to host a bar without going over your wedding budget (I get it, booze can get expensive!), or without your guests getting too hammered (it’s a fine line, my friend, a fine line).
First, let’s start with the basics. While there are many bar options, things can essentially be broken down into two categories, either you are paying for your guests drinks (a.k.a. an open/hosted bar), or your guests are paying for their own drinks (a.k.a a cash bar).
Cash bars are fairly simple, where your guests pay for each drink they order, similar to any bar. But, open and hosted bars come in a variety of forms, so let’s discuss those a bit further.
Not all open bars are the same.
Some venues will charge a flat fee per person, which you will pay upfront, allowing your guests unlimited drinks throughout the evening. This can be a great option because it allows for you to budget the exact cost of drinks and there’s no bar tab to settle at the end of the evening. However, keep in mind that these fees are often based on an average (for example, a person consuming 2 drinks per hour at $5 a drink, so the fee would be $40 per person for a 4 hour reception). If your group are heavy drinkers, then this price may seem like a steal, but if your guests only consume 2 drinks the entire evening, you may actually be paying more by going this route. Many venues and restaurants have calculated these fees based on averages, and are well aware that some guests will drink more than their fare share and others will drink less. This is also why they typically will not adjust the fee when you tell them you have “light drinkers” attending, or they won’t adjust your guest count if you have pregnant women in attendance or guests that do not drink at all. At the end of the day, they are trying to make a profit, and taking your word on the number of people that won't have a drink is not a guarantee, and they can't risk losing money.
Other open bars charge based on consumption. Sometimes this is per drink that’s ordered, and other times it’s based on the bottles that are opened or kegs that are tapped, regardless if you go through the entire thing or not. While this type of open bar simplifies things, and you’re only paying for what’s consumed, it can be very tricky to estimate ahead of time.
So, what can you do to help cut costs while still providing drinks for your guests?
Host only beer and wine. It’s very common for couples to host beer, wine, and champagne, and allow guests to choose to buy other cocktails (which are often more expensive) on their own. Alternatively, you can host a bar with only beer and wine available, which can help keep alcohol consumption at a safe level and limit your expenses.
Host a signature cocktail. This can be beneficial because it limits the types of hard alcohol that are available for guests to order, and you can sometimes set a limit to the number of those cocktails that are served. Once you run out, guests would still have beer and wine to choose from if they’d like to keep drinking.
Host for a limited time. A common option is to host the bar during cocktail hour and maybe even through dinner, and then have the bar switch to a cash bar for the remainder of the evening. If this is the route you choose, we highly recommend letting guests know, either through an announcement or a sign at the bar, so no one is unexpectedly surprised when they try to order their next drink.
Provide drink tickets. This is a great way to estimate your expense prior to the wedding day, and allows for guests to know exactly what’s being provided before they’ll need to break out their wallet.
A mix of it all. No, we don't mean a concoction of all the booze you're providing, but rather mixing the options we've listed above. Some couples may choose to host a signature cocktail, beer and wine during cocktail hour, and then switch the bar to only hosting beer and wine for the remainder of the evening. Your options are endless, which is why it's important to work out an exact plan prior to your wedding day.
Regardless of what you choose, stick with it and don't change your bar plan during the reception, especially if you've been drinking. I'm sure we've all been surprised by a high bar tab or two just from going out with a few friends on a Friday night. Now multiple that by 100+ people drinking. You've made your decision ahead of time and likely that decision was based on your budget, so don't change it that night because you want to keep the party going, or you want to keep people drinking for another hour. It adds up quickly. And trust us, even if you stop hosting, your guests will continue to have a great time.
Thrifty Events offers wedding planning, event design, and day of coordination services.
Candi Block, Founder & Event Planner
Midwest native with big-family roots, now newlywed, entrepreneur, and new home owner in the PNW. Love being involved in the community, crafting, creating, and Netflix binging.