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Whether you’re having a summer soiree or high class celebration, alcohol is deeply intertwined with weddings of all kinds. From the champagne toasts to the drinks that provide the liquid courage for your guests to hit the dancefloor, alcohols of various types have found special places amongst wedding receptions.
But this begs one important question amidst wedding planning: Are you planning to foot the bill for your guests to drink on the house? What will that look like? If you’re planning to have an open bar, there’s a lot to consider when determining a budget. Here are aspects to consider when calculating the potential costs.
From full open bars, to limited bars, to signature cocktails, various levels of alcohol packages can land you at vastly different price points—effecting your entire wedding budget. That’s why it’s important to know all the pricing information when including a bar of any sort in your cocktail hour, reception, or both.
There are different lengths to which you can go when it comes to an open bar, like only covering certain types of booze or only offering a particular selection to begin with. Each of these options will effect your bottom line, so it's paramount you know what's what.
Typically, there are two types of open bars your venue will allow you to choose from. The first will offer a few beer selections (domestic and premium), a premium red and premium white wine, an assortment of regular or top-shelf spirits (typically vodka, tequila, gin, rum, bourbon, and whiskey), mixers (e.g. tonic water, club soda, juices, and margarita mix), and some non-alcoholic options (e.g. sodas, flat water, and sparkling water). You can also ask them to include a champagne, different bottle of wine (like a rosé), or similar for an additional cost.
However, if this top-tier full bar option is out of budget or might not go to good use, you have a second option to consider. Most venues will also offer a limited open bar, which features beer selections (domestic and premium), a premium red and premium white wine, non-alcoholic drinks, mixers, and limited or no spirits. As always, we recommend checking with your venue to get the specifics of what options they have available.
As a shock to just about nobody, beer and wine are almost always less expensive than liquor. Far less expensive. So, if your crowd's more the type to sip on a hearty beer or refreshing wine, as opposed to going for mixed drinks, we highly suggest considering this option.
Under this banner, you may also want to check with your venue and see if you're able to bring your own beer and bubbly. Not all venues will allow this—many that include catering and a bar won't allow you to bring in other food or drinks—but you might be surprised at those who do. Buying beer and wine by the case often results in wholesale discounts, which could considerably bring down the cost of your program. All while supplying guests with the option of unlimited booze of their favorite varieties.
Another, often less expensive, route you could explore is offering a signature drink (or drinks). Often, venues can work with you to offer your standard beers and wines, while also including around three signature cocktails in leu of a full open bar of spirits. In this case, guests will then have the option of selecting from the beers, wines, or signature preset drinks included in your bar package. These drinks are typically special to the newly wed couple, with your options depending on what ingredients the bar has available.
For example, if your bar won't have espresso available, they won't be able to create espresso martinis. If you haven't already been provided one in your venue proposal, request a list of ingredients (beers, wine, spirits, mixers) your bar has and work from there. Deciding on a limited number of drinks—and, therefore, ingredients being used—should considerable help with the open bar cost. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to reminisce on drinks that may be favorable or important to you, then give them fun names.
Note: If you opt for a full open bar, you should still be able to create and advertise signature cocktails. Just ask your venue coordinator for some assistance getting that set up.
Say you want a full or partially full open bar, but are expecting to have a lengthy reception. Perhaps your budget can only cover up to so much. If this ends up being the case, don't worry, you still have an option. Many venue bars or vendors will provide you with the ability to have an open bar for a certain amount of time. For example, it will usually open for service immediately as your cocktail hour begins, run through the cocktail hour, then stay open for the first hour or two the reception. After that, it typically becomes a cash bar, in which guests pay for their remaining drinks individually.
Now that you've got the basics of an open bar down, let's chat about some important details that shouldn't go undiscussed.
While many traditional wedding venues provide their own alcohol and bar (think hotels and event spaces), many others don't. When discussing your options with potential venues, ask for a description of what they have available. If it's your initial in-person meeting or venue tour, simply ask if the venue provides a bar, bartender, and bar back. If they do, request more detailed information (ingredients, operable hours, etc.) in your venue proposal.
If the venue doesn't have their own bar on site (think parks, gardens, and estates), you'll need to hire a vendor separately. The downside to this is having to coordinate with an extra vendor. However, the upside is that you may be able to further customize your options and hours, costing you less money in the long run.
We already took a look at what's included in different potential bar packages, but for simplicity and remembrance's sake, we've include a quick cheat sheet below. As mentioned before, this is generally what's included in these kinds of packages. We highly recommend talking in detail with your vendor about what they specifically have available.
Aside from the standard ingredients, your open bar should include the appropriate glasses or cups, bottle openers, shakers, corkscrews, garnishes, ice, ice tongs, ice buckets, coolers, rags, and cocktail napkins.
The price-per-person can vary based on your location, venue, and alcohol package. On average, the standard cost-per-person can be from $11 to $45 a head, with the average being around $20-$30. For a generalized list of what you might expect, look below. These are the average costs per person, depending on your drink package.
One important additional thing to ask your venue or alcohol vendor about is gratuity. Depending on the vendor, a gratuity cost may or may not already be added into your bar package and listed in your initial contract. Note that this isn't the same thing as a service fee. If it isn't, you'll need to determine how you plan to calculate and pay it.
If a bar and bartending services are included as a part of your venue or caterer's package, you can expect gratuity to be a line item in your contract. However, if it isn't—or if you hired out your bartender separately—vendor etiquette suggest that you tip ten to fifteen percent of your pre-tax alcohol package bill. That being said, a tip is extra money based on met or exceeded expectations. If your bartender(s) did a phenomenal job all evening, consider tipping an amount that reflects that.
Final cost aside, there are various pro's and con's to hosting an open bar at your wedding. Whether money is of no issue or you've figured it all out, but need some more to think about, consider the following.
Generally, in the end a cash bar might help you save money, but an open bar will ensure everyone has a stress-free, good time.
At the end of the day, you might decide that an open bar is the right call for your wedding reception. However, that doesn't mean you can't still try to save some money. Here are a handful of our favorite tips when it comes to bringing down that bottom line.
As you can likely tell, multiple factors come into play when landing on a bottom line for your open bar costs. What options are available to you, how much you can customize, and gratuity all come into play and should be given special attention before making a decision. However, once you've gone over the fine details with the appropriate vendor, you should have no problem coming to the best decision for your wedding. We're betting your guests would cheers to that.