How Much Should You Budget for an Open Bar at Your Wedding?

Eat, drink and be merry. But how much will it cost to have an open bar at your wedding?

By Nilina Mason-Campbell

Budget for an Open Bar
Photo by Shutterstock

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.

The Deal With Alcohol Packages

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.

Zola: How Much Should You Budget  for an Open Bar at Your Wedding? Photo Credit // Carley K Photography

Types of Open Bars

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.

Beer and Wine Only

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.

Signature Drinks

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.

Open Bar for Certain Hours

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.

Zola: How Much Should You Budget  for an Open Bar at Your Wedding? Photo Credit // Shutterstock

Other Things to Consider

Now that you've got the basics of an open bar down, let's chat about some important details that shouldn't go undiscussed.

Who’s Handling Bar Service?

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.

What Should Be Included?

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.

  • Full open bar: Beer selections (domestic and premium), a premium red and premium white wine, an assortment of regular or premium liquors (typically vodka, tequila, gin, rum, bourbon, and whiskey), mixers (e.g. tonic water, club soda, juices, and margarita mix), and some non-alcoholic beverages (e.g. sodas, flat water, and sparkling water). You can also ask them to include a champagne or similar for an additional cost.
  • Limited open bar: Beer selections (domestic and premium), a premium red and premium white wine, non-alcoholic beverages, mixers, and limited or no spirits.
  • Beer, wine, signature drinks: Beer selections (domestic and premium), a premium red and premium white wine, non-alcoholic beverages, and a few specifically selected and pre-discussed mixed drinks.
  • Beer and wine: Beer selections, a premium red and premium white wine, and non-alcoholic beverages.

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.

How Much Does an Open Bar Cost Per Person?

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.

  • Full open bar: $35-$45/person
  • Limited open bar: $20-$25/person
  • Beer and wine only: $15-20/person

How Do You Handle Gratuity?

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.

The Pros and Cons of an Open Bar

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.

  • Pro: Guests will appreciate it. The biggest pro of having an open bar is the satisfaction of your guests. Your loved ones are sure to appreciate the freedom to enjoy themselves without fussing with cash or worrying about their budget.
  • Pro: It keeps things moving. When you have an open bar, bartenders don't need to worry about processing tons of separate transactions. Everything's already paid for. Guests, too, don't need to waste time fishing around their wallets. This results in a faster line, which in turn results in more time the wedding guests can dance, chat, and celebrate.
  • Con: Guests can over-indulge. A legitimate fear of having an open bar is the potential for a guest or guests to take advantage of it. Too-drunk friends or family run the risk of ruining your night, if not making a temporary scene. To avoid this, you can ask the bartender to limit certain individuals or have a drink ticket system in place.
  • Con: It's more expensive for you. Typically, the hosts of the wedding are the ones responsible for picking up the open bar tab (usually before the wedding takes place). With a cash bar, your guests share in some of the financial burden. However, with an open bar, you pay for everyone to enjoy.

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.

Tips to Save Money on an Open Bar

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.

  • Ask if you can BYOB. As we previously mentioned, supplying your own alcohol can drastically cut down costs. Venues won't always allow this, but it's worth the ask, even if you want a limited bar and to bring your own champagne or rosé.
  • Implement drink tickets. When only a certain amount of alcohol can be consumed, only a certain amount of ingredients are needed. This will likely end up being less than what's usually included in a full open bar, naturally bringing the price down.
  • Ask if you can exclude certain guests. Not many venues will allow this, but it's worth the ask. If you have a handful of people who don't drink, consider asking your vendor if they can avoid being counted in the total per-person cost.

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.

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