What Drinks Are Served at Cocktail Hour?

Discover how to perfectly tailor your cocktail service to the desires of your guests with these classic cocktail hour beverage options.

By Emily Forrest

Glasses with wine bottle
Photo by Zola Inc

Picture this—you and the love of your life have just committed yourselves to each other in a ceremonial display of affection. The ceremony went off without a hitch, and you couldn't be happier with how your wedding day is turning out. It would stand to reason that you are filled with unfathomable joy, and understandably giddy with love. In other words, you’re ready to celebrate this milestone event, so let the celebration begin.

While your wedding day is most certainly all about you and your partner, once the ceremony is over, the day shifts from a reverent affair to a joyous celebration. Don't forget that you have invited others to share in the happiness you’re now celebrating, and it’s your job as host to ensure that they are well taken care of.

The planning you put into your wedding will shape how your guests can enjoy themselves during the reception. The happiness you experience in the minutes and hours after your wedding ceremony is mirrored by your guests' shared desire to celebrate that happiness. It’s vital to remember that the delight of your guests is an essential part of the reception. Their happiness hinges on the cocktail hour.

Drinks That Are Served at Wedding Cocktail Hours

One of the most critical pieces in the puzzle that makes up the perfect reception is the cocktail hour. The cocktail hour is the foundation on which the rest of your reception will stand. Ask anyone who has ever attended a wedding, and they will tell you that a well-planned cocktail hour can make or break a reception.

Usually, a cocktail party includes some form of entertainment, socialization, hors d’oeuvres, cocktail party games, and, of course, libations. The wedding menu is different for every cocktail hour, and it’s up to the newlyweds to decide what kind of drinks will be served. While there’s a wide variety of drinks to choose from, there are some standard cocktail options that are outlined in this wedding alcohol list below.

Beer and Wine

Serving beer and wine during a cocktail hour is a common practice at most weddings. Beer and wine might not be your guests' first choice in cocktail hour beverages, but it will undoubtedly do the trick.

Serving beer and wine at the cocktail hour ensures that no one gets too crazy, too quickly. The last thing you want is for people to be doing tequila shots before cocktail hour food is served. A best practice for a successful cocktail hour is to keep things light. Light hors d 'oeuvres pair perfectly with a small selection of beer and wine.

Remember, there’s still a long night of toasts, speeches, and other traditional reception events to look forward to. These events will go a lot smoother if no one is inebriated. Ensuring that your guests don’t get too intoxicated too early is just one of many reasons to wait on serving hard liquor.

One of the other reasons for going with beer and wine is that it’s a far more cost-friendly option for you. Hard liquor is expensive, and while beer and wine are not a cheap option, they’re far more budget-friendly than a bottle of vodka or gin.

Typically, couples who choose to do beer and wine will offer a red and a white wine option and a domestic and imported beer option. Offering options is a great way to keep your guests happy, even when you’re limiting the type of alcohol that you're serving.

Being that they’re both budget-friendly and helpful with incident prevention, beer and wine are excellent cocktail hour beverage options.

Signature Cocktails

Wedding signature cocktails are a fantastic way to serve liquor without getting into too much trouble, and they can capture your wedding theme. Offering a signature wedding cocktail or two is a great way to serve liquor without being too aggressive about it. Many couples pair their signature cocktail with beer and wine service, and it’s common for a wedding couple to provide a free signature cocktail at a cash bar.

Your signature cocktail, or cocktails, can be anything of your choosing. From a classic Old Fashioned to a modern twist on a mint julep, the signature cocktail should be a reflection of the couple. Some couples offer two signature cocktails—one of the bride's choosing and one of the groom's choosing. Often the difference in taste between the two will provide a big enough range for your guests to be happy with at least one of the offerings.

What Drinks Are Served at Cocktail Hour? Photo Credits // Zola Inc

The Open Bar

Ask any event planner, caterer, or venue, and they will tell you that an open bar during cocktail hour is risky business. Here are a few of the pros and cons of an open bar during the wedding cocktail hour:


  • It's free booze, and people will be really impressed by your hospitality.
  • There will be little complaining about selection or variety.


  • You run the risk of overserving your guests.
  • Opening the bar this early on will put a big dent in your budget.

While it may seem like a good idea to offer your guests a variety of free alcohol, doing this early in the evening may end in disaster. If you’re dead set on providing an open bar, try going the signature cocktail route with beer and wine during the cocktail hour. This is referred to as a modified open bar.

With the modified open bar, your guests won't have to pay for a drink all night, yet you control the types of drinks they have access to. This method is not only useful for keeping your costs down, but it's also effective for keeping your guests sober enough to remember the first dance.

Save the full bar for after dinner, as it will be a welcome surprise for your guests. No one will complain about free beer and wine during cocktail hour, especially if there’s a signature cocktail, and you still look like a hero for opening the bar later on. For more information, see our guide on how much does an open bar at a wedding cost?

The Cash Bar

Like the open bar, the cash bar provides your guests with an assortment of spirits that they can choose to indulge in. The difference is that a cash bar often limits the number of trips each individual will take to the bar.

Because your guests will be paying for their own cocktails, they will be much more judicious with the amount of liquor they’re consuming. This method of serving drinks gives people the freedom to drink what they choose, while mitigating the risk of someone becoming intoxicated too early in the evening's festivities.

Standard practice for cash bars is to offer one or two freebies, such as a domestic beer or a red wine, with everything else being out-of-pocket for your guests. Remember, you can always pull an audible and open up the bar later in the evening during dancing.

Often with a cash bar, drink service will shut down completely during dinner. It is tradition for wine to be served with dinner, and, as a result, the bar is often closed for this portion of the evening's festivities. Some couples will keep one bar open during dinner service, but only for beer and wine in the rare case that the wine being served is not preferable to a guest.

Non-Alcoholic Options

Whatever kind of drink service you offer to your guests, make sure that soft drinks are free. Whether your reception is an adult-only affair, or whether there are kids in attendance, no one should have to pay for mixers.

Make sure that you offer those who don’t drink alcohol something to sip on other than water. This is often overlooked, and those guests who just want a soft drink will be grateful for your thoughtfulness. If you really want to go above and beyond for your non-drinking guests, a signature mocktail is a fun way to keep it classy for those keeping it PG.

Most catering companies will offer you the option of serving coffee and tea later in the evening. We recommend you absolutely offer your guests coffee, especially if alcohol is served. You never know who may need a cup of coffee late in the evening, and it’s far better to have it and not need it than the other way around.

Know Your Audience

You created your guest list, so it’s up to you to decide what kind of drinks you want to serve during cocktail hour. You know your family and friends better than anyone. Your insight into their habits as consumers will ultimately play a significant role in the decision you make regarding your cocktail hour.

It’s important to note that when deciding what drinks to serve at your cocktail hour, you should make your choice based on what is best for your wedding. However, what’s best for your wedding, and the popular choice (ie., an open bar) may not be in alignment.

It may be strange to think of yourself as the host, but remember that this wedding reception is your celebration. As such, it’s your job to find a balance between showing your guests a good time and ensuring that the event isn't derailed by an alcohol-fueled scene. As stated earlier, you won't have to worry about any of these things on the day of, but planning for them ahead of time is crucial.

Whatever drinks you choose to serve, make sure you get to enjoy them too. Your wedding is a celebration for you and about you, and you deserve something nice. Whether you want to have a special bottle of champagne set aside or do some shots with the wedding party, it's important that you take advantage of a night you will never forget.

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