It's a pricey perk to provide all night, but one that guests appreciate.
handmade hanging ivory linen signature cocktail menu
Credit: Meghan Mehan

There's no way around it: An open bar is expensive. Depending on how many guests you're inviting and the types and quality of alcohol you want to serve, an open bar can set you back several thousands of dollars. That's a lot of vodka martinis! If you're wondering whether or not you're required to offer an open bar, the answer is absolutely not. Just as serving a three-course dinner or having a tiered wedding cake are traditional but are in no way must-haves, providing all-you-can-drink cocktails isn't something you have to do. With that being said, you like the idea of an open bar—you've been to a few weddings with cash bars, which is inhospitable (you're a guest!) and inconvenient (who carries cash?)—so if it's possible, you'd like to offer free booze to guests at your wedding. Here's what to think about, plus all of your options.

The Budget: Can you afford an open bar?

This is the most important and obvious question. If paying for a fully stocked bar will cause your budget to fall apart, you shouldn't do it. That doesn't mean asking your guests to pay for drinks, though (remember, we've established that cash bars are generally seen as rude). Instead, offer a limited bar with a selection of drinks guests can choose from at no cost.

The Calculation: Does your caterer charge by consumption or per person?

This could make a big difference in whether or not you have an open bar. Paying by consumption means you'll only pay for however many drinks in total were served. If your crowd doesn't imbibe in liquor that much, you may find that an open bar by consumption fits into your budget; however, if they're heavy drinkers, the price may be more than you're willing to spend. If your caterer charges a per-person fee, you'll be paying the same hefty price for each guest no matter if they drink two beers or ten bourbons during the night.

The Second Option: How much would serving only beer and wine cost?

Do the math: Compared to having an open bar stocked with premium liquors, a wine-and-beer bar will be significantly cheaper. For the most part, this will appease your guests. If you're really concerned that the crowd will want something stronger, you might also consider serving a signature cocktail or two. They won't be able to order whatever they want, but they will have options.

The Guests: Will family and friends revolt if there's no whiskey at the bar?

You know your guests—will they be unhappy if their favorite liquor isn't being offered, or would they be perfectly content with whatever you're serving? Remember that you're hosting family and friends during your wedding, and showing them a good time is part of what being a great host is all about.

The DIY Alternative: Will the caterer let us stock the bar ourselves?

If the answer is yes, that means you won't be paying for liquor that's marked up so you'll save a bundle. Look for sales every week at your local liquor stores until you've accrued everything you need. Ask the stores if you can return unopened bottles after the wedding.


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