It’s a difficult reality of wedding planning: food and drink usually eat up a big portion of your overall budget. When it comes to the wedding bar, costs can escalate rapidly. If you’re serving real Champagne or premium liquor, the sky’s the limit. These days, most weddings have some variation of an open bar.
But the notion of a wedding open bar has evolved, according to Kristen Baxter, director of events for Abbey Road Farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A welcome trend, according to Baxter, is that couples are thinking outside the box with their bars. Maybe beer and wine is the right choice; maybe a non-alcoholic wedding is their decision, especially for a daytime affair.
Meet the Expert
Kristen Baxter is the director of events for Abbey Road Farm, a popular wedding venue in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Ahead, Baxter walks us through everything you need to know about having an open bar at your wedding.
What Is an Open Bar?
An open bar is where the couple (or whoever is paying for the wedding) foots the bill for alcohol rather than the guests. There are no cash transactions taking place at the bar.
Open Bar Cost
The price tag of an open bar depends entirely on what you’re serving. If you’re buying a drink package through your caterer—that is, they’re in charge of all the food and drinks served at the wedding—you’ll likely be quoted a price per head. Nonalcoholic drinks, even nicer options such as LaCroix or Pellegrino sodas, will be a fraction of the cost of any alcohol. From there, it increases: Beer, wine, and liquor will incur additional costs.
In general, the more options you provide, the higher the per-head cost will be. The more you’d pay for a drink at a restaurant, the more it will cost to include it in your open bar. If you’re serving Champagne, red Burgundy, and 12-year Scotches, the tab can really start soaring. If your venue is more flexible and DIY-oriented, you may be able to save money on your wedding bar by providing the drinks yourself.
Remember to factor in more than the price of the alcohol; you’ll need to budget for things like rental glassware, ice, labor, gratuity, and, in some cases, insurance. Caterers will generally build all of this into the per-head cost.
At Abbey Road Farm, a 20% gratuity is built into the cost of food and drink, so the bartenders are taken care of. Many caterers will do some version of the same, so guests don’t shoulder the burden of paying for service. But in the United States especially, people are often used to tipping, and some will appreciate a way to do so regardless. “It’s definitely not required, but we do put out a tip jar,” says Baxter. “We’ve had people ask for them because they want to take care of the server who’s taken care of them all night.” It’s a decision for the hosts to make.
Pros and Cons of an Open Bar
According to Baxter, most couples choose an open bar because it’s a better experience for the guests. “It makes for more of a celebration,” she says. Your loved ones have likely already spent money on travel, gifts, and more, and it’s a polite gesture to host them for the evening. “Your guests appreciate coming and not having to bring their wallets or worry about how many drinks they want to pay for. It makes the events more seamless and enjoyable because you just don’t have to think about those things.”
Also, paying for drinks does take time, and since the wedding bar tends to be a popular place, having to pay as you go can make for longer lines. “And having to close out a tab at the end of the night is the absolute worst thing you can ask your guests to do,” says Baxter. Some guests will consider cash bars a bit tacky, she says. The only real con of an open bar “is the cost of paying for it, of course.”
Modified Open Bars
The good news, according to Baxter, is that few wedding guests expect a full bar where you can order any single malt or tequila-tonic you like, and fewer couples are going that route. “Almost no one’s doing a full-service bar at a wedding these days,” says Baxter. “When I first started in the industry, full-service bars were much more prevalent. But in the last three to five years, we’ve seen that drop off almost entirely.”
There are plenty of downsides to a full-service bar. “Providing every kind of liquor is cost-prohibitive,” Baxter continues. “And you end up with a bunch of bottles with just two shots taken out of them—what do you do with all that product at the end of the evening?” Instead, plenty of couples are serving beer and wine only, which can dramatically cut the cost. “We’re definitely seeing that as a trend,” says Baxter. “And more and more people aren’t serving alcohol at all, but doing fun things with juices and sodas. That’s a great way to save on money.”
If people are doing more than drinking beer and wine, they’ll make a few signature cocktails. Stocking just the spirits you need for two cocktails, rather than a full liquor setup, is a much more affordable option. Hosts can also plan to start their signature drinks at the cocktail hour, serve until they’re gone, and switch to beer and wine after, rather than purchase enough liquor to go all night. "Signature cocktails are also a really cool way to put your touch on the evening," says Baxter. "Really customize it and make it yours."