What to Know About a Self-Service Bar at Your Wedding

wine on car

Photo by Erin McGinn

Unless you’re hosting a dry wedding, it’s safe to say that the bar setup is perhaps one of the event’s most important centerpieces. Logistics are generally handled by a vendor (which, of course, has its advantages)––but what if you’re hoping to simplify things on the bar front or cut down on labor costs by way of DIY? The answer: a self-service bar, which requires a bit more planning, but is ultimately easier on your budget and safer for your guests when done properly.

What Is a Self-Service Bar?

A self-service bar allows you to stock your own drinks freely and encourage your guests to help themselves. It is an ideal choice for small weddings held in private spaces.

We spoke with a handful of wedding experts and pro bartenders to get the lowdown on creating the perfect setup for wedding guests to pour their own drinks, and they did not disappoint. Here’s everything you need to know about executing a seamless and stress-free self-service bar at your wedding.

Self-Service Bars and Public Venues: The Fine Print

If you’re working with a public venue, be sure to look into your venue’s rules and regulations and state liquor laws before going with a self-service bar. “The easiest way to determine if you can have a self-service bar is to ask the venue where the event or wedding is being held,” says Andrew Roby, an award-winning wedding and event planner in the Washington, D.C. area. “All venues are held to Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) laws and will know for sure if this is possible, [though] in some cases, you may want to speak with your catering company.”

If you are working with a public venue and do receive permission to move forward with your self-service bar, Roby has one more piece of advice: You will need to obtain a special one-day ABC Banquet permit which authorizes you to provide alcohol. State regulations vary, but usually this should be secured in your state at least 30 days prior to the start of your event, and you must have the copy on-site during the event.

If you do end up needing to staff your bar, you can still work out a creative solution as a happy medium: If none of your vendor or venue agreements prevent it, try thinking outside the box and curate the kind of experience that you love when you go to a great bar. For example, you could recruit a bartender or two from your favorite cocktail spot to assist with planning and onsite execution—this is an excellent option as not only will your drinks be great, but you’ll be putting cash in hospitality workers’ pockets, which is more important than ever given the effects of the pandemic on the industry.

Pros and Cons of Self-Service Bars

“With smaller backyard weddings becoming the new norm, it's very feasible to see couples not wanting to introduce extra vendors to their events when possible, so a self-service bar is a great idea if it's done safely,” says Gina Jurlando, the owner of The Nomad’s Direction, a global travel-focused wedding, honeymoon, and event planning service based in New York City. Jurlando, who is a former bartender herself, is intimately familiar with putting on a self-service wedding bar after having incorporated the concept into her own wedding. Cost-effectiveness, she says, is one reason to go this route, though it does come with a warning: “In [my] personal experience, buying just soda, wine, and beer for my own wedding cost almost $1000—it's still cheaper than hiring a bartending service, but the costs add up quickly.”

Another factor, Jurlando adds, might not be an obvious benefit of a self-service bar, but it’s a valid one: “You don't have to deal with hitting a drink minimum, which also helps your budget. Many weddings I've worked have had a less alcohol-inclined crowd, but the couple still had to pay the minimum, even if they didn't hit it.”

Of course, hiring a team to take care of the bar from setup to breakdown means you won’t have to lift a finger or worry about taking on more planning, but it’ll put a considerable dent in your budget. Then again, Jurlando points out that bartenders are trained to pour the proper amounts of alcohol in every drink, so you’ll want to find a workaround when guests are invited to serve themselves—individually packaged servings, like bottled cocktails or canned wines, can at least help to ensure proportions, though they won’t necessarily stop anyone from having too many.

Other benefits of single servings include the minimization of alcohol waste as well as eliminating the touching of shared surfaces that comes with having guests mix their own drinks from larger bottles or containers.

How to Set Up a Self-Service Bar

Once you have your budget nailed down, start thinking about the essentials, like ice, glassware, drink selection, your bar’s surface, where it will live, and who should keep an eye on it to make sure nothing runs out (and nobody gets over-served). The latter is key, not only to ensure a smooth operation for your guests but also to mitigate any potential disasters that can come with allowing guests to freely pour their own drinks (pro tip: don’t put everything out at once). Be sure to also take the time to meticulously plan your bar’s overall safety, which can be done in a number of ways.

Any bar in the COVID-era, whether staffed or not, should be well-stocked with wipes and hand sanitizer for guests. To avoid overcrowding, Roby offers a tip: “Should you decide to not have a bartender, I recommend that you increase the number of bars you have. By [setting up] at least two more bars than you would normally have, [you] give guests options so that they don’t have to wait in line for a drink. Ideally, you would need one Bartender for every 75 guests, [which would translate to] one bar for every 75 guests plus at least two more.” This could be as simple as creating separate stations for wines, beers, cocktails, and non-alcoholic options.

Brooke Sheldon of Lilybrooke Events, a boutique planning firm that focuses on weddings in New York City, Washington, D.C., and New England, notes one last safety suggestion that doubles as a thoughtful gesture to your guests. “If you are able to provide transportation, I always strongly recommend it—especially when guests are traveling from out of town [and] are tired from traveling,” she says. On top of that, consumption at the event and the possible unfamiliarity of the area only add to the list of reasons to take extra steps to make sure everyone gets back to their front doors safely.

Self-Service Bar Drink Ideas

Here comes the best part: designing your drink options. There’s so much to choose from out there, and as we mentioned, individual servings are the way to go amidst the pandemic (you can even forgo the glassware altogether in most cases). Here are some of our go-to's:

  • Canned wines: Ramona, WineSociety, Bev, West + Wilder
  • Canned beers: Kona Brewing Co., Crowns and Hops, pFriem, Brooklyn Brewery
  • Canned cocktails: Social Hour, Slow & Low, Three Lumps of Sugar’s cocktail sachets
  • Bottled wines: Usual, Mionetto, Campo Viejo, Vinebox, Pommery Pop
  • Bottled beers: Pilsner Urquell, Modelo, Lagunitas, Ithaca Beer Co.
  • Bottled cocktails: try working with a local bar to have these prepped
  • Non-alcoholic options: AVEC, Ugly Drinks, United Sodas of America, Q Mixers, Hella Cocktail Co. Bitters & Soda, Kin Euphorics
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