A Definitive Guide to Serving Alcohol at Your Wedding

From open bars to cash bars, here's what the experts say

Updated 11/10/19

Courtesy of Stephen Lewis/Art

What’s the one thing wedding guests look forward to the most? Besides seeing two people they love tie the knot, there’s a pretty good chance they’re eager to make their way to the bar. Along with a good meal, having a great bar setup goes a long way in making sure your guests really enjoy themselves. To help you navigate the world of wedding booze, we turned to the experts to answer five of the most common wedding alcohol etiquette questions.

We Can’t Afford an Open Bar. Can We Have a Cash Bar Instead?

If an open bar simply doesn’t fit into your budget, there are a few other options you should consider before going straight to a cash bar. After all, if you’re inviting your family and friends as your guests, it’s bad form to ask them to pay for their drinks all night.

First, consider different types of limited open bars. You may still be able to cover the bill for drinks all night if you cut back on the options. Beer, wine, and just a couple types of liquor (vodka and whiskey are great choices) will cost less than a full bar, or you could offer beer, wine, and a single signature cocktail and allow guests to buy drinks outside of those categories.

You could also choose to have an open bar during cocktail hour, then switch to wine and beer only for dinner and dancing. If the cost is still too steep, try to host at least part of the evening, then switch to a cash bar later on. If your guests want a third or fourth drink, they’ll be more willing to take out some cash if their first and second drinks were on the house.

Do We Have to Serve Champagne?

Nothing says “celebration” like popping a bottle of champagne, but how often do you have more than a few sips after a toast? With so few people actually drinking a whole glass of champagne, springing for bubbly for your entire guest list might seem silly.

If you like the tradition, ask your catering staff to pour only a small amount in each glass for toasts. It's enough to raise a glass and take a sip, but not so much that you’re flushing money down the toilet as half-full glasses are poured out at the end of the night.

Don’t care what people toast with? You can easily skip the champagne and your guests can simply toast with whatever they’re drinking, whether it’s a whiskey and Coke or a glass of chardonnay.

If you’re hoping to have some bubbly behind the bar but are worried you’ll be left with a half-full bottle that simply doesn’t keep, skip true French champagne in favor of cava or prosecco (or other trendy sparkling beverages). You’ll get those bubbles at a much lower cost.

Do We Need to Serve a Signature Drink?

When couples start thinking about ways to personalize their wedding, a signature drink with a cute name is often at the top of the list. It might be a specialty concoction created just for the occasion, or it could be each of your favorite bar orders, giving guests a peek into your personalities. Signature drinks are fun, and guests usually love them, but they’re definitely not required. If you’re not cocktail people, you could each pick your favorite wine or beer to serve as your beverage of choice. Not interested in procuring separate mixers or signage? Skip it – your guests won’t even notice.

How Many Bartenders Do We Need?

There’s nothing worse than having to wait in line at the bar, especially at a wedding. To avoid making your guests stand around – and keeping them off the dance floor – make sure you’ve got one bar and two bartenders for every 100 guests. If you’ll need more than one bar, try to put them on opposite sides of the room to avoid congestion. And if you’re worried that there will be a line, it’s best to err on the side of caution and hire an extra bartender. Super-speedy service is always appreciated!

We Don’t Drink. Do We Have to Serve Alcohol at All?

If you and your partner don’t drink but your friends and family do (and you’re not opposed to alcohol), it’s nice to have a little bit of booze available, even if it’s just beer and wine.

If you feel strongly about not having any alcohol available at all, you can definitely skip it. But don’t let guests go thirsty! Talk to your caterer about creating a bar of non-alcoholic beverages, such as specialty sodas, flavored waters, or exotic juice blends. If you love tea, coffee, or hot cocoa, a bar with different varieties, syrups, milks, and toppings is an interactive and fun alternative.

Most of your guests already know the two of you don’t drink and will therefore be prepared if they arrive at your reception and don’t see a bottle of wine in sight.

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