Whether or not the guests are big drinkers, virtually all wedding receptions have a bar of some type. But when you’re planning a wedding, the options can feel overwhelming. Open bar or cash bar? Do you opt for a drink package, or pay by consumption? And what about signature cocktails? To break down the many bar options available, we spoke with expert Stacy Snyder.
Meet the Expert
Stacy Snyder is the former Special Events Operations Manager at the NoMad Hotel and is currently the Director of Development for the Make it Nice restaurant group, as well as a freelance wedding planner.
“Broadly speaking, an open bar is a setup where guests don’t pay for any of their drinks,” says Snyder. That is, the hosts foot the full bill. “Guests can walk up to the bar and order whatever they have—whether that’s a full selection or more limited.” The term “open bar” can encompass quite a lot, she notes. “If the wedding is in a hotel or restaurant, an establishment that has a bar in there already, your options are likely to be a lot broader. If it’s an outdoor wedding, or what’s called a ‘white box’—where you bring everything in yourself—you might be a bit more limited, depending on your catering company.”
There are two main ways that open bars are priced, notes Snyder:
- Bar packages
- Pricing by consumption
“As a planner, I talk to the bride and groom about knowing their own family and friends, and the kind of event they want, to determine the best option for them.” Pricing by consumption means that the hosts are paying for the number of drinks ordered; the more the guests drink, the higher the tab will be. “This is a good option if most of your crowd aren’t big drinkers,” says Snyder, “At the end of the night, the catering team will tally up the drinks consumed.”
Bar packages, on the other hand, will charge a fixed price per guest (or per adult guest). “They’re a good option if your group likes to drink if you’re having a long cocktail reception—or, overall, a livelier party,” says Snyder. If most adults aren’t drinking, it doesn’t make sense to pay per head; but if they are, a bar package is often the better deal. Importantly, the hosts also know the cost upfront. “There aren’t any surprises at the end.”
Open bars generally include spirits, as well as beer and wine; many catering companies will have different tiers of service and price them accordingly. “You’ll often see a basic, or ‘well’ option; then a premium option, and a super-premium option for spirits,” says Snyder. “It all goes back to what the budget is, and what makes sense for your crowd.”
“Signature cocktails are such a trend in weddings these days,” notes Snyder. How do they fit in with your overall bar service? Some wedding couples serve signature cocktails as part of a full open liquor bar; others opt for wine, beer, and specialty cocktail only, which can simplify the bar’s workflow and keep your prices under control. “There are two kinds of specialty cocktails people can think about,” says Snyder. “One is a classic cocktail that has meaning for the couple. If they went on vacation in Cuba, it might be a daiquiri; if the bride likes whiskey, it might be a Manhattan.”
“Where it can get more premium is if you want a mixologist to design a signature cocktail just for the event,” says Snyder, “coming up with a bespoke drink based on certain flavors or spirits.” Working with a mixologist to create such a drink (or multiple drinks) will generally come at an additional cost.
Beer and Wine
“A bar that just serves beer and wine is a great option for people who want to have some sort of alcohol available at the wedding, but don’t see themselves as cocktail-focused,” says Snyder. “It’s also a great option for daytime or lunchtime weddings.” Opting to serve only beer and wine will usually save the hosts a substantial amount of money. “It’s a good way to add value if you’re making budgetary decisions,” says Snyder.
But there are plenty of ways to make a beer and wine bar sophisticated, of course. “You can go crazy with some of the wine if that’s your vibe. Especially at an intimate event, a wine pairing dinner could be a really elegant option. I’ve seen remarkable weddings that are beer and wine only, where the spirits really haven’t been missed.”
Of course, some wedding couples choose to forgo alcohol altogether—whether for religious or cultural reasons or just because of the atmosphere they want to create. Serving only non-alcoholic drinks will result in significant savings. Some hosts, while choosing not to serve alcohol, might allow guests the option to drink. “I’ve seen a casual wedding weekend where non-alcoholic sparkling cider was available for toasts, but guests were allowed to bring their own alcohol if they wanted,” says Snyder.
At a cash bar, guests pay for their own drinks, just as they would at a bar or restaurant. Having a cash bar can save the hosts a great deal of money, of course, but does set a different tone for the event, and puts a number of additional burdens on the guest—not just paying for what they drink, but starting a tab, tipping, or having to close out a credit card, all of which can add up to long lines and slower service. “In my experience, cash bars make the most sense when the majority of people at the wedding aren’t drinking, but there might be a few who will want a drink,” says Snyder. “That way, the option is available to them, but it’s not a focal point of the celebration.”
Hosts should keep in mind that at some venues, even if guests pay for the drinks themselves, they might shoulder a fee to staff the bar onsite; it all depends on the location.
Relative pricing for wedding bars is pretty intuitive; the more options you give guests, and the more premium those options, the more you’ll pay. And dollar figures are all over the map. A small-town venue is likely to charge much less than a Manhattan hotel, even if the bar packages are quite similar. “If you’re looking at a venue with a bar or restaurant, go in for a drink one night,” suggests Snyder. “Not making a big deal out of it—just getting a sense of the venue’s prices.” If a hotel bar charges $22 for a martini, that’s a good indication that a bar package won’t be cheap.
“In general, alcohol is approximately 20% of a wedding budget,” Snyder offers as a rule of thumb. But that, too, can vary widely. As with so much of wedding planning, it’s all about choosing what matters most to the couple. In the end, pricing is only one factor in determining the best bar for your wedding—for the guests, for the party, and for the wedding couple themselves.