Picking Up The Tab: Wedding Reception Bar Ideas & Basics

Michelle WagnerCatering, TrendsLeave a Comment

wedding bar ideas
Planning your wedding reception can be stressful, especially when you start checking off your “to do list” and see the impact it can have on your wallet. From decorations and menu items to entertainment and party favors, the cost of planning the wedding reception of your dreams can literally leave your head spinning.

But sticking to a budget, coupled with careful planning, can ensure that you can have the reception you want without breaking the bank. Deciding on how you will handle the bar tab is one of the biggest decisions you may make during the planning process. That’s because it not only has a significant impact on your wallet, but it also impacts your guests. There are several options to consider when choosing the right bar offerings for your wedding. But rest assured there are creative wedding bar ideas that will leave you and your guests happy during what is sure to be the best party of your life.

signature wedding drinks

While your guests may love an open bar, it can cost couples an average of $2,800, or $16.50 per guest, according to recent statistics. For many, that’s just not financially feasible. If it fits your budget, then cheers! If not, consider some of these alternatives. For instance, something like an on-site, traveling caravan bar. And don’t forget that online alcohol calculators and wedding planners can help when it comes to estimating how many bottles you’ll need to purchase so you cut down on unnecessary expenses.

Whatever option you go with, paying careful attention to the bar tab can ensure that your reception will go off without a hitch and will be an event to remember for years to come.

The Best Bar for Your Budget – Wedding Bar Ideas 2018:

Open Bar

An open bar is a very generous offering but can end up being quite costly. Be prepared. It allows guests to order any drink available and as many as they want. While it may be popular among guests and caterers, one shortcoming is that it promotes a lot of waste as guests sample drinks they normally would not order – or they lose track of the drinks they have knowing that they can just order another one. With an open bar, there is no telling what the tab will be when the reception ends, so if you are comfortable with that, let the party begin and the drinks flow. But keep in mind that an open bar can easily account for 10 to 20 percent of your reception expense.

One way to still have an open bar but save on expense is to offer a set selection of drinks – such as just wine and beer. Or you can consider offering only one signature mixed drink. Couples also have the option of setting time limits on when the bar is open, which can go a long way in helping you stay within your budget. Hiring waiters to bring drinks around or limiting serving times around a specific cocktail hour before dinner can also help to keep the budget manageable.

TIP: Don’t serve drinks in large glasses. Smaller portions usually mean less consumption. As a general rule, people tend to count the number of trips they make to the bar, not the ounces consumed. So with smaller glassware, your guests will be happy while you save on your bar bill.

wedding bar ideas


If you are going with a Do-It-Yourself bar, the general rule of thumb for every 100 guests is: five to six cases of beer, three and a half cases of white wine, two cases of red wine and a case and a half of champagne. As for liquors, consider one liter of bourbon, whiskey, and tequila; six liters of vodka and two liters of scotch and rum. Of course, don’t forget the mixers as well. The benefit of a DIY bar, such as a brunch-time Bloody Mary and Mimosa Bar, is that you can buy the ingredients in bulk – which obviously saves on the bill.

Cash Bar

One option to consider is a cash bar, which is a less popular choice for guests but can save the wedding couple a lot of money. While it’s not typically good etiquette to have a strictly cash bar, sometimes there just isn’t a choice.

TIP: Start the party early. By simply switching your wedding and reception to earlier in the day, you can reduce alcohol consumption and spending greatly. Brunch weddings are becoming more popular, not only for the menu variety but also because they allow you to serve less expensive cocktails.

Bring Your Own

One way to pare down your bar bill is to find a venue where catering and alcohol are not bundled in with your contract so you can provide your own alcohol or use an outside source. This arrangement will give you the opportunity to offer your guests favorite local beverages from the Outer Banks’ many unique breweries and wineries. Many of these places offer discounts when buying in bulk, so be sure to shop around.

Skip the Bar

Of course, if your families do not drink alcohol, there is the option of skipping the bar altogether. Regardless of how you decide to serve alcohol, fun, nonalcoholic drinks should be available for the under-21 crowd, designated drivers, and other guests who do not drink.

wedding bar ideasCocktail Hour and Signature Drinks

Some couples choose to limit the cocktail hour to 45 minutes rather than the entire reception. Wedding experts estimate that most of the drinks at a wedding are consumed in the first two hours, so limiting the cocktail hour is one way to trim your budget. Also, couples often find that guests switch to wine with dinner, leaving the more expensive mixed drinks behind. Always consider using bar brands instead of top shelf liquor and don’t rule out batch cocktails such as punch to cut down on costs.

If you have a large number of beer drinkers on your guest list, consider the cheaper option of kegs rather than bottles. Kegs can be hidden discreetly behind the bar.

TIP: If you are serving cocktails, plan your menu based on the season. Having a winter wedding? Manhattans and martinis are a must. Serve up Shandies and Pimm’s Cups in the summer or gin and tonics for spring weddings. If your guest list is small enough, you could survey your friends and family to find out what their favorite drinks are and offer a small selection of those.

Follow the Rules

Professional caterers and restaurants hosting weddings need to have a permit to sell and/or serve alcohol at your wedding, but it is up to you to make sure that part of the process has been legally covered. Some reception sites require that you purchase your own permit to serve alcohol at their venue; other venues will automatically take care of the permit and pass that expense on to you. If you are providing your own alcohol and purchasing large quantities at an ABC store, the ABC store will issue a purchase/transportation permit at no charge that allows you to purchase and transport the larger amounts of liquor from the store to your site. To acquire a permit or obtain more information, call the state ABC Commission at 919.779.0700.

Liability Insurance?

If you are concerned about guests having too much to drink and getting into an accident, consider adding a liquor liability endorsement to your wedding insurance policy. You can also arrange for safe transportation back home by providing a fleet of cabs, a limousine service, or a shuttle like OBX Wedding Trolley, “Stella.”

There are a lot of wedding bar ideas to consider when developing a plan for the bar at your wedding reception. Careful planning and consideration of your wants and your guests is the key to making this part of the party a piece of cake when your wedding reception begins.

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