Open Bar or Nah?
Sure, weddings are cheery celebrations of undying love and steadfast commitment. But they’re also parades of unpleasant budgetary decisions that constantly force you to ask, should I splurge on this or save on that? It’s stressful and it sucks. For that very valid reason, we completely understand the temptation of a cash bar. After all, booze can be a hefty line item on your wedding budget—according to Bridal Guide magazine, an open bar could cost up to 20 percent of your overall wedding budget. But not if your guests foot the bill for their own drinks! And without free-flowing alcohol, there won’t be any embarrassing drunk uncle incidents! Everybody wins, right?
Here’s the problem: Of the four wedding experts we interviewed for this story, no one would recommend a cash bar. Not a single one. When pressed for reasons, they offered words including “tacky,” “challenging,” “out of vogue,” and “more important than wedding cake.” Oof. There’s also the fact we live in a largely cash-less society these days—it’s arguably unreasonable to ask guests to bring $50 in small bills to your intimidate shindig in the backwoods of Vermont.
But! Our experts have plenty of tips and tricks that’ll save you from having to make that tough call in the first place.
Tip #1: Nix the hard stuff
“No one is going to complain about having only beer and wine at a wedding, but they will complain about no alcohol,” said Nicole Sheppard, who runs the wedding planning outfit All Who Wander. Cutting down on pricey hard liquor will save you a boatload, she explained. Sure, it means no signature cocktails, but everyone will be happy so long as there’s alcohol of some kind on offer. And we have a feeling Wild Turkey-only Grandpa Tom will be juuust fine.
Tip #2: Opt for a daytime affair
Unless your wedding is anchored by a bottomless mimosa bar, people are likely to drink much less during daylight hours than at a Saturday night wedding. You can plan accordingly with a scaled back liquor order.
“At a summer brunch wedding, they may be happy with white wine, rosé, a little bit of bubbles, and beer,” said Rebecca Shenkman, owner of the NYC-based wedding planning service Pink Bowtie Events. “Throw in a bloody Mary and Aperol spritz, and you’re pretty good.”
Tip #3: Get booze from a store with a buy-back policy
First, check if your venue allows you to bring in your own alcohol. If it does, find a liquor store that’ll let you return whatever you don’t drink. It can potentially save you hundreds of dollars.
“You’re buying what you think is an appropriate amount, but you have no idea,” said Sheppard. That’s because even a seasoned wedding professional won’t know, for instance, that your high school friends are really into Manhattans right now and will completely deplete the bar’s stash of sweet vermouth, or that your parent’s friends only drink Corona light.
At a recent wedding, “we bought a ton of alcohol—more than we needed—because knew the liquor store would buy it back,” Sheppard said. It was a smart move: “People were going through Aperol spritzes like it was their job. Seventy-five percent of the guests drank them, and we wouldn’t have been prepared if we’d bought what we thought we needed based on industry standards.” The stuff she’d originally guessed people would go for—beer, wine, and other liquors—went back to the store.
Tip #4: Serve pricey liquor at the end
Having top-shelf liquor available all night long can become nightmarishly expensive. Instead “have a cognac at the end,” suggests Adam Howard, the corporate chef of catering at Mike Isabella Concepts in Washington, D.C. You can even make it the focus of a nightcap station alongside other after-dinner drinks and maybe a few cigars.
Tip #5: Set places with one wine glass
Convention dictates that place settings include two wine glasses—one for red, and one for white. But empty wine glasses are meant to be filled, and that’s bad news for your budget.
“If you’re trying to limit cost, put one white glass at a table instead of both white and red,” suggested David Mawhinney, the chef at NYC-based catering company and event space Haven’s Kitchen. People who want to drink more will—they can always ask—but this lessens the likelihood of double fisting.
Final takeaway: As far as American wedding conventions go, the cash bar is likely gone for good. Let’s all pour one out for it.