The Open Bar Conundrum

This past week, Miss Powder Puff and I had the pleasure of meeting a number of you through the wonders of BeeTV! One topic that came up was the eternal bridal issue of the open bar. (Dun, dun, dunnnn.)

Alcohol in general can be a touchy subject for many brides throughout the wedding process. Some brides have families that are vehemently against alcohol period, while others may demand it. Of all the decisions that are often harshly criticized by those around us, alcohol can sometimes be the most closely scrutinized. For brides who can afford to offer alcohol at their wedding, the decision can be fraught with stress, especially if you have one or more guests that you know have an alcohol problem. For some weddings, the vast majority of guests do not drink alcohol at all for reasons of faith or culture, which definitely avoids the problems that offering alcohol can cause. In my case, many of our guests DO drink, and I definitely want to have one, MAYBE two glasses of champagne, tops. As Miss Powder Puff wisely pointed out – nobody wants to see a drunky bride. No bueno. (although you are free to disagree, of course!!)

Some brides would like to offer a selection of “drinks” at their reception, but are on the tightest of budgets, and the idea of a cash bar strikes their fancy. Often these brides get the monster smackdown from other brides-in-planning. (Do NOT bring up the cash bar on The Knot Message Boards – especially the Planning & Etiquette board – if you want to escape with your life.) For me – and this is just my opinion – I have no problem with a cash bar. I understand that many brides are on a budget, especially in a difficult economy. In no way do I see a cash bar as a slight. I see it as… the bride and groom are on a budget, and they’d rather offer a way to have a beer or a glass of wine, rather than nothing at all. The whole point of a wedding is to celebrate the creation of a new family, and that should be my focus, not an opportunity to criticize their party-throwing skills. That is just my take though!

In the end, you are the only one who knows your guest list the best. You know whether your crowd would appreciate a glass of wine or a cocktail at your celebration, or whether they would prefer a “dry” reception. It’s easy to get caught up in other people’s judgments of how you should plan your wedding, but take other’s opinions with a grain of salt. Someone who opines from a wedding article in a magazine or on a wedding message board is not your friend, and they see your wedding from a purely technical point of view. Your wedding guests (hopefully) love you and attend your wedding with that viewpoint. They are not going to go crazy because you are offering a cash bar or pull out their Emily Post reference guide. Remember that when you are reading the umpteenth article or message board post on the evils of the cash bar.

On the flip side, an open bar can provide its own set of problems, most obviously intake management. For me, Mr. Dragon and I are offering an open bar – with safeguards in place (hopefully some of you will find these tips helpful!)

  • The super-vast majority of our guests are responsible drinkers (we are 30, most people “settle down” on the drinking by that age.) However, when we go in for our final venue meeting, we are going to talk to our onsite coordinator about keeping people from getting sloppy – just in case. We plan to let her know that we FULLY support our bartender in cutting people off who are drinking too much. We are also going to tell her that displaying the standard sign that reads “We reserve the right to deny service” is absolutely ok by us, and we will back up the bartender if he elects to act on that policy.
  • We are setting up a soda station separate from the bar, so that my 12-year-old brother isn’t going to the bar to get a Coke!!!
  • Although we selected our hotel venue in an effort to make our out-of-town guests more comfy, an added bonus is that our guests that intend to drink more than a glass or two can get a hotel room. No driving required! (Thankfully, Chicago is super cab-friendly, too.)
  • Another tip I would offer  – and of course you have to play this strategy close to the vest to avoid hurt feelings – is to notify your bartender if “Uncle Sal” is an irresponsible drinker. Then your bartender can especially monitor the problem child’s intake to avoid any embarassing incidents. Although you may feel funny pointing one particular guest out – it’s better than the alternative; and there is no need for that guest to know he was especially brought to the bartender’s attention.

So this was a long blog post – but alcohol at weddings is a touchy subject, with many permutations. Cash bar, wine/beer bar, open bar, etc. etc. My take is… do what works for you and your crowd; be responsible; and don’t let other people make you crazy about it. Anyone have any other helpful tips for navigating this rocky road??


Mrs. Snapdragon

Wedding Date:
March 2012
Wedding Gifts on the Cheap
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  1. Member
    Sparkles 706 posts, Busy bee @ 3:27 pm

    My venue relies on their approved ‘caterer list’ for certain things. a) the caterers on the list are not permitted to serve hard liquor. If it is requested to be served by the hosting group, the hosting group must choose a caterer that has it’s own liquor license which the venue does not provide (outside of serving wine). b) The caterer we chose, has told us they keep track of how much our guests drink and tend to politely cap serving drinks to guests who may appear to be ‘out-of-hand’. c) we are getting married where there isn’t easy access to public transportation. So my fi & I were going to have carpooling as an option among guests. We were going to request people show up at our hotel, and depart together via loaner cars or in the bridal limo/bus. (our venue is a little difficult to get to anyways, so we thought a little caravan might help prevent people getting lost)
    To be honest though, we are only planning on serving wine and Spanish champagne. No hard liquor. (*it is pricey!*)

  2. powderpuff Member
    powderpuff 882 posts, Busy bee @ 3:54 pm

    Good tips Snappy! I may mention the “right to refuse” to our caterer, since some of Mr. Powder Puff friends can tend to get a little crazy. 😉

  3. Guest Icon Guest
    Julie, Guest @ 4:01 pm

    Almost all of our guests stayed overnight in our hotel, which made it a lot easier to not have to worry if our guests took full advantage of the open bar. We only had one person who tends to drink too much and then drive (which really sickens me — before I met my husband, I had dated a guy for 4 years who was killed by a drunk driver) and he was one of the few who wasn’t staying over, because he refused to leave his dog at home alone. So, I had no problem going straight to the people who can control him — his daughters (all in their 40s). One of them agreed to be his designated driver and, at the end of the night, took his keys (by this point, he was having such a great time that he gave them up with only minimal resistance) and drove her parents home, and then the next morning drove them back to the hotel so they could come to our morning-after brunch and get his car.

  4. Guest Icon Guest
    D, Guest @ 4:04 pm

    While I do agree that liquor is pricey, and I do not look down on brides who choose to have a cash bar at their reception, I will be having an open bar.

    Quite honestly, too many people in my family would be upset if we didn’t have an open bar and *they* would see it as tacky. My relatives see weddings as a time to party, drink a little, and have a good time, as well as spend time with their loved ones, and they would feel slighted if there were no open bar. To be quite honest (and to also show how sheltered I’ve been,) until my first out-of-state wedding two months ago, I had no idea that an open bar wasn’t customary for everyone. 😀 In my area (NJ & NY) it’s pretty customary to have an open bar.

  5. mssnapdragon Member
    mssnapdragon 267 posts, Helper bee @ 4:11 pm

    @D: Oh yeah, I totally get where you are coming from, and my situation is lucky enough that we are able to have an open bar. I just get sad when I see cash bar brides getting bashed – often the cash bar is out of budget concerns, rather than scrooge-iness! And as someone who likes to have a couple drinks as a wedding guest, I would much prefer the option to buy my own $5 drink, rather than the alternative of nothing at all.

  6. Guest Icon Guest
    kathy, Guest @ 4:28 pm

    In Ireland and the UK, it is standard to have a cash bar – my Irish sister-in-law was shocked at the idea of open bar, and said that Irish weddings are such booze-fests, no one would ever have an open bar b/c it would cost a fortune! Interesting!

  7. Guest Icon Guest
    SmallTownBride, Guest @ 5:32 pm

    We will be having a limited open bar. We will have plenty of beer (I’m a Texas Girl, we like our Beer), several wines, and then we plan on having a very limited selection of hard liquor and mixers with a friend bartending (our venue has a liquor license and no limits on caterers, etc)… I’m sure plenty of guests will imbibe beyond their limits, but its not really something I think will be a problem.

  8. Guest Icon Guest
    anon, Guest @ 5:32 pm

    @Miss Snapdragon: “And as someone who likes to have a couple drinks as a wedding guest, I would much prefer the option to buy my own $5 drink, rather than the alternative of nothing at all.”

    Right, but if you’re in an area where open bars are customary and cash-bars not common….you might not even bring money, so you’d still end up not being able to buy a drink and just watching those around you purchase drinks.
    Personally, as a guest I’d rather a bride have beer & wine only, or no-alcohol than a cash bar if they’re trying to save money because I’d feel very awkward to show up at a wedding without cash since cash-bars are not something I’m used to, and realize that I should have and feel that it was expected that I would have brought cash.

  9. Guest Icon Guest
    kelly, Guest @ 6:17 pm

    I was just actually thinking the same thing as anon. I don’t bring very much to weddings, maybe just my ID and a debit/credit card, so I wouldn’t know to bring cash. I think that’s just because open bars happen to be pretty common in my family and in my area. I think they are a great option for some, but I’d definitely go the beer/wine only route first before making it a cash bar. But that’s just me. Therein lies the beauty of it all- we each get our own weddings to do what we like (or, what out M’s IL like!)

    How do you go about letting your guests know that it is an open bar? Does that go on the invite?

  10. Guest Icon Guest
    jennifer, Guest @ 8:26 pm

    I feel that you plan your wedding around your budget. You would never ask your guest to pay for a sit dow meal because your budget didn’t allow, you would just plan an afternoon wedding or cocktail party. Your guests are exactly that, your guests, and should never be asked to pay there way.

  11. Guest Icon Guest
    jennifer, Guest @ 8:27 pm

    their way

  12. mssnapdragon Member
    mssnapdragon 267 posts, Helper bee @ 8:28 pm

    @anon: @kelly: I have been to a cash bar wedding, and that was what changed my mind about cash bars in general (to find them acceptable.) Chicago is pro-open bars, as well. My friend simply included on the invite “Dinner and dancing to follow. Cash bar.” Easy peasy, and now everyone knows. I don’t think most brides would spring a cash bar on anyone without properly communicating (one would hope!)

  13. Guest Icon Guest
    D, Guest @ 8:31 pm

    @Miss Snapdragon: I do agree with your friend — I think if you’re going to have a cash bar, you should mention it on the invite. It’s courteous and so easy…that way guests can’t be caught off guard 😀

  14. Guest Icon Guest
    Margaux, Guest @ 8:34 pm

    We’ve traveled to weddings where there was a cash bar…and no ATM on-site. A cab ride, exorbitant ATM fees, and 30 minutes later, we were able finally quench our thirst. At our venue (with a consumption bar), there’s not much of a price difference between open bar vs beer/wine only…that being said, my fiance and I are having people (about 90% of the guest list) travel from across the country (and a few other countries) to come to our wedding, so I feel like it would be shoddy to have them plan their vacations and budgets around our big day…only to have them pay for their own drinks. We’re working with a modest budget but a smaller guest list of 150 people.

  15. Member
    ES123 1020 posts, Bumble bee @ 8:46 pm

    Those drinks look delicious…good thing you posted this on a Friday night! Can you tell I’m having an open bar? :)

  16. Guest Icon Guest
    Linzerella, Guest @ 9:50 pm

    Ugh … the open bar. I got married two months ago and no other issue was as ugly or as divisive to deal with. I live in an area where “toonie” bars are common, but ot married in an area of Canada where open bars are common. It was such a sh*t show deciding what to do.

    In the end, because we only had 65 guests, we opted for an open bar and decided to swallow the cost. It came in slightly higher than I anticipated… althgough I’m still annoyed many of our friends double fisted at the wedding because they knew the drinks were free, or as soon as they got a drink would go back in line. Don’t people realize who was footing the bill?! Ugh. Yuck!

  17. taffy Member
    taffy 3081 posts, Sugar bee @ 10:24 pm

    We are planning on an open bar, but are extremely worried because our venue charges per drink (!!!) instead of a flat per person rate. We won’t have any idea how much our bill is until the end of the wedding!!! It has been really stressful for me, because I don’t have a hard number to work with in our budget. Also, I worry about people losing their drinks and just ordering more because they think it’s all inclusive. I am surprised that I haven’t had nightmares about it!!!!
    We priced out doing just beer & wine, but it works out to the same per drink price as liquor. It’s a nightmare, we could end up paying 12,000 for drinks! We have no idea what to expect.

  18. Guest Icon Guest
    Angela, Guest @ 10:38 pm

    We had a cash bar. The area I’m from it’s very common to have cash bars. We had a teeny budget and our wedding was planned pretty quickly. Any wedding I’ve been to has been a cash bar as well. It would be nice if we could’ve afforded to have an open bar but it just wasn’t an option. We had a super casual wedding and I honestly didn’t see it as much different than a BYOB get together. If people had a problem with it I don’t really care. No one seemed to have a problem. But it’s our wedding, yes we want to celebrate with them but I didn’t feel we needed to go into debt to throw a huge “party”

  19. Guest Icon Guest
    laura, Guest @ 10:43 pm

    At my sister’s wedding we did do an open bar. Which where we are, it is common to have an open bar or no alcohol at all. Not so much with the cash bar. I am of the opinion it is tacky. You would never ask a guest to please pay for their dinner if you couldn’t afford it. Most would just serve appetizers instead of full dinner.

    But I digress from my point. At the open bar, there were a few problems. 1) We planned for 300 people and yet the caterer still ran out of liquor which meant that a family friend had to do a liquor run in the middle of the wedding reception. But it was ok everyone was having a great time and no one even noticed that. 2) A few did get sloppy drunk. There were a few that jumped in the pool fully dressed and the pool did have floating candles in it. And there were a few that had to get rides home.

    But overall it was exactly what my sister and family wanted. It was a great party. The pictures were hysterical, everyone had a great time, and the reception started at 8, the bride and groom left at midnight, and people were still partying it up at 1:30.

  20. Guest Icon Guest
    kelly, Guest @ 10:46 pm

    Linzerella, that sounds awful! Like a college party… I’d be mortified, as it sounds you are!

    My venue charges a flat fee per person, and we have some control over what is available, so that helps. My dad already told the venue they’d likely be losing money on our crew… I come from a very large, very Irish family….eek! They’ll all behave though. I am glad to know about the bartender warnings, Ms. Snapdragon– I def. have one aunt who I’d be worried about…

  21. Member
    Kakita 31 posts, Newbee @ 2:02 am

    I’m a Canadian living in Scotland and planning an African-Scottish affair. A lot of my friends and family from Canada (Montreal) expect an open bar and it would be nice, but honestly, we can’t afford the amount of alcohol that would satisfy both Africans and Scottish folks! We are taking our venues largest drinks package but nixed the open bar. Like Kathy mentioned, open bars aren’t done in the UK (thank god) and if I were having my wedding in Montreal, I would feel really sick paying through the nose for people to get drunk. I understand people want to have fun and get their drink on, but personally, I find it offensive when people say cash bars are tacky. If you offer your guests something in the way of beverages, that should be good enough. I don’t expect people to cover their meals with cash and in fact, I don’t expect gifts at all since the majority of people will be flying into Scotland from all over the world. If anyone had a problem with the fact that I wasn’t offering hard liquor on top of the champagne and wine I am offering, shame on me because I shouldn’t have invited them in the first place. I think that it’s tacky that people now have an expectation of opulence and decadence at an occasion that is supposed to be about love and the joining of families.

    That’s all to say that receptions have really gotten away from people. It’s not about high centrepieces with Swarovski crystals, seat covers that match the napkins, professional entertainment during the night and open bars. Everyone is just topping everyone else and people who can’t afford certain things go into debt to keep up with the Joneses. It’s insanity. I’m not a princess in my real life, so I’m not under the illusion that I should have to act like one for a day. I say, if you can offer your guests something to drink with their dinner, but can’t afford for them to get smashed off their faces and you get a cash bar, more power to you for keeping it real.

  22. Guest Icon Guest
    Melissa B., Guest @ 10:56 am

    Definition question: do you have to serve all types of alcohol, including hard liquor, for it to be considered an “open bar”?

    My fiance and I picked a venue where the alcohol is BYO, which is fantastic for us because we’re wine nerds and we really wanted to pick out our own wines. Our plan is to do a beer and wine bar, maybe with the addition of 1 or 2 cocktails (G&Ts and rum & coke are popular among our families). I thought that was still an “open bar” because we’re not asking guests to pay for anything, but we’re definitely not going to be serving the whole range of hard liquor. If that’s not an open bar, what should we call it?

  23. Member
    marquettemonv15 183 posts, Blushing bee @ 11:26 am

    @Miss Taffy: You could always offer just “rail” liquor as part of the open bar package, and therefore limit excessive, much more costly, top-shelf drinking. A rail vodka drink is going to cost much less than one made with Belvedere :) I’ve been a bartender at several events and some guests “upgrade” their drinks b/c it’s “free.” Some bartenders even encourage it b/c it increases the tab faster, and therefore increases their tip.

  24. Member
    caribqueen 170 posts, Blushing bee @ 11:41 am

    I think what is at issue here is the idea of being a host and what constitutes being a gracious host. As has been said here and on other sites, that can vary by region, culture, budget as well as your social group. What is acceptable among one group may not be acceptable among others. Also I think we need to remember that a reception (much less a sit down one) is not mandatory (yes, I did just write that). Witnessing our unions with our partner should be the crux of what our weddings are about. By choosing to have reception, we are choosing to be hosts and we should provide the most that we can within reason to allow our guests to enjoy themselves. For some it’s going to mean an open bar and for others perhaps not.

    In my opinion, as has been said before, I would prefer beer and wine or no alcholol. Based on my idea of serving as a hostess I think those options or an open bar will make people the most comfortable. In other words as the hosts WE have the power to shape what our guests’ options are. You know your guests better than I do, and you know how you can best make them feel comfortable.

    I take issue with the idea that anyone would imply that some people are more grounded hosts solely because they are not having an open bar versus others. That’s simply not the case and an overstatement at best. I live in an area of the country where open bars are almost always common unless you are renting a raw space. Those are my options. I’m barely having any of the bells and whistles included in most weddings, and I can assure you I and others know what the emphasis of the wedding should be.

  25. Member
    caribqueen 170 posts, Blushing bee @ 11:58 am

    Also when I meant common in my area, I meant that it is hard to find a venue that does NOT provide an open bar.

  26. Member
    Blaze 27 posts, Newbee @ 12:51 pm

    @Kakita: Hear Hear! This exactly.

    I plan on purchasing several bottles of wine (and by several I mean several cases, we have a huge wedding) and calling it good (FH hates champagne). I don’t see it as my responsibility to provide people with enough booze for them to get drunk, just to provide drinks for dinner and to give those who choose to imbibe, that warm fuzzy feeling.

  27. Guest Icon Guest
    kelly, Guest @ 1:10 pm

    My friend simply included on the invite “Dinner and dancing to follow. Cash bar.” Easy peasy, and now everyone knows. I don’t think most brides would spring a cash bar on anyone without properly communicating (one would hope!)

    That does make it clear, that’s all I’d need! I have to agree that guests, and alternatively brides/families, feel the right/obligation to be swept away with some fantastic affair. While I want to entertain and have a smashing party, I am not a Princess (ever! not even on a wedding day!!!), and I don’t have endless coffers. I salute the brides who do and who want to provide the Ritz Carlton affair on my Motel 6 budget– it IS a nice treat for guests to be pampered a little but it should NOT be expected.

  28. Guest Icon Guest
    anon, Guest @ 1:54 pm

    @Melissa B.: It is my understanding that an open bar would include hard liquor, which is why I find it a bit confusing that some posts here seem to imply that the options are open bar or cash bar with no option in between. If you’re just having beer and wine then I think you can call it “Beer and Wine service” or something to that effect.

    @Anonymous: I don’t think anyone(well, most people?) have a problem with just providing wine. I think that’s completely different then expecting your guests to pay for their drinks.

    I don’t understand some of these posts that seem to imply that people who don’t think having a cash bar is a good idea, demand/expect an open bar. Just because I think that it would be rude for me as a hostess to expect guests to pay for drinks(I wouldn’t invite people to my house and expect them to pay for drinks), doesn’t mean I think every wedding needs to have an open bar. If you’re budget can’t fit it, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just having beer & wine, or a signature drink or two, or no alcohol at all.

  29. Guest Icon Guest
    MRS. SKI, Guest @ 2:46 pm

    At our wedding at a resort hotel in February, we are hosting an open bar cocktail hour an hour before the wedding (my honey is Jewish and apparently this is pretty common at Jewish weddings). For the reception, we are doing beer and wine only. This struck us as a good balance between offering alcohol and fitting our budget. Since I am pregnant, I have had a lot of relatives express surprise we are even having alcohol at all but just because I am not imbibing doesn’t mean everyone else can’t have any!

  30. Guest Icon Guest
    vicki, Guest @ 4:40 pm

    I went to a wedding a few years back that had an open bar during the cocktail hour and then it switched over to a cash bar for the dinner and dancing part. I thought that was such a great idea because those who wanted to “party” could and the bride and groom only had to pay for an hour of open bar.
    We on the other hand have one side of the family who are drinkers and the other who will not drink even at the toast… but the venue requires us to pay per person regardless. So we are giving away alot of money.

  31. Guest Icon Guest
    Nicole, Guest @ 4:57 pm

    I’ve been to a wedding where it was open bar for a couple hours and the rest was cash bar, which was great!

  32. Guest Icon Guest
    S, Guest @ 11:04 pm

    I wanted an open bar, my future husband did not. We eventually compromised – we’ll do wine during the meal and each guest will get 2 drink tickets to use at the bar. If our guests want to drink more than that, it will be a cash bar. We’re doing a brunch reception, so hopefully that will be enough alcohol at that time of the day, and this way we have an idea of what our maximum bar tab will look like. Plus, making the tickets has turned in to a fun DIY project!

  33. Guest Icon Guest
    Jill, Guest @ 4:12 am

    My family is catholic and his is Baptist. His parents decided against any alcohol at the rehearsal dinner. We had it at a hotel and it worked out for us b/c the guests who wanted to drink just went to the hotel bar. That way his parents didn’t have to buy it and everyone who wanted to drink still could.
    At the reception we were prohibited from selling liquor. So instead of shelling out for liquor, we bought beer and made 5 batches of a vodka based punch. It was a hit although we should have made more… it ran out about halfway through.

  34. Guest Icon Guest
    Amanda71109, Guest @ 8:47 am

    are venue allows us to bring our own alcohol and bartenders to the reception therefore saving us a ton of $$.

  35. Guest Icon Guest
    Elle, Guest @ 10:38 am

    We will be having a cash bar because of money. I would rather spend my money on good food and have guests pay for their drinks. My FI does not drinkg at ALL, all of his friends do not drink and most of his family. I will be putting the words “cash bar” on my invites. I want people to come prepared. Free liquor should not be the end all, be all for a wedidng to be great. If not having free drinks at a wedding upsets people, then they are at the wrong place…in my opinion.

  36. Guest Icon Guest
    Starry-Eyed Barefoot Bride, Guest @ 11:57 am

    We originally started with an idea of champagne, beer, and wine are free, anything else you want is cash bar. My parents shot that down like a duck in season! I said that I wouldnt be insulted and then that way we werent paying through the nose for someone’s fancy scotch, and those who didn’t bring cash could still drink. I said that no one I know would be insulted or see it as tacky or a slight. My parents made the point that on OUR guest list are a lot of my parents friends and generation that might still be confused by a Save the Date or not understand why the wording on the invite was other than “request the honour of your presence”, and they really might be insulted and find it tacky. I think that if you are a bride on a budget and want a bar, it should be open, and limited. No one missed their fancy mixed drinks at a wedding we attended recently that was beer wine and champ only.

  37. Member
    avdillard0110 371 posts, Helper bee @ 5:47 pm

    The way our venue works is you pay a certain dollar amount up front for the general bar, choosing which type of alcohol you want to serve. (We are choosing beer and wine only to save money and avoid problems caused by hard liquor and certain family members and friends of mine…) Guests order and the dollar amount of each drink is subtracted from the total until it runs out. When the total is depleted, the venue will come to us and let us know, giving us the option to cut off the bar, go to cash bar, or add more money. I like this system!

    The venue is also letting us pay for the bar separately from the food, since my parents are paying for the food and adamantly against alcohol, and his parents want alcohol (ahhh…)

    The venue also requires a certain number of security personnel per number of guests–a nice safety feature.

  38. Member
    Miss Lupine 20 posts, Newbee @ 5:00 pm

    I found this post while searching for opinions on the open bar issue… it makes me feel better that someone can have such a kind and reasonable perspective on the whole thing. We will probably end up with an open bar, even though it’s hard for me to swallow (I only drink wine and beer, so it’s not something I really understand – and so expensive). Thanks :)

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