photo by Alexandria Monette Photography
Let’s be honest, your wedding reception bar will be one of the most popular elements of your wedding — for you and for your guests! So, you want to be sure it’s properly stocked and staffed. As a general rule, you should plan to allocate about 10-20% of your overall wedding budget for your reception bar. That includes all the alcohol, mixers, garnishes, tools, fees, tips, and so on. Because your wedding reception bar will take up such a large chunk of your budget, you’ll want to thoroughly research and price out your options before committing to one. If you decide to fully or partially stock your own wedding reception bar, this ultimate guide will walk you through everything from deciding your bar style to determining how much alcohol to buy.
photo by Heirlume Photography
Professional Bar vs DIY Bar
There are usually a few different options to consider for your wedding reception bar, all of which will depend on your venue’s rules and requirements. If you’re looking for the most low-maintenance option, a professional bar that’s stocked and staffed by either the venue or a third-party full bar service is ideal. This typically includes marked-up alcohol prices and service fees, but it’s the perfect option for couples who don’t want the hassle of micro-managing their wedding reception bar.
For the DIY bunch, stocking a bar yourselves is the best alternative! You’ll have to decide what types of alcohol to buy, how much alcohol to purchase, and so on, but we’ve got you covered in this ultimate guide. Keep in mind that, even with a DIY bar, you should hire a professional bartender to serve your drinks rather than have a self-serve bar. (Some states even require you to have certified bartenders, so be sure you know the laws before getting too far down the DIY path!)
For those in-between couples who just want to purchase the alcohol but don’t want to deal with anything else, a bartending service that provides a bartender, rentals, setup, cleanup, and so on is also a great option.
Open Bar — An open bar is one of the most popular bar styles and functions exactly as its name suggests. The host pays a flat rate and the guests can order as many drinks as they like. An open bar usually includes wine, beer, champagne, and liquor.
Consumption Bar — Rather than paying a flat rate, a consumption bar requires the host to pay per drink at the end of the event.
Soft Bar — A soft bar offers only red and white wine, champagne, and beer.
White Bar — A white bar offers only white beverages, such as vodka, gin, white rum, and white wine.
Dry Bar — If you and/or none of your guests drink, consider a dry bar instead. Simply provide a mix of sodas, juices, flavored waters, tea, and anything else you love — no alcohol required!
photos by Elizabeth Wells Photography
How Much Alcohol to Buy
As a general guide, assume each guest will consume one drink per hour of your reception. Some guests might drink more, some might drink less, but that general guideline provides a good, average starting point. So, for a 5-hour wedding reception with 100 guests, you’d need to have enough alcohol for 500 drinks.
When picking out alcohol, keep in mind the following standard volume-to-quantity calculations:
- Bottle of wine (750 ml) = 5 glasses
- Bottle of champagne (750 ml) = 8 flutes
- Bottle of liquor (750 ml) = 18 cocktails
- Keg (15.5 gallons) = 124 pints
And use the following wine to beer to liquor percentages to determine the split for each type of alcohol:
- For a limited bar (wine, beer, champagne, and limited liquor): 50% wine, 30% liquor, 20% beer
- For a soft bar (wine, beer, and champagne): 75% wine, 25% beer
Remember that these are simply averages to get you started. If you want to be a bit more thorough with your calculations, go through your guest list person by person and make a note of what type of alcohol they usually drink (if any). Then adjust these percentages accordingly! When in doubt, overestimate. You’d rather end up with extra bottles at the end of the night than run out of alcohol before the reception is over.
photo by Margherita Calati
Additional Costs to Build Into Your Budget
If you decide to stock your own bar, you will likely have to pay a corkage fee for your venue to allow you to bring your own alcohol onto the premises. The fee is charged either per bottle or per person served, so it can add up quickly! Just be sure the corkage fee is stated in your contract before signing if you’re set on providing your own alcohol.
Whether you’re going with a professional service through your venue or a third party or you’re stocking the bar yourselves, be sure to double-check that you’re covered with liability insurance. If the venue or caterer has insurance, you could be covered. If not, you’ll want to purchase liability insurance in the event there is an alcohol-related incident during or after your wedding. We’ve got everything you need to know about wedding insurance right here.
If a service fee or gratuity isn’t included in your contract, the general guidance is to tip your bartender 15-20% of the final bar tab. If a service fee is included, there’s no need to tip extra unless you want to.
A Physical Bar & Glassware
If your venue doesn’t have a physical bar, you’ll either have to rent one or find an alternative, such as an upcycled cabinet. Additionally, if you’re stocking your bar yourself, you’ll need to rent glassware either through a rental company or through your caterer.
photo by Amy Fanton Photography
Ways to Save a Little Money
Buy Cans/Bottles Rather Than a Keg
It might seem counter-intuitive that cans or bottles of beer would save you money over a keg, but hear us out. Once you factor in the extra ice, bucket, glassware, and delivery fee, the cost per bottle isn’t too far off from the cost of a keg. But, if you wind up with extra beer at the end of the night, you can save the cans and bottles for future party use, which you can’t do with the keg.
Don’t Offer Too Many Options
When it comes to a wedding bar — especially a DIY bar — less is more. If you want a mix of wine, beer, and cocktails, stick to two wines (red and white), two beers (light and dark), and two liquors (clear and brown). Your guests don’t need unlimited options as long as you have the basics covered. If you’re really looking to save money, skip the beer altogether. Offer only your signature cocktail during cocktail hour and then move to wine for dinner and the rest of the evening.
Rethink the Champagne Toast
The champagne toast has become one of those traditions that couples opt out of during the reception — whether it’s to save a little money or simply that they just don’t have a taste for champagne. If you don’t have a strong opinion about making sure your guests toast with the same drink, skip the champagne and let them toast with what they have. We promise those speeches will be just as sweet!
photo by Lauren Scotti
All About Signature Cocktails
The signature cocktail is the statement piece of the reception bar, and we’re all about couples having at least one for their wedding. Wine and beer are great options, but a signature cocktail adds a little personality, a little fun, and a lot of prettiness to your wedding reception bar!
How to Create Signature Cocktails
Because there are so many delicious cocktail options out there, narrow down your research to your favorite liquor(s) and build from there. You could put a special twist on a classic cocktail, such as adding an unexpected fruit or spice to a margarita, or you could invent something new using ingredients you love. The important thing is that your cocktail(s) reflects your personalities, and look and taste great. You nail those 3 things, and your guests will be genuinely impressed!
For even more tips, check out our interview with Oregon bartending service Mint and Mirth!
Cocktail Ideas & Inspiration
If you search Pinterest for cocktail ideas, you’ll get thousands of options to choose from! If you’re looking for seasonal-inspired cocktails, though, we’ve got some great ones right on the blog:
photo by Heirlume Photography
Stock Your Bar Checklist
If you’re just hiring bartenders rather than a full bar service or package, use this list to make sure your DIY bar is stocked and ready to go. The key here is to keep it simple but make sure you’ve got all the basics.
The Good Stuff
- Ice — whatever you think you’ll use, double it!
- Liquor — at least one brown and one clear, such as whiskey and vodka
- Mixers — juice (orange, cranberry, grapefruit), soda, tonic water, club soda
- Garnishes — lemons, limes, cherries, olives, herbs
- Wine Glasses
- Pint Glasses
- Highball Glasses
- Champagne Flutes
- Shot Glasses
- Cork Screw
- Bottle Opener
- Paper Straws
- Flowers or Other Décor
- Tip Jar
Want to save this list for future reference? Pin this checklist now — and thank us later!
photo by Amy Fanton Photography
Tips for Logistics and Design
Consider Guest Size and Room Layout
If you’re having a large wedding or your guests will be spread across a huge ballroom, consider having more than one bar. You don’t want your guests to spend most of their night waiting in line or risk drinks being spilled as guests have to make their way from one end of the room to the other. Make it easy on everyone and plan on at least 2 separate bars if your guest list is over 50 people.
Don’t Forget to Add Décor
Instead of tucking your bar into a corner and praying it doesn’t end up in too many photos, add simple decor elements to make it fit the overall design of your reception! This can be as elaborate as you wish — just make sure the decor doesn’t interfere with the actual function of the bar — but even a floral arrangement that matches the tables and a pretty framed bar menu would do. For inspiration, check out these creative reception bar ideas!
Now that you’ve got your reception bar under control, finish off your reception planning with these fun ideas: