You want your wedding reception to be the party of the decade, but you also don’t want to break the bank. An open bar sounds like a great option, but how much does an open bar cost?
Not to worry. We have your wedding planning answers here. Read on to find out all the factors you need to consider before choosing an open bar – and some tips and tricks to cut the cost without cutting too many corners.
What is an Open Bar?
An open bar simply means that the host pays for all the alcohol. Open bars are popular at weddings, parties, and corporate and charity events.
You’ll often see this contrasted with a cash bar or a dry wedding. If you want to serve alcohol at your event, an open bar is a great way to be a generous host and say “Thank you!” to your guests for attending.
So, how much does an open bar really cost?
Average Cost of an Open Bar at Weddings
Serving alcohol at a wedding can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. However, we do have an estimate of the average cost.
According to a 2018 survey by The Knot, the average cost of an open bar at a wedding is around $2,500. If you add in taxes and fees, you’ll typically be paying a little over $3,000.
For some couples, $3,000 is a reasonable price to pay for the benefit of guests drinking for free. For others, a few key budgeting strategies could help bring that number down.
Factors That Affect the Cost
Couples have many options to choose from that can affect the bottom line cost of their wedding and the bar services.
Number of Guests
The number of people who show up on the day of your wedding is the number one factor that affects nearly every other expenditure. The total guest count will influence things like:
- Alcohol costs
- Catering costs
- Venue costs
- Equipment costs (like tables, chairs, and linens)
- Party favors
When it comes to an open bar, the more people drinking, the higher the total bar cost. Headcount matters whether you purchase wine and beer at a bulk discount or pay a bar or venue to provide alcohol. Depending on your wedding bar package, you may have to pay a fixed price per guest.
For weddings, the average cost for the bar will be $20 per person. The average number of wedding guests is 126, so that would cost you $2,520. A large wedding of 250 guests would cost somewhere around $5,000, and a small wedding of 80 would cost $1,600 if open bars are available at the wedding reception.
The quality of the alcoholic beverages and the cost of the venue will also determine your price per head.
Who Provides the Alcohol?
Whether you just want beer and wine or hard liquor for mixed drinks, you can get your alcohol provided in several ways.
- You purchase it all yourself.
- A professional bar service provides it.
- Your caterer provides it.
- The venue provides it.
The easiest way to save money is to purchase all the alcohol yourself. You can buy in bulk from a warehouse and save. However, ensure that your contract with the venue or caterer doesn’t include an agreement to use their bar services.
If you opt for someone else to provide the drinks for you, the general cost will be a fee per person.
Type of Alcohol
A great way to save money is to consider what type of drinks you’re serving. If you and your guests like premium liquors, you’ll be paying a premium for the selection.
However, if you don’t mind so much about the quality or brand of liquor, you can opt for cheaper liquors. A $30 bottle of gin that can make 40 gin and tonics will save you a lot over a $150 bottle of gin that serves the same amount.
You should also consider whether you want to provide only beer and wine, or if you’ll have a full bar with liquor or signature drinks.
Many couples assume serving only beer, wine, and champagne will be cheaper, but this isn’t always the case. You’ll get more drinks served per bottle of liquor than per bottle of wine. $20 bottles of vodka can make lots of cocktails, but you’ll only get a few glasses of wine from the same price per bottle.
Venue & Licensing
As we mentioned before, the cost can also vary depending on the rules at your venue. Many venues have contracts with catering services and require you to use those companies. Other venues have their bar services, and pricing can vary.
A venue will typically charge you in two different ways:
- By Consumption: Charging by consumption means they’ll provide drinks all night and then send you a bill for exactly how much your guests drank.
- Flat Rate: A flat rate will be agreed upon before the wedding and typically depends on headcount. For example, the venue may decide to charge you $20 per guest for 150 people. The flat rate will be $3,000 no matter how many people show up and drink.
Paying by consumption is usually the more expensive option. However, you can potentially save money with a “per drink” plan if you have many guests who don’t drink.
A flat rate is a smart way to go if you know most guests will be drinking and you want to know your budget upfront.
You should also ask your venue about licensing. Some venues already have a liquor license, while others will require the catering or bar company to bring their own. Often your contract will require you to cover the licensing bar costs.
To safely operate an open bar, you need bartenders. They mix and pour the drinks, keep glasses fresh, and ensure no one goes rogue with a bottle of tequila.
Bartender prices vary from state to state and according to the bartender’s experience. An average rate for a bartender is $40 per hour. For an event less than 2-3 hours, you may pay a flat fee.
Don’t forget to tip bartenders for their service – it’s not easy serving up mixed drinks at long events. Some guests may bring cash to tip their bartender, but the bride and groom should plan a larger tip to cover the full night of work.
Limited Bar or Full Bar
To fit a tight budget, some people will offer what’s called a “limited bar.” This means the hosts pay for the alcoholic beverages, but the selection is, well, limited. Maybe you provide only beer and wine. Perhaps you go with beer, wine, and a signature cocktail or champagne. You can spin this option in many different ways and save.
A limited bar is a great option that generally doesn’t affect guests’ enjoyment of the night. It’s better than cash bars, because no guest wants to pay for drinks, but it also lowers the price per person for an open bar.
The opposite of a limited bar is a full bar, which means that guests can order any drink they like at the wedding reception. It takes more money to offer a full service bar, but for some couples the party is worth it.
The question “How much does an open bar cost?” doesn’t have a simple answer. But in general, you can adjust plenty of different options to find the right fit for your wedding.
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