To Drink Or Not To Drink?

By Chandra Orr

April 16, 2010 6 min read

Hosting an open bar at your wedding reception means a good time for guests, but there are special considerations.

"Beverages are regularly a sticking point because it can blow a budget if people aren't careful," says wedding planner Melinda Massie. "An open bar keeps guests around longer and enhances a party atmosphere, but costs can quickly get out of hand."

Reception venues generally require that you use their bars and staffs when serving alcohol. They provide the drinks, accouterments and bartenders, but the service comes at a high cost.

"You do not pay liquor store prices for the alcohol they serve. You generally pay bar prices," says wedding coordinator Marilee Karamanski, celebration specialist and owner of Planned Spontaneity.

Venues typically offer two options: package pricing and consumption pricing.

With package pricing, couples pay set fees per guest upfront, regardless of how much guests drink.

"If your event has a majority of guests who are big drinkers, then package pricing is pretty fair," Massie says. "If you have a lot of nondrinkers, then consumption costs are a better option."

With consumption pricing, couples only pay for what their guests actually order, but be forewarned that guests may waste drinks, which can cause costs to skyrocket. If someone tries a manhattan cocktail and doesn't like it or forgets a cocktail on the dance floor, you're footing the bill.

The venue also may charge an hourly rate for the staff and licensed bartender.

There are also liability issues to consider. "Precautions need to be used to ensure that people do not drink too much or that underage guests don't drink," Massie says. "Usually the venue or catering company handles liability issues because it's their license at stake."

However, every venue is different, and laws vary by municipality, so be sure to inquire ahead of time. A few questions to ask:

--Who is responsible for cutting off guests who've had too much to drink?

--Are you responsible for providing transportation so guests get home safely?

--What assurances do you have that minors will not be served alcohol?

--Do you need a rider on your homeowners insurance policy to protect yourself?

"Regardless of what the arrangements are, you should make sure you are using a licensed bartender and have insurance that covers both you and the venue should the unthinkable happen," Karamanski says.

An open bar is sure to please, but your choice in alcoholic offerings won't make or break the evening. A few frugal options:

CASH BAR: Opinions vary when it comes to cash bars. It all depends on your guest list.

On one hand, you wouldn't charge your guests for a drink in your home, so why do it on this most special of days? On the flip side, guests are likely to empathize with your need to budget, and many don't mind footing a portion of the bill to have a good time.

"You can also offer an open bar for a limited time frame -- for example, the cocktail hour before dinner -- and then switch to a cash bar for the remainder of the evening," Karamanski says.

Many couples choose to donate the proceeds to a favorite charity, which helps ease the illusion of "cheapness" that can be associated with a cash bar.

SIGNATURE STYLE: To save money without sacrificing style, many couples are turning to signature drinks.

"The cool thing about using a signature cocktail is that in some ways, it's more elegant than an open bar, but it's significantly less expensive," Karamanski says.

The options are endless. Mixed drinks, such as margaritas or screwdrivers, sangria punch, spiked cider -- all taste great and make a statement.

"Specialty cocktails really help enhance the atmosphere and are an opportunity for the couple to show off their unique personality while giving guests something special," Massie says.

Choose a drink that complements your color palette. Give it a fancy name that fits the theme, and serve it with style. For example, you could use unusual glassware, add sugar rims or dress up the punch bowl with floating fruit.

JUST A TOAST: Serve a simple glass of Champagne for toasting to help cut costs. Better yet, serve a Champagne punch or a less expensive sparkling wine, such as Prosecco. Many people don't like Champagne, so a slight variation from tradition can be a welcome surprise.

NO ALCOHOL: There's no rule that says you must serve alcohol at your reception. If it isn't in your budget, don't be afraid to buck the trend.

"You may take a little heat for stepping that far outside the box if you choose to host a dry reception, but you should really look to your values and how you want to use your resources when making your wedding decisions," Karamanski says.

"By all means, if you're excited about having an open bar and it fits into your budget, do it. On the other hand, it's pretty expensive for something you're ambivalent about," Karamanski says.

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