Low-cost Libations

By Sharon Naylor

May 1, 2013 6 min read

With wedding budgets topping $25,000 on average across the nation, according to The Wedding Report, brides and grooms are looking for smart ways to plan their dream weddings for less, but without the savings showing to their guests. They want their weddings to impress, with fabulous decor and delicious food. For many wedding couples, the quality and variety of the drinks served at their celebration is also a top priority.

The Wedding Report says that the average amount spent on wedding reception bar service is $2,456, and their recent survey shows that some couples invest a lot more than that to have an open bar filled with top-shelf liquors, fine wines and creative signature cocktails. While 26 percent of wedding couples spend a reported $1,001 to $2,500 on their bar, 16 percent of brides and grooms spend $2,501 to $5,000, and 5 percent spend $5,001 to $10,000 on their bar plans alone. Clearly, there's a lot of importance put on serving guests top-quality drinks.

But fear not. You don't have to skip your honeymoon to provide fabulous wedding wines, champagne and cocktails. There are many ways to plan your bar on a budget and still offer crowd-pleasing beverages:

--Offer an open bar, but with limited drink choices. You'll save hundreds of dollars if your bar menu includes just a few different red and white wines, four or five top-shelf brand liquors, four or five different cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks, instead of offering dozens of hard liquor brands and wine vintages.

--Taste-test and choose more moderately priced wines. Your site's house wines may be delightful, at half the cost of other vintages.

--Serve drinks that stretch out a bottle of wine, like wine spritzers and sangrias that can double the number of drinks served from each bottle.

--Cut from your bar list drinks that use many different types of hard alcohol, such as Long Island iced teas, which can raise your bar cost, and also drop any shots of liquor that also increase consumption and cost.

--Catherine Katz, owner and lead planner at Cherished Celebrations, suggests "serving open liquor during the cocktail hour, and then switching to beer and wine only for the reception. Beer and wine cost considerably less by themselves than when your open bar includes liquor."

--Offer a menu of signature drinks instead of serving open liquor, says Katz. "This way, your bar only needs specific items to serve your one drink, causing your costs to go down. And you can have your favorite drink at your wedding!"

--Skip Champagne service at your bar, and only offer one flute per guest, set at the guest tables for the wedding toast to you. Or, if you'd like to offer bubbly, choose less-expensive yet still delicious and indulgent prosecco or Spanish cava.

--"Cut your bar service by 30 minutes to an hour," says Katz. "Think about it, when the time comes to shut your bar down at the end of your celebration, many of your guests have already left. You're still paying for each of those guests (who aren't there and therefore won't drink any more) on a per-person/per-hour basis. Your guests that are still at your party will get their last drink when your bar closes and continue to have a good time."

--Arrange for the bartenders to stop uncorking wine bottles at a set time during the reception, perhaps an hour before the party ends. Many sites will charge you for every bottle uncorked, and if bartenders keep opening different vintages, you'll have to pay for a large number of uncorked bottles that are still mostly full. Guests won't mind, or perhaps won't notice, if the syrah is no longer available, and will choose from wines that are open and ready to pour.

--Arrange with your site to eliminate "corkage fees." That term refers to a charge levied for every time a bartender uncorks a bottle of wine. This is one extra fee that is often easily negotiated out of your contract, saving you $100 or more in many cases.

--Limit your after-dinner drinks menu, offering just two or three different alcoholic dessert drinks, like an Irish coffee and espresso with sambuca instead of a wider and more expensive variety of liqueurs and cordials.

--Add plenty of nonalcoholic drinks to your bar menu, including tropical fruit juice blends with refreshing seltzer for fizz and fruit on spears for presentation, unique flavored soft drinks, iced teas and other budget-friendly drinks. Guests will enjoy them on a hot day -- and take it easy on their alcohol consumption during the hours of your party. When you build a drink list of nonalcoholic beverages to balance out your limited alcohol offerings, costs go down tremendously.

Use these tips for the engagement party, bridal shower and rehearsal dinner drink menus, and you'll save hundreds of dollars at those events, as well.

Sharon Naylor is the author of "The Bride's Guide to Freebies" and three dozen additional wedding books.

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