pic credit: Dana Moos via Flickr

The Knot put together a few handy tips for cocktail hour entitled "The Ultimate Cocktail Hour Guide," in which they stated a cash bar is a major no-no:

Cocktail-Hour Must: Have an Open Bar

We've said it before and we'll say it again: Having a cash bar at your wedding is a major faux pas. If you're on a tight budget, skip the liquor and just serve beer and wine. Or offer just one signature drink.

Top-Shelf Idea: Set up a specialty bar. You could have a cognac bar, a microbrew bar, a bubbly bar (with sparkling wines) or even a tequila bar. Ask your caterer about keeping an expert on hand during the cocktail hour to give suggestions and tasting tips.

Some Knot readers didn't take this suggestion too kindly. One wrote "I am beyond sick of the knot telling me that not having an open bar is a 'faux pas'. Of all the weddings I've gone to, only one was ever open bar. I have 170 guest for me to have an open bar my wedding would have to cost another $10,000." That particular commenter wrote more but we're excluding the name-calling since we don't get down like that over here on the MyDeejay blog.

"Again- give me a break- we can't afford an open bar !" said another.

Still others wondered out loud if guests insisting on an open bar are really attending the event to celebrate the couple's love for each other or just for the free booze. Really? Is anyone that tacky?

I don't think The Knot is suggesting that all couples must foot the bill for a $10,000 open bar with more variety than BevMo. And really? How drunk can 170 guests get to run up a $10,000 bar tab?! Besides, there are certainly options that don't include going all out. Like:

  • Stick to signature cocktails or just beer and wine (make sure to also offer non-alcoholic options for your guests who don't drink)
  • Limit the open bar to cocktail hour and cut it off for dinner, but open it back up for dancing if you can afford it (you should do this anyway, or at a minimum for speeches so you don't have folks wandering around during toasts)
  • Find out if your venue allows BYOB and if they do, stock up on the good stuff at a warehouse store
  • The least desirable option: have an early reception. People are less likely to get wasted at noon than they are at midnight.

Remember too that sometimes non-alcoholic options like soda are included free if you do an open bar, but could end up costing you quite a bit if you're paying per drink.

Before you rule out the open bar option completely, sit down and do the math. Let's say you have 100 guests, and of those, 75 will drink. For continuity's sake and because I really suck at math, let's say each of your drinking guests will have 2 drinks the first hour and 1 drink per hour for the remaining 4 hours of your reception (I'm excluding dinner). That's 450 drinks. Let's say all of those drinks are mixed drinks, and you're paying $5 a pop (again, we're using the easiest math possible here, not necessarily the most accurate). That's $2250 (we aren't including wine, beer or soda in that number).

Now, let's say you decide to do open bar (as opposed to hosted) for that same time period for that same number of guests. While costs per head vary depending on where you are in the country and who you are using to cater, let's use $35 a person as a reasonable guess. 75 people x $35 a head = $2625. WOW! That's really close to the hosted bar estimate except in this scenario, your guests who want to drink more than 5 drinks are able to but you don't pay any more and you probably don't have to pay for soda, tea, etc.

$2500 - $3000 isn't anywhere near $10,000, so unless you're having an elaborate 450 person wedding and most of your guests are certified hard drinkers, an open bar isn't as pricey as it might seem on the surface.

Some have suggested that you can cut down on bar costs by leaving your bar open to your immediate family and the bridal party but this can make your other guests feel like they are somehow less than, and chances are they might already feel a little put off by the cash bar in the first place. Not exactly the message you want to send, especially to your really nice aunt who bought a $400 plane ticket to be at your wedding, spent $200 on her hotel, sunk $150 into the dress she's wearing and blew $300 on that big beautiful cherry red stand mixer you registered for.

If you do choose to forgo the open bar, be transparent about this to your guests. There is nothing worse than a guest sauntering up to the bar and ordering a drink only to be asked for cash that they didn't bring with them. In some circles, even a tip jar on the bar is considered bad taste. This is where it is imperative to know your guest list; some families and social circles are more forgiving than others, so if you know your really cool friends from college really won't care what you do, do whatever you want. But if you're being held to some etiquette standard by future in-laws or your own family, the right thing to do is to respect it, even if you have to make adjustments to do so.

The bottom line is you should not expect your guests to pay for anything at your wedding. You wouldn't have a dinner party and expect your guests to pay for their drinks at your home and your wedding is no different. No one is suggesting you must go all out or be forever banished by the Etiquette Police but you also have to consider how much time and effort your guests have put in to being a part of your day.

That being said, it is also your wedding and you are free to do whatever you want to do (sorry, Emily Post). Just keep in mind that you could risk ticking off your nearest and dearest, when all you had to do was plan better, pare back, and do the math on actual costs. It might not be as bad as you might think.

If you come from a long line of problem drinkers, however, throw etiquette out the window and do what's best for your bloodline ifyouknowwhatI'msayin.

Some interesting discussions on this subject: The Open Bar Conundrum (WeddingBee) The Wedding Booze (or You’re gonna charge me how much?!) (The Man Registry) Open or cash bar (WeddingWire forums)