How-to: open bar and alcohol for your wedding (Updated for 2021)
In this article, we briefly outline the general ideas, but if you want a visual chart and a list of what to get, just go straight to the last page. You can optionally find a professional wedding bartender on our site (WeddingVenture.com), but you do not have to hire a pro if you just want to have an open bar. Use this guidance even if you do decide to hire someone - you will roughly understand what you need for your own wedding, use your negotiating tactics better by being informed, and avoid paying extra for something you don't need.
Vodka, rum, and gin are the "staple food" of your wedding. Tequila is also popular, though not as popular as the first three liquors. These are the liquors that you have to have to run a successful bar. Get them in medium-grade bottles - knowing how many people you've invited, your guests do not expect you to serve only Grey Goose or Bombay Sapphire, but don't opt for "generic" house liquor either.
Prepare everything expecting each guest to consume on average about five drinks for an average wedding - that's not counting the champagne. Some people don't drink at all, some drink too much - over the course of the day, you'll average roughly at five cocktails per guest.
1 drink equals one straight shot, or 50 ml. 1 large, 1.75-leter bottle, therefore, will serve about 8-9 people.
Typically, for every two bottles of vodka you'd want to have roughly 1 bottle of rum, 1 bottle of gin, and if you feel your crowd likes tequila, 1 bottle of tequila.
Count 1 bottle of champagne per person if you have a full-day wedding reception: champagne is the #1 thing that hosts run out of first during the weddings. Even 1 bottle per guest might be conservative if you have friends who drink a lot. Opt for dry options rather than sweet, as you can only increase the amount of alcohol sugar as the day progresses to avoid a bad hangover - serving dry champagne at the wedding reception will ensure a proper flow of the day and only the increasing alcohol consumption through the evening - which is directly proportional to how wild your wedding will end up ;)
Beer at the wedding is like a dump truck on a golf course - a bit out of place and a bit crude for the occasion. Yet some people just can't celebrate anything without a bottle of their favorite beverage. So get a few cases of beer - your choice, really, as anything works.
Red and white wines.
So we did a blind test once, putting red and white wine bottles into paper bag containers - in a broad range of expensive and cheap wines. A fully blind test with about 25 participants showed that most people favored one wine over another pretty randomly, and there was no direct correlation between the price of wine and how good people thought it tasted. So get any wine you want - our personal test showed that a brand of wine does not really matter.
The only thing to watch out for is the sugar (sweet or dry - you want to be in between) and the fact that ratio between the number of bottles of red wine and the number of bottles of white wine should be roughly 2:1 for the wedding ceremony and 3:1 for the wedding reception dinner.
If there is a fridge nearby, stuff the hard liquor into the freezer and champagne into the fridge compartment. Don't put them on ice to avoid messing up the labels.
With this, the core liquor is taken care of. Now on to putting it to good use.
For us, planning the cocktails was easy: DANIEL happens to be a state-licensed bartender as a side hobby. He was originally trained based on book The Ultimate Cocktail Book, but since it is now out of print, you can buy a The Bartender's Bible: 1001 Mixed Drinks online or at a local library, for example, and go through some of the most popular cocktails there.
Now go through the list of cocktails with your spouse-to-be and each of you pick a popular cocktail that you like the most. Call them your two signature cocktails. If you end up narrowing down on a single "signature" cocktail together, that's been even better for your guests - fewer choices is actually so much easier to deal with behind a bar!
As a matter of preference, I recommend Gin & Tonic - white, transparent liquors are the lightest on the hangover, the drink is appropriate for both genders and with sparkling bubbles look very wedding-appropriate and festive, and the drink is original enough to be served as a signature cocktail at a good wedding.
Next up are the non-signature popular cocktails that people just expect you to have.
The most common wedding cocktails
If you are having an average bar, select about 5 key drinks from the list below, and if you want to have plenty of choices, offer 7-8 options for the "extended", large open bar feeling.
Here are the most common wedding cocktails (they're popular and very easy to pour by the guests themselves at an open bar - no skills required):
- Bloody Mary
- Cosmopolitan (mostly favored by girls)
- Dry Martini (mostly favored by guys)
- Gin and Tonic
- Pina Colada
- Sex on the beach
- Sour Apple
- Tequila Sunrise
A special note on the famous Long Island Iced Tea: we've seen too many cases when the hosts end up offering The Tea, and the unsuspecting guests who want the least alcoholic drinks end up picking Long Island among all other options and end up... well, not feeling well. So we recommend you keep it off your list to avoid a bait-and-switch with your guests.
Note that we're specifically avoiding cocktails that are popular but are not appropriate for the weddings (like Mimosa), those that are not immediately trivial to make (like B-52), and those that create too much mess (like anything involving Red Bull and shot glasses).
Once you select top choices for 5-8 drinks, look online or through The Craft of the Cocktail for ingredients and have them ready. You can get "mixer" portions for your cocktails in pour-in pre-mixed state in any local grocery store.
Next: garnishing the drinks and non-alcoholic options.
You need a bunch of "standard" decorations for your bar. You can get them at any regular grocery store. Limes, lemons, and mint need to be bought a day or two before the wedding. Course cane sugar is great to go with Mojitos. Olives & red cherries are great for transparent drinks.
Straws, toothpicks are also easy to get in a local store.
This part is important and is often overlooked or under-invested by the hosts. Get this especially if you have any pregnant friends, small children or older family members coming, and ensure there are plenty of non-alcoholic options.
Your easiest bet is to have your wedding caterer deliver fresh juices and sodas. If your wedding caterer is not delivering those for you, you can get those at any store - just keep in mind that even your friends who drink a lot will also need to drink non-alcoholic options. Plus your juices and sodas will end up in all kinds of mixed alcoholic cocktails, so GET A TON of these.
Easy - bring a cooler, have your caterer pick up a few bags of fresh ice on the way. Have the ice cooler sit next to the bottles of alcohol. Smaller cubes are preferred to larger cubes. Have a scoop handy for people to get ice cubes for their drinks "on the rocks" (we've gotten a few questions on this before - "on the rocks" means "with whole pieces of ice").
Strainers, stirrers and special glasses
If you're not hiring a professional bartender, just buy a box with everything you need. It'll still be cheaper than hiring a bartender, and let's face it - you're still young - so unless you completely do not drink any alcohol, you can safely assume a kit like this will make entertaining your guests more fun even in your married life.
If you are looking to hire a professional bartender, we recommend you start by getting a few competing quotes from your local bartenders such as these: You can then use these quotes to negotiate the best price with your wedding bartender of choice (read our How To Negotiate With Wedding Vendors article above for more).
As a state-licensed bartender, I'd recommend 10-Piece Cocktail Shaker and Bar Tool Set (I actually own these) or something more elaborate like The Ultimate Home Bar Kit if you think you are likely to host more parties in the future (of course you will!).
No, don't get cheap college beer-pong Costco cups. Instead, opt for transparent tumblers - also sold at Costco or some local grocery stores. They look pretty cool and are not that expensive. You do not want to have a real, fragile, thin glass next to a ton of drunken people. It's not fun to see anyone bleeding at your wedding when a glass falls and breaks, and someone gets cut by accident. Plus renting glassware is just not too cost-effective.
Putting it all together: bartending how-to manual for guests
Ok, so you got everything you need for your bar: liquor, mixers, olives and cherries, and even juices. Now you need to figure out how the open bar is really going to work: many of your guests really have no clue what they want to drink and how to make the drinks you've planned for.
Easy solution: print out the same instructions you used to purchase ingredients and put them in a stack on the side of the bar stand. Guests who know their liquor, like most customers in the first-class lounges at the airports, which almost always feature open bars, will just come up and pour the drink they want. Guests who don't know what they want will just take a peek at the instructions. A ton of great sites on the web provide straightforward, printable instructions - just type a cocktail name into Bing.com and add "recipe" to your search.
In a few states, to be able to dispense alcohol in a setting like a wedding, you need a liquor license - most usually called Banquet License. It's pretty much a regular tax: it costs around ten bucks per event and is sold at any liquor store. Contact your license control board for more details.
Here is an example for the state of Washington: http://liq.wa.gov/publications/CIB2-Banquet-Permit-10-08.pdf.
A Banquet Permit is required to allow the service and consumption of liquor at a private, invitation-only banquet or gathering in a public place or club.
"A Banquet Permit costs $10. An application can be filled out at any state or contract liquor store. During your event, the Banquet Permit must be displayed in a conspicuous place at the event location. Liquor consumed at the event may not be sold under a Banquet Permit. It must be provided free of charge by a sponsor, or brought to the event by those attending."
Many catering vendors will not enter into a catering agreement with you without you agreeing to provide a banquet license - so just go get it if you're going to have an open, free bar.
So we ended up with the following sections for the bar, in the order from left to right:
- Tumblers, napkins, straws
- Mixing shakers, strainers, and other bartending tools
- Hard liquor bottles
- Mixers and cocktails
- Garnishing elements, lemons, limes, olives and cherries
- Napkins and straws again
- Signature cocktails section
- Non-alcoholic section, ice
Next: There is still one item that we need to complete our bar.
Here is one last thing, which we think is the most important part about the entire "Open Bar" concept: plenty of fresh drinking water. Here is why: throughout the evening, your guests will consume a ton of alcohol. When processed by the body, alcohol requires water - hence a bad hangover you and your guests should expect to have. To avoid bad dehydration, provide plenty of drinking water, and both you and your guests will skip the headache and the pain of hangover the next day and will remember the wedding much more fondly than they would have had.
This is also one of the reasons the state laws of most, if not all, states require fresh drinking water to be available for free at any bar upon request.
So make plenty of water available throughout the evening. Place drinking water right next to the bar, always have it available, and if you have the water in big jugs, have your wedding bartenders add a bit of ice and a slice of lemon to the water - it will be much more attractive, allowing the crowd to party through the night and not wear out too quickly.
Early in the wedding reception, water bottles are the best option as people can sip water as necessary while they wait, should they choose not to drink at all or should they take a break from all the champagne they consumed at the wedding ceremony. At the reception, serve water in jugs - you will avoid the trashing effect of a ton of empty water bottles lying around. As the guests start to take off, ensure they will a bottle of water or two with them in the cab. They will thank you for it the next morning.