It’s a free bar… right?

Yesterday, I was having a conversation with a friend planning their wedding. They were having the exact dilemma I remember having around this time last year with a few months to go until the big day – who’s paying for the booze? Now, we all love showing up at an event to find a free bar – I mean, who doesn’t right? It means you can have a few extra that we wouldn’t usually have, or a more expensive drink you’d like to try… 

The problem is, with a wedding, is that at the end of the night, someone is left with the tab – and it’s no round of drinks at the pub, I can tell you. So here’s our problem-solving guide to supplying alcohol at your wedding, and who should pick up the bill. Your options are as follows:

Have a totally free bar

Unless you’re absolutely loaded (in the financial sense – that’s one hangover you don’t want to wake up with), I would strongly advise against this. Having been left with a colossal bar tab at events in the past, I can tell you how much people will take advantage of your generosity. While in real life they would never dream of letting you buy round after round, the wedding aspect puts a bit of distance between their drinks and who’s paying.

As I said earlier, who doesn’t love a free drink? Who doesn’t love ten free drinks? Who doesn’t love an exotic cocktail they haven’t tried before? Who doesn’t love repeated shots of Jägermeister? You get the picture.

It’s not that people are trying to take advantage, it’s just that they get carried away with the occasion and hey, it’s free! Their conscience is hardly going to kick in after a few drinks to say “that’s enough now, someone’s got to pay for this.”

A completely free bar (unless you have a completely unlimited budget) is a bad idea for the following reasons:

You don’t want to spend your entire wedding night worrying about how much people are spending instead of enjoying yourself.

A free bar encourages a whole new level of drunken shenanigans that you would otherwise be safe from. Not that drunken antics are fun, but there are antics and then there are shenanigans – you get my drift? Great word… shenanigans…

The only things you should be thinking about the day after the wedding are your honeymoon and opening presents, not selling a kidney to pay your wedding bar tab.

Put a spending limit behind the bar

This is a more sensible solution for the free bar advocates. Put a pre-determined amount of money behind the bar, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. That way people will still get nicely merry on your dollar but the situation, financial and otherwise, won’t get out of control.

The only disadvantages are…

Some drinks are more expensive than others. Not everyone is going to order a beer or a glass of wine – you don’t want your bar tab hijacked by opportunists and posh drinkers.

Some people drink faster than others, it could work out that some of your friends have ten free drinks before others have even got to the bar.

Some drinks are more equal than others… 

Pay for cheaper drinks, like beer, wine and alcopops, anything more complicated or costly comes out of your guests’ pockets. Simple.

The cons…

People can still make a brave effort with wine and beer and it’s no guarantee that things won’t get out of control.

Hand out drinks tokens

This is a fair and reasonable way to make sure everyone gets their share of booze. It’s a way of keeping control of the situation and those who don’t drink can give their tokens to those who do. If a drink is more expensive, it could cost more tokens… It’s also an opportunity to get cute with the DIY or grab something like this.

The downsides are…

People may feel a bit patronised, or it might not be to everyone’s taste. Drinks tokens are great for keeping school discos under control, but they might not be right for your wedding.

This is how we did things… images by the fabulous Emma Lucy Photography


Some venues will let you buy your booze in bulk. Some charge a corkage fee (make sure you find out what this is when you’re planning your budget as it can make buying out totally not worth it) some don’t. Ours didn’t, and so we supplied all the booze ourselves, with a help yourself philosophy that worked quite well. We even had some left over afterwards. If you’re planning to buy in bulk, you can make a day of it and go on a booze cruise to France, strike up a deal with your local off license and even brew your own if you’re very brave (you know who you are – I can’t wait to see how that pans out).

The downsides to bringing your own booze (tried and tested) are:

You need to figure out quantities. There are lots of booze calculators online that you can use but it can still be very tricky. Some off licenses or wholesalers will let you return what you don’t use, so check if this is a possibility and over-buy.

There could be a corkage fee at your venue that cancels out any financial benefit of bringing your own booze.

Even cheap plonk needs to be drinkable – this can be harder to find if you’re buying cheapo bottles in bulk.

Storage and serving can be an issue. We drafted in scores of coolers in the weeks before the wedding and set up drinks stations.

Have a pay bar

At the end of the day, don’t lose sight of the fact that your wedding is your wedding. People you love won’t care if they have to pay for their drinks, they just want to see you get married. And if they do care, who cares? People who get offended over having to pay their own way when it comes to the party aren’t really worth the time of day.

The drawbacks…

Well, that really depends if you think no alcohol = no atmosphere. People may well drink less, it may be a more tame celebration, or people might just open their wallets and get over it!

Not everyone has a huge amount to spend and it may be less enjoyable for them.

And whatever you choose to do, here are some suggestions…

Serve your own wedding cocktail that can be made in bulk. You can give it a romantic or relevant name and it’s a cheap way to give everyone their first free drink.

Regardless of any other boozy arrangement, put bottles of red and white on the tables, the general rule is a bottle of each per four people. That way people can have a couple of glasses each and choose their favourite.

Have lots of fun trying out different drinks for your big day – it’s the only time you’ll have that excuse!

If you’re having a pay bar, just say so on the invitations, or have a wedding website that says as much. As long as people know in advance to bring cash, nobody will be left out.

How are you planning to dole out the drink? Are you planning on paying a tab or would you prefer people spend their own cash on drinks? We’d love to hear your plans!

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