When my now-husband and I were planning our wedding, we had two big goals: save as much money as possible, and still throw a kick-ass party that didn't feel cheap or chintzy. (So original, right?) With those things in mind, we decided early on what was worth splurging on (like the food and the reception space) and what wasn't (like paying someone else to stock our bar).
After booking our amazing caterer and our trendy Brooklyn venue, we were given a few different options for providing alcohol to our guests. We could buy a full-service bar package from the venue, pay our caterer to take care of everything, or buy the booze ourselves.
Eager to cut costs anywhere we could — and, if I'm being honest, to micromanage yet another aspect of our special day — we jumped at the chance to stock the bar ourselves. Our caterer would provide bartenders and take care of most of the logistics, but purchasing the drinks was up to us.
It was a great decision — we personalized our drink menu, served everything we wanted (and nothing we didn't), and saved a ton on markup and fees — but it wasn't without challenges.
Here's what we learned along the way, and in hindsight, about DIY-ing our own wedding bar.
1. A drink formula is the best way to determine your needs.
Our caterer introduced us to the owners of a local wine store who could provide the vino and hard liquor for our wedding. At our initial meeting, they used a formula to calculate the number of drinks we'd need, based on our guest count, the number of hours we'd be serving, and if we'd want to offer special drinks for cocktail hour, toasts, or pre-ceremony.
Try our formula: How To Calculate Alcohol Needs for a Party
Those numbers weren't written in stone, of course. We knew our friends and family would probably drink more beer than wine, so we skewed the numbers to reflect that. We also added a case or two to the red column and subtracted from the white, because it was an early spring wedding, still chilly at night, and because lots of people had selected red meat for their entrée.
2. You don't need a ton of options.
Not being big hard-liquor people ourselves, we knew from the outset that we didn't want to offer every type of alcohol. (Our venue was bare-bones and everything had to be brought in and set up, so the simpler the better.) I don't really like Champagne, either, and originally I didn't even want to include that. "Can't people toast with white wine?" I asked.
The wine store owners persuaded us that celebratory bubbles would add something special to the toasts, and could set the mood as guests arrived. Plus, it was only a dollar more per bottle than the white wine we chose, and looking back I'm glad we had it. In the end, we settled on one type of white wine, one type of red wine, three local beers, two signature cocktails — one with gin and one with rye whiskey — and one type of Prosecco. I'm pretty sure there was something for every kind of drinker; everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, at least!
3. You may have to shop from more than one source.
In New York State, you get wine and liquor from one type of store, and beer from another. We had to do the same for our wedding; the former came from a local wine store, while the latter came from a beer distributor. (We had specific local breweries in mind, too, so we had to find a distributor that carried them.) State laws vary, so make sure you know which vendors you'll have to work with before you commit to taking on the whole process yourself.
4. Cans and bottles may be smarter than kegs.
We were also trying to keep our wedding as eco-friendly as possible, so I was pretty set on getting kegs of beer rather than cans and bottles. (Yes, they're recyclable, but that still uses energy!) I was quickly talked out of that by a few friends in the business, though. Any leftover cans or bottles could be kept and used at a later date, they pointed out. With kegs, we'd be wasting whatever didn't get drunk that night — or chugging it at our post-wedding brunch.
There was also concern that if anything went wrong with tapping the kegs the day of, we'd have a whole lot of thirsty guests. The price-per-beer wasn't that different when we factored in extra costs (tubs and ice for the kegs, extra glassware for the beer), so we went with the safer option. There was a bonus, too: It turns out, it's much easier to get down on the dance floor with a can or bottle than it is with a sloshy pint glass — and it added some local flair to our photos, too!
5. You have to budget for insurance, bartenders, and extras.
The booze itself may be the biggest bar expense, but it's not the only one. Depending on your venue, your caterer, and your state laws, you may have to purchase extra insurance to host alcohol at your event. You'll also have to buy ice and non-alcoholic beverages, rent glassware (and maybe even a physical bar), and pay people to make the drinks and serve them.
6. You may also have to get the mixers.
Speaking of extras, you'll need mixers and garnishes — like tonic, soda, and limes, for example — to go with your liquor; at the very least you'll need the ingredients that make up your signature cocktails. In our case, our caterer took care of ordering most of the non-alcoholic beverages himself. But one of our signature cocktails used ginger beer, which he suggested we order from the beer distributor. (Even though it's non-alcoholic, it's carried by a lot of beer sellers.)
Now, our caterer did not drink, so that should have been a clue right there not to trust his alcohol-related estimations. But I didn't really question it when he told me to add "just one case of ginger beer" to our order. No more than 20 minutes into cocktail hour, before we had even emerged from signing the marriage license, the ginger beer was gone and guests had resorted to sipping straight whiskey. I'm still bummed I didn't get one of my own signature cocktails!
7. You'll need a delivery plan.
If you choose to stock your own bar, chances are you're going to have to figure out how to get everything to your venue or pay a delivery fee to make it happen. We worked it out so that while I was stuffing gift bags and decorating the venue the day before, my soon-to-be hubs was driving around Brooklyn in our Subaru, picking up the booze.
It saved us big bucks, but definitely required some planning. If you go that route, be sure to coordinate with your venue when the drinks can be dropped off, and make sure you (or someone you trust) can be available to make it happen.
8. Having leftovers isn't a bad thing.
Running out of alcohol is one of the last things you'd want to happen at a wedding, so we were sure to err on the side of buying too much versus not enough. (Ginger beer not included, obviously.) Some liquor stores will buy back what you don't use, but laws vary by state, so check with your vendors to see if that's an option.
Even if you can sell it back, you might not want to. You can usually wrangle a bulk discount for whatever you purchase (we got 17 percent off still wine and 5 percent off sparkling), and is it really the worst thing to have a stash of marked-down booze for your home bar?
We ended up with leftovers of everything but the whiskey, which ran out at the very end of the night. We took the beer to picnics all summer long, toasted our first anniversary with our last bottles of red and white (yes, both of them), and gifted that Prosecco to any of our friends who got engaged over the following few months. We'd used it to toast the happiest day of our lives, we figured, so we were happy to share the good wedding karma with other lucky couples, too.
Did you stock your own bar? If so, add any other lessons you may have learned in the comments!