The following guide provides insight, advice tips and factors to consider when hiring wedding bartenders, mobile bars and catering bartenders for a wedding. Each wedding is unique so these tips and considerations are not a “one size fits all” solution. This guide is meant to provide an overview of the most common mistakes made when hiring wedding bartenders, how to avoid them and most importantly, how to ensure you wedding bar service is not only fantastic, but doesn’t add any stress before your wedding or on your special day.
When you begin confirming details like what type of bar service or cocktail menu you want to serve at your wedding, it can often seem overwhelming. By contrast, we often receive requests for “only a bartender” without much thought given to important details like ice storage, types of glassware, keeping beer and wine chilled, etc. If you remember only one thing from this entire guide, let it be this – hire a professional bartending team who discusses your vision, asks a lot of questions about details and be sure they are certified bartenders. No matter what state your wedding is in, when alcohol is involved, you want to be sure you are following the laws of the state and perhaps even the county.
What Kind Of Bar Service Do You Envision At Your Wedding?
This is an important place to begin. Whether you and your fiancé are cocktail connoisseurs or rarely drink, you want to at least discuss the type of alcohol you will serve and the overall beverage menu.
Here are some examples of popular types of bars, beverage menus and wedding bar themes that are popular (these are just a few examples, as there are endless possibilities)
Horse Trailer Mobile Bars:
These popular mobile bars are all the rage at the moment, and don’t show any signs of stopping. They serve as a great backdrop for candid wedding photos and can usually incorporate your theme and colors with decor and accent pieces. These types of bars are great for outdoor weddings in particular as they may not be able to get into indoor venues. They are at the upper end cost-wise, even before you figure in alcohol cost. But one thing is for sure, they look great and are often popular with guests!
Beer and Wine Only:
We are seeing A LOT of “Beer and Wine only” wedding bars these days. They are popular at winery venues of course, but also are great for couples who want to stick to a budget. By sticking to a beer and wine only menu, you not only save money, but also prevent guests from getting too tipsy, too quickly. This also eliminates you having to explain to your second cousin that there are no shots allowed at the bar. Having a beer and wine only wedding bar doesn’t have to mean the presentation is any less beautiful than a traditional open bar. By incorporating wine chilling tins that match your theme, adding decorative runners and flowers/plants to the bar, and even using battery operated tea lights, you can create that “wine bar” vibe that looks beautiful. Another tip? Add a seasonal sangria. Sangria is a lower-cost beverage option and it presents beautifully when batched in a glass dispenser with seasonal fruit. Sangria is always a guest favorite among folks young and old!
Beer and Wine With Signature Drinks:
This might be one of the most popular types of wedding bars we have seen in the last couple of years. It allows couples to feature some local beers, nationally recognized brand beers, various wine varietals AND signature cocktails. So it is essentially a step up from beer and wine only, yet isn’t as expensive or complex as a full open bar. We have seen some creative inspiration for our couple’s signature drinks – from naming them after their dogs, to selecting the cocktails they had on their first date. The possibilities with wedding signature cocktails are endless! At Chesapeake Bartenders, we offer a virtual signature wedding cocktail service, where we take taste preferences and recommend creative and seasonal options based on the couple’s feedback. The more custom experience we offer is called “H & H” custom wedding cocktails (H & H stands for either His and Hers, Hers and Hers, or His and His). For this service, we create completely custom cocktails based on a taste interview, and then present various cocktail creations in-person for the couple to select from – it’s like a cake tasting, but with cocktails!
What Is Your Wedding Bar Budget?
Alcohol can get expensive quickly, so it is important to understand and plan for your budget. Often, couples get sticker shock when they see our proposals for wedding bartending packages – but at the end of the day, there is a lot more to wedding bar service than having a random bartender show up and make some drinks. Here is a typical cost breakdown for one of our wedding bartending proposals for about 100 guests.
- TIPS Certified Bartenders: $250-$400 for 3 hours of bar service (and around $50 per hour for additional hours)
- Mobile bar: front tables and back tables dressed in linen with decorative runners and accent pieces – $150
- Equipment: Coolers for serving ice, coolers to keep beer, wine and seltzers cold, decorative wine chilling buckets, ice serving tins, martini shakers, strainers, muddlers, wine openers, etc. – $150
- Ice: the amount of ice you need for your wedding bar will vary based on the time of year you are getting married and whether your reception is indoors or outdoors. It will also depend on the beverage menu being served. For example, if you are serving frozen drinks, or an open bar during an outdoor wedding in warmer months, you will need about 5 pounds of ice per person. If you are only serving beer and wine, and simply need to chill white wine, bubbly and beer, then you might be able to get away with 1.5 pounds of ice per person.
- Mixers, garnishes and non-alcoholic ingredients: Recently, there have been some supply chain issues and inflation, which has resulted in a big increase in sodas, juices and fruit. In 2022, we recommend a minimum of $2.50 per person if you want to include standard sodas (coke, diet coke, sprite, etc.), juices, lemons, limes, simple syrup, etc. If you are serving any specialty cocktails that have ingredients such as chocolate bitters, ginger beer, etc. then the cost of your mixers will be much higher.
- Trash Removal: Normally, catering companies take care of this. But we always ask our clients, because we have run into situations where no one has been contracted for trash removal and the bridal party ends up stuck with trash duty at the end (not ideal). This one is important. If there are no dumpsters on-site at your wedding venue, be sure to budget for trash removal (starting at $200).
- Glassware, cocktail napkins and specialty garnishes: Glassware will always be way more expensive than clear plastic cups. Keep in mind, the glassware will need to be easily accessible for bartenders to grab in order to make drinks. This often means another table must be added to stock glassware. Dirty glassware needs to be stored somewhere as well.
How Much Should You Budget Per Person For Alcohol?
This will depend on many factors, including what type of bar and cocktail menu you will have (see above), whether you need specialty ingredients (ie. specialty liqueurs), etc. But, in my experience, you should budget about $10-$20 per person for alcohol. Why? You do not want to run out of vodka or beer in the middle of your wedding. I have seen this happen so many times. Although it is impossible to predict what types of drinks will be popular, any professional bartending company will have a formula to determine the amount of alcohol needed based on the number of guests and how long bar service will last. As mentioned previously, if you are on a limited budget, there are so many creative ways to have a beautiful wedding bar that doesn’t break the bank. We work with couples who have all sorts of budgets. Generally speaking, here are a few ways to get the most bang for your buck if you have a smaller wedding bar budget – in fact we dedicated an entire blog post to budgeting tips for wedding bars.
- Get 1.5 Liter bottles of wine and liquor
- Don’t buy name brand liquor, instead opting for “rail” selections
- Offer a white and red sangria (and use 1.5 Liter bottles to make it)
- Call the liquor store and ask when they are having specials
- Ask your liquor store if they offer bulk discounts
- Ask your liquor store if you can return unopened wine, liquor bottles and beer cases after your wedding
- Use 9 oz cups or glassware and fill the glass with ice
- Ask the bartenders to do smaller pours of alcohol, especially during the first 2 hours of bar service
- Offer beer and wine only
- At cocktail hour, only serve beer and wine, and then signature cocktails at the main reception
- If you want to save money on mixers, get 2 Liter bottles of soda instead of cans
What You Should Not Skimp On
We are always happy to help our wedding clients stay within their budgets. Over the years however, we have seen the same challenges arise as couples try to save money on their wedding bartending and bar budget. Here are our recommendations on what not to go cheap on, to avoid frustration and last minute stress:
1. Do not go cheap on bartending staff:
The general rule of thumb is 1 bartender for every 50 guests. However, the more complex the wedding itinerary, the more bar staff is needed. For example, if you have a wedding with 120 guests, and cocktail hour is 200 yards from the main reception area, you don’t want to go light on bar staff. Why? If you only have 2 bartenders, they will be responsible for setting up two bar areas, chilling wine and beer at both bars, and then transitioning to the main reception bar. With only 2 bartenders, it will take them much longer to accomplish this, and you will only have one bartender at the main bar, while the other bartender moves all the alcohol from the cocktail reception bar to the main bar (you will end up paying for additional hours anyways, because your wedding bartending company will know that they have to send staff earlier to get all the set up done). Moving ice, coolers, mobile bars, wine bottles bottles of liquor, etc. takes a lot of man power and logistical planning. In this scenario, you would want 3 bartenders (or 2 bartenders and 1 bar back). Also, if you are serving cocktails that take more time to make (ie. Old fashions, martinis, etc.), you want enough staff to ensure you don’t have 75 guests waiting for a drink. Any great event bartending company knows exactly how much staff you will need to ensure efficient set up, a great bartending experience and enough clean up staff. Don’t skimp on bartending staff.
2. If you are providing alcohol, be sure to do the following:
We have couples who provide their own alcohol, because they believe they can get a better deal. We welcome anyone providing their own alcohol – after all, it is a lot of work for our team to create and modify alcohol orders, pick up the orders, and load alcohol on site (if you have never transported a few thousand dollars worth of alcohol to a wedding, its like a CrossFit workout). While we prefer to provide “alcohol consulting” for a variety of reasons (to ensure you don’t run out of alcohol, that you have proper ingredients, etc.), we have no problem with couples providing alcohol for their wedding. But, if you are going to provide the alcohol, here are recommendations:
- Send a list of all alcohol to your bartending company a couple months before your wedding.
- Be sure to include all bottle sizes (ie. 750 ml bottles, 1.5 L bottles, etc.)
- If you don’t want to pay for alcohol consulting, then have the liquor store provide recommendations for quantities to ensure you do not run out of alcohol)
- Create a plan for delivering alcohol on site to your wedding venue
- Share that plan with your wedding bartending team (ie. Where is the alcohol, does it need to be stored somewhere, does it need to be moved, chilled, etc.)
- Be sure to confirm who is providing the mixers, garnishes, etc.
3. Water – Have plenty of it
This might seem obvious – but if I have encountered one snafu over and over, it’s lack of water. We include filtered water service in all basic wedding bartending packages (because we learned the hard way that weddings often run out of water). Bottled water is expensive, but it is always great to have on-hand, especially at the end of the night or during warmer months. Ask your catering company if they are providing water. Also ask them how many water dispensers they will bring. If you have 200 guests, having one 2 gallon water dispenser won’t cut it. If your catering company is not providing water, you have the option of purchasing it yourself, or asking your wedding bartenders to bring it. The cheaper option is to use nice-looking water dispensers, add some sliced fruit and bring some water filters. Be sure there is running water on site that is easily accessible – even a bathroom sink will work. We use large Brita water filters and then use pitchers to add water to glass, 2 gallon water dispensers.
4. Cups and Glassware – make sure there are plenty
We have bartended some weddings where one of the favors is a glass mason jar. Guests are encouraged to use this as their glass all night for any and all drinks. This is very eco-friendly, which we love! However, there is a problem that can occur if there is a lack of glassware or cups as a backup plan. For example, a guest might want to use their mason jar for cocktails, but then doesn’t have a glass for water. Or..they want to switch the type of cocktail they are having, and need the glass rinsed out before a new beverage can be added. We recommend having back up glassware and/or clear plastic cups on hand as a backup plan.
5. IMPORTANT – Let Your Bartending Company Tell You What Equipment They Need, Even If You Think The Venue Has A Bar
This is one of the most important parts of this article. I often have couples tell me – “we don’t need a bar or equipment because the venue has a bar and coolers.” When I hear this, I get nervous. First, because I know that the couple is trying to save money by reducing equipment rentals and two, because I know we are likely going to need additional equipment that the venue might not have. This is not always the case. Out of the hundreds of weddings we have provided service for, there have been a few that have fully functioning bars on site with all necessary equipment. But the majority of them do not have a full bar set up.
What venues often have is a “serving bar” – This is a beautiful “bar” where the drinks are served, where the drink menu is displayed, and where the tip jar goes. However, there is no “back bar.” Hear me out. When you go to a brick and mortar bar, the “back bar” is where all of the alcohol is displayed, where the computers are, where most of the equipment is. And a wedding bar has to be not only functional, but it must be set up for speed. Once the reception begins, a long line of guests head over to the bar to grab a drink. You need fast bartenders who can serve your guests quickly. In order for the bartenders to serve the drinks quickly, they need a bar that is set up for success.
Our standard mobile bar, designed to serve 100 guests at a wedding, consists of the following:
- Two 6’ tables dressed in linen and decorative runners
- 6 Large coolers (2 to store serving ice, 2 for beer, 2 for wine)
- Front table is for serving drinks, ice tins, martini shakers, bartending equipment, drink menus, plastic cups, cocktail napkins, stirs, etc.
- Back table is for storing all alcohol, wine, mixers, fruit, sodas, etc.
- Coolers are stored under these tables so they are hidden from view and easily accessible to grab beer, ice, etc.
- Wine chilling buckets
If you have glassware instead of plastic cups, you will need 1-2 additional tables just to store the glassware. We often hear “I’ll provide coolers” as well. If you are serving 100 guests, you will need at least 6 large/extra larger coolers, otherwise your ice will melt (or leak if there is no place to store it), and your beer, wine, etc. will not be properly chilled. Definitely ask your bartending team what equipment they recommend based on the number of guests, beverage menu, etc. That’s what we are here for. Plus, it really isn’t fun to be worrying about coolers, tables and bar equipment on your wedding day.
Communication Tips Between Your Wedding Bartending Team
Communicate all logistics to your wedding bartending team ahead of time
Again, this seems obvious. But we have had plenty of situations where our team shows up and finds out that the mobile bar we brought is no longer needed (or worse yet, our team sets it up and then is told to move it or pack it up). Or there are no trashcans or trash bags – whoops. Or there are racks of glassware 250 yards from the main bar area that need to be moved to the bar area in order for the bartenders to use them to make drinks (that isn’t a problem but it might take an additional 40 minutes to move heavy glassware that could delay set up of the main bar). Most professional bartending companies will arrive on site 2 hours early for weddings. This is because they want to ensure there is plenty of time to set up, plenty of time for any last minute changes (ie. Weather related changes), to make sure all beer, wine, seltzer, etc. is chilled, they have time to cut fruit garnishes, etc.
If you have a wedding planner or day of coordinator, have them send the wedding itinerary to your bartending team
Definitely put your planner or coordinator in touch with your wedding bartending team. This ensures your bartenders have the full itinerary ahead of time and can plan accordingly. Good bartenders want to know if and when there is a champagne toast, what the couple drinks, what the mothers and fathers of the couple drink (we like to have these items noted so we can always be proactive), etc.
Talk To Your Wedding Bartending Company On The Phone
Most couples reach out to us via email and say they only want to communicate by email (not phone). People are busy with work, life, wedding planning, etc. so it is understandable that they don’t want to fill their days with phone call after phone call. Personally, I stress the importance of connecting with my couples via phone during the proposal process. Why? I cannot provide an accurate quote without a solid understanding of the venue, cocktail hour, equipment needs, etc. without speaking on the phone. So don’t avoid talking on the phone with the vendors who are involved in your wedding day. Most of us just want to ensure we exceed your expectations, provide exceptional service, and most importantly – help make your wedding day stress-free and enjoyable. A 15 minute phone call can provide a lot of helpful information!
I hope this guide is helpful as you start planning your wedding bar service. After many years of event planning, I have identified some trends in regards to what works and what does not. Weddings are incredibly special occasions, and I personally feel a duty to make sure our couples feel they receive exceptional service from the time we first connect until the wedding is over and the bar is cleaned up. Chesapeake Bartenders is honored to provide wedding bar service throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, and hope you will contact our team to help plan bar service for your special day!
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