An open bar means the party host pays for all the alcohol their guests drink. Open bars are common at weddings, birthday parties, corporate events and other celebrations. The price of an open bar for a party or wedding reception can range anywhere from $200 to $15,000. According to Mia with Mia’s Martini in Los Angeles, California, "An open bar is like buying a car. It’s totally based on budget. To determine how much your open bar will be, ask yourself whether you’re looking for a Hyundai or a Ferrari." Costs depend on a variety of factors.
The party host can buy the alcohol or the bar catering company can purchase the alcohol and roll the cost into the total tab. When the host purchases the alcohol, he or she can buy in bulk from warehouses to save money. Bar catering companies typically charge per person for alcohol, says Mia of Mia’s Martini, and the starting price is usually in the low thousands. The average starting rate per guest for an open bar in Los Angeles is $20–$30.
The more guests at an event, the higher the open bar cost will be. Regardless of whether the host or the bar catering company pruchases the alcohol, the more guests of drinking age invited to the party, the higher the overall bar tab.
If the bartending company is required to pay a liquor license fee for the venue, it may pass that fee onto you. Fees vary by state, city and county. Ask the venue and bartender if any fees apply for your event.
Expensive liquor increases the overall costs of an open bar. It seems like a no-brainer, but here is where the Hyundai and Ferrari analogy comes in. "If you want a floater of $100 scotch on top of each cocktail served, your price will increase," says Mia of Mia’s Martini. To save money, choose the $20 bottle of tequila, not the $120 bottle of tequila.
"A lot of couples tend to think that limiting a bar to beer and wine only will make it cheaper, but it’s actually pretty costly," says Mia of Mia’s Martini. When you consider that a $10 bottle of wine pours four drinks and a $20 bottle (1.75 liters) of vodka pours up to 40 drinks, you see how serving liquor can actually save you money.
Open bars need trained and licensed bartenders to safely serve guests. Rates vary based on region of the country, cost of living and competition in the area. In addition, high-end or celebrity bartenders can command higher rates than a catering company. Here are two examples of hourly rates for bartenders:
Mia’s Martini: $40 per hour, plus tip—although the company does work with clients who have limited budgets and will negotiate at times to provide special discounts to Thumbtack customers.
Dr. Mix-A-Lot in Bethesda, Maryland: $40 per hour, including tip
An open bar can be very fancy or scaled back. Mia’s Martini provided the two wedding reception open bar services below, and both had the same bar budget. The first client offered a pared-down menu and served nearly twice as many people, with two more bartenders and two bar setups. The second client hosted bigger drinkers (so know your audience when planning an open bar) and also spared no expense on liquor brands and mixers, offering a variety of high-end drinks.
Wedding Reception 1: $3,000
Two bar setups (tables, tools, ice bins) provided by company
Four staff working an eight-hour day (32 total work hours)
Two liquors total with two featured cocktails—each made using simple mixers
Two craft beer options
Two high-end wine choices (average $15–$20 per bottle)
Coffee station and hydration station
Wedding Reception 2: $3,000
Two staff working an eight-hour day
No bar provided by staff (provided by the venue)
Two craft beer options.
Three upscale wine choices
Six to eight liquors with every type of mixer available—essentially a full bar with upscale alcohols such as Glenfiddich scotch
Coffee station and hydration station
"You can have a nice open bar for $1,000," says Mia of Mia’s Martini. “You don’t have to pay a lot of money to have high quality if you shop smart and work with the bar caterer to create some options.”
Unless the venue provides a bar, party hosts will need to provide tables or bars or rent them from the bar catering company. Here are examples of additional costs associated with hosting a bar.
Ice: $0.40 per pound
Garnishes such as lemons, limes and oranges: $15
Two six-foot folding tables with linens: $20
Custom-built bars, including speed rack, ice bins, built-in cutting boards and back shelving for liquor display with LED lighting: $100–$250
Standard folding tables with linens are included in packages at no extra charge
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