Belly Up to the Bank | How to Stick to your Budget When Planning your Wedding Bar

We recently posted a facebook post where I talked about the fact that in addition to being charming and fun to have around, the Happy Camper Cocktail Company can save you almost $2,000 on your wedding bar service. (To skip the rest of the reading and see that $2,000 in savings, scroll down to the table at the bottom.) It was a big hit, and that post has since been liked and shared more than any other on our page.

 I want to back up that claim and run folks through the math so that you can understand the finances behind your bar service options. In this post I am going to walk you through three options:  the traditional catering/bar service, the Happy Camper Cocktail Company approach to bar service, and even how to DIY your own bar service. Why would I do that, you ask?

Well, I understand how important your event budget is, and how important it is to stick with it. The wedding industry is an expensive one and sure, we want to have a successful business that makes money, but I'm also Team "buy a house," Team "savings accounts are important," and Team "whatever it takes for you to start your marriage off on a strong financial foundation." So, I am strongly in favor of prioritizing your wedding needs and wants to create the perfect day for YOU and YOUR PARTNER and your guests. And that looks a little bit different for everyone. 

It is my responsibility as a bartender to point out that there is a different between this and a keg cup of whiskey and soda. Each has their place- I like a whiskey coke at outdoor country concerts. i like fancy cocktails at weddings. Photo by B. Jones Photogrpahy

It is my responsibility as a bartender to point out that there is a different between this and a keg cup of whiskey and soda. Each has their place- I like a whiskey coke at outdoor country concerts. i like fancy cocktails at weddings. Photo by B. Jones Photogrpahy

First, prioritize your wedding reception budget and find out where the bar stands

For some, the extra work of a DIY bar and the extra liability they will take on by not using a licensed and insured company will be worth the tradeoff to be able to afford the Louboutins they always dreamed would peek out from under their dress. Others may have always dreamed of being married at a grand hotel or another venue that requires they use their catering services exclusively, and as such, they will pay far more for their bar service. Others who really dig a good cocktail, appreciate the philosophy and taste of farm to bar drinks, and have a thing for vintage campers turned mobile bars will hire us! My goal is that after this blog post, you'll fully understand your bar service options and together with your partner, decide what's best for your big day.


Option 1: hire traditional caterer/bar service for your wedding

Venues where you might encounter this: hotels, restaurants, and other venues owned by catering companies, where they are the exclusive food and drink provider, or food caterers who also have a license to sell alcohol packages

If a caterer has a license to sell you alcohol, they will do so, because getting these licenses is difficult and expensive. They will do so at a considerable mark up, because that's how booze in the USA works. These caterers will not allow you to purchase your alcohol and your service separately. Rather they will sell you the alcohol via a cash bar where either you or your guests will be charged per drink, (typically$7-10 per drink) or they will sell you a bar package. These bar packages are priced per hour or per reception (usually includes 3-5 hours of alcohol consumption) and are priced based on a few calculations. First, they will assume that each guest will drink 1-2 drinks per hour. Then they will take the average cost of a beer, wine, or liquor drink and charge you that price, multiplied by the number of hours of service, and then charge you that amount per guest at your event. This math is laid out in the table below.


Option 2: Bar services that allow you to buy your own alcohol, and then they provide the service. This is where Happy Camper Cocktail Company comes in, with a few distinctions

Venues where you might encounter this: venues with open catering policies, some venues with preferred vendor lists with bar service companies on them, and estate/backyard weddings

These companies focus on the service and mixology of the alcohol. They will typically charge per hour for bartenders, a lesser charge per hour for bussers , and then charge per item for the components needed to make a drink. For instance, in the Seattle area, quality bartenders are typically hired for $40-55 per hour. Bussers are $20-30 per hour. Then, to make and serve these drinks properly, you will need mixers, ice, several kinds of cups, straws, napkins, bar tools, a bar to work on, and a draft system if you are serving drinks on tap. Most companies will add each of these charges to your bill separately. When I got a quote like this for my wedding I began by thinking I would save a ton of money, but once these charges were added on I was shocked by the new price tag. It wasn't that this price tag was inappropriate, it was reasonable for the market, but I was not expecting it because the charges came one by one.

As a former budget conscious, backyard wedding bride, I designed the pricing of Happy Camper Cocktail Company to be all inclusive so that all clients would know up front what their bar service would cost. Because we charge a flat fee per drinking guest, we've already calculated on the backend how much work will be involved for the bartenders, and we add bartenders as needed to properly serve (we hate lines!) your group size. We don't charge you for additional bartenders unless you elect to add a separate bar location (not a bad idea for indoor and outdoor receptions or really large groups.)

In addition, packages are priced according to the components needed to make the drinks offered. If you break down our Jacqueline package for instance, which is $16 per guest for 2 signature cocktails, beer, and wine; $10 covers costs for the mobile bar to show up onsite, and covers service/ personnel. This covers our cost of staffing, mobile bar maintenance, insurance, and liability. The additional $6 per guest covers the 2 signature drinks offered on your menu. If we assume that each of your guests will drink at least 2 of these cocktails, we're basically charging you less than $3 per drink for the mixers. Our mixers are fresh, made with ingredients from local farms, and all made in-house. Compare our beautifully presented $3 drink to the $6 you paid yesterday for a fresh juice from a coffee stand, and you're saving money.

Pear & Ginger Spiced Cocktail. Photo by Markie Jones Photography

Pear & Ginger Spiced Cocktail. Photo by Markie Jones Photography


Since I love (simple) math, let's break it down even further. If each of your guests knocks back 1-2 drinks per hour (why not? It's a festive occasion!), for the 4 hours included in our bar service, that is an average of 6 drinks per guest. Divide our $16 Jacqueline package price tag by 6, and each drink has a cost of $2.67. That's less than most bars charge for a PBR, and certainly far less than the $6-10 you will be charged per drink in Option 1 with a traditional caterer/bar service.

But wait, you say…that's just a mocktail. Totally. We would never forget the alcohol, trust me, it's top of our minds too! Buying alcohol is actually pretty inexpensive when done in bulk, and our wholesale partnerships with distillers, brewers, and wineries means that you can save 30-50% off retail prices. We forged these partnerships because we wanted to make it possible for engaged couples to consider premium, craft Washington-made brands at similar pricing to lesser quality National brands. Basically, we heart the Evergreen state and friends don't let friends drink Smirnoff on their wedding day.

I've calculated the cost to buy alcohol in the table below, using for example a 100 person wedding with craft liquors, quality micro-brew beer and reputable and delicious wines (let's be real, if you buy some 2 buck chuck from Trader Joe's you will save even more!)


Option 3: build a DIY bar for your wedding reception

Venues that allow this: its basically limited to some public parks or backyard/estate weddings

You purchase alcohol, supplies, and bartending service all separately, and then coordinate the setup and staff on the day of the wedding

Let's start with the obvious- you will save cash using this option. But PLEASE consider the tradeoffs you will make to do so. I'll be honest with you, 5 years ago when I got married I did this option, and I have some regrets. Here are the things I wish I had thought about:

Please leave this part to the professionals. Preferably ones with awesome nails. Photo by Photos by Angie and Paul

Please leave this part to the professionals. Preferably ones with awesome nails. Photo by Photos by Angie and Paul

Bathtub fantasies abound, but realistic expectations will really make your day in the end. Photo by Matthew Morgan photography via Pinterest,

Bathtub fantasies abound, but realistic expectations will really make your day in the end. Photo by Matthew Morgan photography via Pinterest,

  1. Bartending service- hire someone you can trust, and be aware of and comfortable with their skill level. Bartenders who are experienced and skilled with their craft will charge more. Less experienced bartenders, or bartenders who serve as a side gig or hobby rather than a business will charge less. Be realistic about what you expect from them based on their pricing. Many bartenders don't know how to troubleshoot draft systems so they may think your keg has "blown" (run out) when actually, the lines or valves need attention or the temperature is off. (I have seen this SO many times! I've seen many an "emergency beer run" take place when a keg remains half full.) Don't expect a bartender whose only experience is pouring wines and beers to make you a perfect Manhattan. And above all, make sure you've seen a copy of their WA state Liquor Control board Class 12 permit. This permit means they've taken a class, know the rules, andmakes them responsible for the safe service of your guests.

  2. The type of bartender you hire brings us to insurance. If you use a reputable bar company they will have liquor liability insurance and it will be therefore of utmost importance to them that their staff is serving safely. In the worst case scenario, they, and not you and your partner, will be held liable. If you hire someone gigging independently they likely don’t carry any insurance. In that case, you should definitely look into buying insurance separately, especially if your event is at a private residence. We carry the standard 2 million dollars of liquor liability insurance plus another million in general liability.

  3. Drink limitations: when setting up a DIY bar you are likely not going to be making your own shrubs, bitters, syrups, and liqueurs. (If you are, cheers to you! You're a badass and I want your recipes.) There are sometimes complicated components needed to make great cocktails and fresh ingredients always tastes better. Unless you and your bridesmaids think squeezing lemons is fun day-of-wedding prep, you will likely end up trying to design a menu around ease and limited ingredients, and you will need someone to prep these ingredients. Trust me, you'll be busy that morning, so you'll need to outsource that job. If you want a soda + booze drink menu at your wedding, or plan to stick with beer and wine, this will be fine for you. If you're more of a foodie or want to theme your drinks to your wedding, you'll spend a lot of time on this next part.

  4. Helpers and Prep- you will be buying, picking up, dropping off, and coordinating a lot for your wedding if you DIY. If you're the DIY'er type, you're probably not only DIY'ing the bar, but several other components as well. I am a planner by nature and an insane list-maker so this did not intimidate me. I soon found though, that I had taken on an impossible amount for my fiancé and I to do alone. I strongly encourage you to sit down and realistically plot out the days prior to the wedding and start making assignments for the many errands that will be required. Hopefully you havea lot of family members with flexible work schedules to make these happen! Then consider which things are the most important to you to DIY, and which warrant the added convenience of hiring a service.

  5. Bar prep and purchasing- Ok moving on to the bar specific prep. You will need to buy liquor, wine, soda, and juices in advance. Then think about renting wine glasses, cocktail glasses and beer pints or buying disposables. Next plan to rent, borrow, or buy (possibly from different sources) a bar, decanters, bins, and coolers. Don't forget cocktail napkins and straws like I did! Finally, plan to send family members out last minute to pick up kegs, taps, ice, and trash cans to hold kegs. In my experience with this part, several local stores were out of ice, given it was one of the hottest weekends of the year and we needed over 30 bags to fill all of the barrels and bins. Also, I wish my wedding pictures didn't have trashcans with kegs in them. Also, we never returned those kegs, you're welcome for the $100 deposit Mac and Jack's. Also, the trash cans leaked onto the wood floor.

  6. Styling and look- you will need to collect, rent, or buy every piece of décor, glassware and bar equipment. Then think menu, flowers for the bar, coasters, and drink labels. I'll keep it simple and say all of this takes time, $ adds up, and it's one area you probably don't feel like prioritizing for beauty, but styling a bar can go a long way in the overall presentation of an event. Oh, and how are you going to get that 600 pound claw foot bathtub you pinned a picture of on Pinterest filled with sparkling lemonade bottles to your venue? These are the things I did not think through when considering my bar set up. RIP, my beautiful antique bathtub fantasy!

  7. For full disclosure, here's how I DIY'ed my bar: I did a lot of research and then selected big batch cocktails I knew I could batch in advance for my wedding. I let people self-serve which I would now NEVER recommend. In hindsight I know that my wonderful family cannot be trusted with such blatant freedom, God bless them. Things happened. Anyway, two dear out of town friends staying at my parents' house (which was my venue) followed my recipe and mixed the drinks the morning of. The drinks were fine, they did a great job. I'm just saying, they could have been a lot better. As noted above, there were a lot of logistical hurdles despite the fact that I had a small army of help, and my family had hosted 5 backyard weddings previously. (See "no napkins or straws.) If I had it to do again, I'd make different choices, and I'd know how quickly $2,000 can get spent trying to assemble a "cheap" DIY bar. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes if you choose this option!


wedding bar cost comparison chart

Please note: I do not pretend to know what everyone in the Seattle area charges. I have based these averages off of my experience planning events both as a bride and a representative of a corporation. This research led me to these numbers, and hopefully they will be of help as you fine tune your wedding plans.