Let's talk about bar etiquette for weddings, shall we? My recent observation is that brides and grooms seem to need a primer on what is appropriate, what is acceptable, and what is just plain tacky.
For some brides and grooms, the bar is the biggest expense at the wedding. They choose less expensive appetizers and dinner entrees, but they go all out when it comes to the bar. For some, it's obviously the most important feature of their wedding reception. By the time they choose the top shelf, the additional fancy signature drinks, micro-brews and add-on champagne, some couples actually spend more per person on beverages than food. That's okay, as long as it's not obvious.
Other couples go to the opposite extreme, wanting to provide as little alcohol as possible to their guests. Sometimes it's because the bride and groom don't drink, and sometimes it's an effort to keep their relatives and friends who are notorious for overindulging under control. Occasionally, the bride and groom are just trying to do the bar on the cheap. I've even had some folks who wanted to only serve soft drinks and let their guests pay cash for any booze they wanted. Ticky tacky.
Here's the deal - you should only offer what you can afford to spend. But unless you're having a dry reception or you have a strong objection to alcohol, you shouldn't try to make it something that it isn't. There are different bar levels available for you to choose from through most caterers and venues. At the lower, more-limited end, you can simply offer beer, wine and soft drinks. Top shelf includes everything you can think of, and then, of course, there are the add-ons.
You are not obligated to offer top shelf anything to anybody - let your snotty aunt who only drinks Belvedere suck it up for one night and drink rail-level vodka. If it's the bride and groom who want to offer Bombay Sapphire and Patron, be prepared to spend a pretty penny on the beverages. What you shouldn't do is offer a small selection of options but have everything else in the world visible on the bar with the intention of letting guests pay their own way. Just offer what you can afford. A cash bar at a wedding violates just about every possible rule of etiquette for properly hosting the event.
Signature drinks are a fun way to goose up a limited bar without spending a fortune. You can offer beer, wine and a signature beverage or two - something fun that represents or is a favorite cocktail of yours. If you start getting fancy and adding in a margarita bar with a variety of flavors or, God forbid, a mojito bar (the nightmare of every bartender in the world because they're such a pain in the ass to make), expect to pay a little bit more than you would for rum punch or something else that can be prepped in bulk.
It's significantly more expensive to have champagne available on your bar all night than it is to offer just a champagne toast when the speeches are made. With that said, most guests aren't all that thrilled with the champagne anyway (rarely do brides and grooms want to spend the money to serve GOOD champagne) and it can save you money to skip the champagne entirely and just let guests toast you with a fresh refill of whatever they happen to be drinking.
Some of my clients try to save money by only serving limited alcohol for part of the wedding reception. I'll plan it, but I don't think it's a good idea. I really do not recommend changing the bar level halfway through the night for a couple of reasons. First, it's confusing to the guests when they go back to the bar for another cocktail and are told they must switch to something else. Second, mixing beer, wine and booze doesn't go well for some guests and you may end up with more really wasted (and in some cases sick) guests than you expected at your wedding reception.
Offer what you can afford, and have that same list of beverages available throughout the evening. Don't feel pressured to offer a bigger, better bar because of one or two guests who you know are picky about their booze. Truth be told, after the first few drinks, most of them couldn't care less anyway. I've never, ever heard a guest complain about what kind of open bar was available at a wedding as long as the bar was open and available all night long.
Finally, you shouldn't allow your bartender to put a tip jar on the bar at your wedding reception. You are tipping your service staff (or you should be) and the caterer has been paid for the beverages. If some of your guests wish to slip a bill to a fantastic bartender, great! Those tips will be split with the rest of the service staff at the end of the night (unless the bartender is a scuzzball who pockets it), but a tip jar on the bar implies guests are supposed to tip - and they're not. At least not at a wedding reception where everything should be paid for by the host and hostess. Lots of people don't bring cash to weddings - and they shouldn't need it.
End of day, your wedding reception is a party being given by the bride and groom and/or their families, and the only expense your guests should incur is that of a gift and whatever it costs them to actually be there to attend. Once they've arrived, the wedding reception should be a fully-hosted event. It doesn't have to be the most expensive bar available, but it shouldn't cost the wedding guests to drink.
Until next time, happy wedding planning from Wedding in Vieques and Sandy Malone Weddings & Events!