Spend a significant amount of time reading wedding-planning forums and you’ll soon see that the two biggest wedding-related alcohol questions appear to be, “Do we have to serve alcohol?” and “Can we have a cash bar?”
The answer to the first question is a resounding “No!” Alcohol-free receptions are actually quite common in certain parts of the United States. For instance, many couples still hold their receptions in church fellowship halls, and because many religious organizations frown on imbibing, alcohol is often not even allowed at such receptions. But what if alcohol is commonly served at receptions in your culture? Simply put, so what? If you don’t want alcohol at your wedding reception, you don’t have to have it. Maybe there are some guests or members of the wedding party who are alcoholics, or maybe you just can’t afford to spring for alcohol. Your reasons don’t really matter. You are inviting your loved ones to share your joy, and you are providing them food, (nonalcoholic) drink, and good company, at the very least. Anyone who is going to judge you because you’re unwilling to provide alcohol is not worth your worry. And anyone who can’t go a few hours without a drink has a problem.
The answer to the second question is far more complicated. Traditional etiquette – and by etiquette I mean societal standards of basic politeness, not ideas about what weddings are supposed to entail – says that you do not invite a guest to a party and then make that guest pay for the refreshment offered. I agree with this wholeheartedly.
However, many argue that as long as sodas, water, punch, or other drink options are available, the hosts have done their duty to provide liquid refreshment. I see the logic in this argument, but the practice of having a cash bar continues to make me uncomfortable. I’d really prefer to pay for anything my guests might consume at my party.
The crux of the whole dilemma is that in some cases, guests might prefer a cash bar to no bar at all. If this is the situation you’re faced with, are you shortchanging your guests if you don’t offer a cash bar? When my husband and I were planning our reception, we considered taking all of our guests out to a restaurant after our ceremony. However, I felt obligated to pay for their drinks if we did so, and I was fearful that the final bill would be more than we could afford. I could not commit to a restaurant reception for this reason, and wondered if we should simply have an alcohol-free reception. My husband was certain that our guests would be happy to pick up their own drink tabs if it meant they could decide for themselves whether or not to indulge. In the end, we simply compromised by having a nice meal with punch and cake in the park and inviting everyone back to our home for drinks that we provided.
Some couples compromise by offering a limited open bar that becomes a cash bar after a certain period of time, and other couples offer a limited number of drink tickets, or vouchers for free drinks, to guests. Neither of these compromises really answers the question of the appropriateness of a cash bar, however, because in both cases a cash bar still exists.
Other couples offer a limited open bar that simply closes after an hour or two. Some couples serve wine and beer only, or signature cocktails only, or some combination, and do not provide a full bar at all. Both of these solutions do completely address the issue, and for larger weddings, they work well. However, for a small, restaurant reception like the one my husband and I considered, they would be impractical. How can you tell a guest that you will pay for a glass of wine but not a whiskey sour? How can you tactfully say that you will pay for only two drinks when you don’t have those cute little drink ticket envelopes at preset place settings?
So, can you have a cash bar? I’d love to be able to give you a definitive answer, but I can’t. If you want to serve alcohol, the right answer is the one that is right for you and right for your guests. I firmly believe that you should always avoid doing what is rude, but what is rude is often a matter of perspective. How cash bars are viewed is often a matter of family tradition, regional tradition, and cultural tradition.
I can almost guarantee that even if the majority of your guests are happy with your decisions concerning alcohol at your wedding, not every guest will be. That’s okay; you can only do the best you can to be thoughtful and kind. Hopefully, you are able to invite only those who love you and support you to your wedding, and they will also be thoughtful and kind – too thoughtful and kind to let a difference of perspective color their opinion of you or your wedding.