A Guide to Having a Self-Service Bar at Your Wedding

Is a self-service bar right for your big day? Find out here.
Jenn sinrich headshot
Jenn Sinrich
Jenn sinrich headshot
Jenn Sinrich
The Knot Contributor
  • Jenn writes articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a speciality in planning advice and travel.
  • Jenn also writes for a myriad of other large-scale publications, including SELF, Women's Health, and more
  • Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Jenn worked as an on-staff editor at WhatToExpect.com, American Baby, Fit Pregnancy and FreshDirect.
Updated Mar 05, 2023

​​As any engaged person who's come before you knows, weddings involve a lot of planning. In fact, the list of decisions you'll have to make ahead of your big day are practically endless—and they really get into the nitty gritty. Once you decide where you're having your wedding and what type of wedding you plan to have, next up is the details, including what type of wedding bar you'd like to have at your reception. Will it be lined with bartenders available to make drinks for guests on the ready or would you instead prefer a lesser, but increasingly popular choice: having a self-service wedding bar? If you're interested in a self-service wedding bar, we've got all the details on how to serve alcohol at a wedding without a bartender.

What Is a Self-Service Wedding Bar?

Just as the name suggests, a self-service wedding bar is a type of bar where guests can make their own drinks during the course of the reception. These unmanned bars or drink stations do not have any professional bartending services attached to them, explains Deliece Knights, founder and CEO of Dhalia Events in New York. They do, however, often have an attendant that's assigned to the area to assist with the management of the station, she notes. "These attendants are not in any way associated with the purchase or physical service of those drinks, as self-service bars do not have any sale or exchange of money associated with them."

Where Can You Have a Self-Serve Wedding Bar?

The legality of having a self-service bar varies, not only by venue, but also by state. "State liquor licenses dictate this process, and at many venues, their liquor license requires a professional bartender (not even just a staff member) to pour any alcoholic items," explains Cathy O'Connell, owner of COJ Events in La Quinta, California. "Other state liquor licenses may allow it, but the venue chooses not to permit it for various reasons."

The most common venue in which you would see a self-serve wedding bar is a private estate or a raw venue space. At a private estate, you would be purchasing your own alcohol, however, this would still depend on the license of the staff and the venue. "Most standard venues and catering teams are required to have licensing for the service of alcohol, so they are not likely to support or allow the use of self-service bars on their property or in their service," explains Knights. "Hosts who have full control of the venue space will be able to have a self-service bar; however, it is recommended that they research all insurance and permits required for the state and county that they are hosting the event in."

Benefits of a Self-Service Bar

Here's a look at some of the benefits of having a self-service wedding bar.

It's easier to budget beverage costs.

With a self-service bar, hosts are able to carefully control their overall spending, notes Knights. "The total quantities and types of drinks purchased will be at the full discretion of the couple, which allows them to adjust their budgets up or down as needed," she says. "Further, any leftover unopened products are usually able to be returned, which allows couples to potentially experience total budget reductions at the end of their event."

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It saves you money.

Just like ordering a drink at a bar or restaurant costs more than if you purchased that same type of beverage from the store directly is more expensive, the same is true for a self-service bar when compared to a full-service bar. "Bartenders, set-up crews, and cleanup crews can become costly quickly, and some couples prefer to avoid those logistics and subsequent costs altogether by choosing a self-service option instead," says Knights. "Additionally, many caterers add general service fees as a percentage of the overall spend."

Drawbacks of a Self-Service Bar

As with any wedding decision, there are cons for every pro. Here's a look at some of the drawbacks of opting for a self-service wedding bar.

You risk underaged guests accessing the bar.

Without a designated person to check IDs, it's on you to ensure that underage guests do not have access to alcohol. "No one wants their under-aged cousins drinking at their wedding and causing problems with family dynamics or under-aged friends drinking and causing drama," notes Emily McMahon, owner of Soirée Wedding Planning in Eastern Iowa.

Guests are more likely to over-drink.

Self-service bars aren't monitoring how much alcohol anyone is consuming, which can lead to guests drinking too much, warns McMahon. "Guests who have had too much to drink can become irrational, unruly and make poor decisions," she says. "Law enforcement knows where all of the wedding venues are located, and DUIs happen to guests who decide to drive home after consuming too much alcohol, so unmonitored access to drinks is very risky."

You might be left with a ton of extra booze.

Opting for a self-service bar may leave you with way too much extra alcohol. Since you have to pay for everything upfront, you may over-purchase the number of drinks needed for your wedding reception. "We coordinated a wedding that had over 75 24-packs of cases of beer left over when the music stopped, and the parents were not happy about having to remove it all from the venue before midnight," says McMahon. "Alternatively, we've also seen the opposite: not enough drinks are planned for, and the event runs low or completely out."

Drink access can interfere with events.

Timing can often become an issue when there's no bartender manning the drink station. "At times when everyone should be quiet to pay attention to what is happening for the wedding, they could be going through products, opening cans or digging through ice," says Kate Reavy, owner of Cygnet Events and Design. "It's also hard to stick to an event end time without the bar closing because everyone will keep serving themselves."

How to Have a Self-Service Bar at Your Wedding Reception

If you're hoping to have a self-service bar at your wedding reception, here are a few pointers experts recommend incorporating.

Use clear signage.

Without a bartender, guests may not know where to go for drinks, especially if there is no traditional "bar area" either. For this reason, Knights recommends having detailed and adequate signage to ensure that guests know, not only where the bar is, but what drinks are on the menu, the brands of those options and any notes that you would like to share on overall consumption. "Signs will also help make it clear that the bar is self-service so that guests are not left guessing as to how the bar station is to be managed," she adds.

Create more than one bar area.

Without a skilled bartender, the drink pouring tends to be slower and take longer, which may create long lines or, worse, people ignoring lines that exist. To prevent this, Knights suggests creating more than one drink station to allow for an easier flow for your guests. "We typically recommend one station for every 40-50 guests to allow for smooth flow and less time wasted at the stations," she says. "Additionally, hosts can organize different types of drinks at different stations, allowing guests to quickly access the type of drink they would like more quickly."

Assign someone to restock the bar.

Without an actual bartender working the area, it's easy to run out of booze unknowingly. To prevent this, Knights recommends having an attendant present for restocking. "Attendants will not serve the drinks to guests, but they are useful to keep an eye on the inventory and available stocks for the event," she adds.

Self-Serve Bar Ideas

Check out these fun ideas for creating a self-serve bar experience that your guests won't forget.

Incorporate a drink cart.

Self-serve alcohol vehicles are a fun way to have a self-serve bar as it also adds to the overall decor for your event. "We have used them for beer, wine, champagne, margaritas and a combination of both," says O'Connell. "Often the vehicle is placed for a specific moment—guest arrival, cocktail hour—but not the entire event."

Decorate tables with cans and bottles.

"Tables topped with large tubs of cans and bottles floating in an ice bath are a great way to keep soda, beer and white wine cold and accessible for guests," says McMahon. She recommends organizing the drinks by type in each tub and pairing them with a cute label of the selections, so that guests can easily find what they're looking for.

Create double-sided open shelving.

McMahon recommends placing shelves in a wide open area, such as the dance floor or pre-function area. "Stack glasses of wine or champagne, and guests can take a beverage from any side," she says. "Similarly, a wall with shelving that features the drinks hanging is a great way to serve guests wine or champagne efficiently."

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