For most events that you might be hosting, the food and beverage can easily be the most expensive cost. I’ve already covered some tips for saving money on your entire menu here, but I thought I might offer some suggestions specific to saving on alcohol, as bar costs can quickly add up if you’re not careful. Not all of these suggestions may work or be appropriate for your event, but it’s good to be aware of them.
BYO – Bring Your Own
One of the easiest ways to save money on alcohol is to provide it yourself, meaning, the event host goes out and buys the wine, beer and/or liquor, and brings it to the event venue to be served by the caterer. Unfortunately, this is not always an option. Depending on your venue and vendors and their liquor licenses, they may or may not be able to allow you to provide your own alcohol. Check your contract – there will be an exclusive provider clause in there if you aren’t able to bring your own. I’ve had better luck with this working at special events venues where you can bring your own caterer; many caterers allow you to provide your own alcohol.
If you are able to choose this method, you can save lots of money by working with a wholesaler or distributor. Alcohol has a high markup – a bottle of wine that you can buy at Total Wine for $15 might be served at a restaurant or hotel for $45. Also most distributors will allow you to return anything that’s unopened after the event.
Limit the choices
Assuming you cannot BYO, you can always limit the choices. For example, you can have a beer and wine-only bar. Liquor and mixed drinks aren’t always more expensive than wine (beer is usually a bit cheaper, basic mixed drinks like a rum and coke is usually comparable to a glass of wine), but on average, people consume liquor at a higher rate, so overall consumption is higher. In addition, offer one red and one white wine only, offer only two or three types of beer, and limit the number of mixers.
Bring the bar down a level
Hotels and caterers often have “bar packages” with different brand levels. Think of it as premium versus basic. Depending on your event and your guests, you may be able to “downgrade” your bar where you are still providing alcohol, but perhaps you offer Seagrams and Jim Beam instead of Maker’s Mark and Crown Royal. These different bar types are commonly called “Well” (lowest), “Call” (mid-range) and “Premium.” Some caterers and hotels might have different names that are more vague – such as “President’s” and “Ambassador’s.” Sometimes these choices aren’t clearly presented to you – always ask your caterer about different options.
Signature drinks are popular for weddings, but are growing increasingly popular for other events. In terms of saving money, this is a great way to offer a more limited bar menu, but still have a fun selection since most signature drinks are some kind of mixed cocktail. Always try to taste test the signature cocktail and see if you can make it with less expensive alcohol. If your drink has a strong flavor, you might not need the higher end liquor. Do a taste test and see if you can tell the difference.
Remove the high end items
Most open bar set ups include wine, beer, mixed cocktails and sparkling wine or champagne. Depending on the event, sometimes I remove the champagne because it’s often quite a bit more expensive per bottle. It might not seem like much, but if champagne is $30 per bottle and wine is only $20 per bottle, for a large event you could save a fair amount of money. Always make sure you ask for the per drink or per bottle price for each item. If there seems like an outlier, you might be able to remove it or replace it with something less expensive.
Consumption versus bar packages
Many caterers offer “bar packages” where you pay a set amount of money for a certain amount of time for alcohol. For example, a bar package may be $45 per person for two hours. No matter how much (or little) each person drinks, the price is the same. If your group drinks heavily, you might save money with this type of package. But do the math before you commit. Let’s say that in the above example ($45 per person for two hours), the consumption-based pricing is $6 for a beer, $7 for a mixed drink and $8 for a glass of wine. The average drink price is $7, so in two hours if your guest was drinking at least 7 drinks (which would equal $49), then the bar package would be a good deal. But if your guests averages only 1-2 drinks per hour, even on the high end, you would probably only pay $28 for two hours, not $45. And think about the group – remember, a bar package charges the same per person cost no matter if someone is drinking a lot or sipping Diet Coke. So think about how many guests will be drinking.
Drink tickets are a great way to limit the number of drinks served because you decide up front how many drinks you will pay for. You give each guest a set number of tickets (usually one or two), and then usually the bar switches to a cash bar (or perhaps just closes). People have mixed feelings about drink tickets – some people feel that they are tacky, others think they’re great. The rule of thumb I use is never use drink tickets in a scenario where you wouldn’t have a cash bar (so no weddings or other social events). If you choose to use drink tickets, they don’t have to be a free for all. You can choose which items your drink ticket may be used for, eliminating higher ticket items.
Those are just a few ways to save money while providing alcohol at events. Try the ones that work for you. Am I forgetting anything? Leave me a note in the comments!