Serving alcohol to your wedding guests is a balancing act of etiquette, logistics and cost. This leaves many couples wondering just how long their wedding reception’s open bar should go.

Common courtesy dictates that guests should not be expected to pay for their drinks. Serving within your means for the entirety of your reception, whether that means solely beer and wine, a single specialty cocktail or a limited variety of liquor, is preferred by wedding guests over an open bar that shifts to a cash bar later on.

This etiquette doesn’t help answer the question of how long a bar should remain open! The standard open bar is four hours long and some venues allow you to add a fifth hour. In reality, the length of your open bar depends on logistical factors throughout your reception’s itinerary.

Cocktail Hour

An hour of full drink service before dinner means you have three hours of your standard open bar package remaining for dinner and dancing. Depending on the length of your reception and if you’re serving during dinner, a cocktail hour service could mean you’ll be extending your bar package by an additional hour.

You could also serve a modified drink menu such as beer, wine and a specialty cocktail before dinner instead of opting for a fully stocked open bar.

Venue and Location

Some venues, towns and states have limits on how long your open bar can last. Your venue and caterer should be able to discuss what options you have within these regulations.

Dinner Plans

Closing the bar during dinner and speeches helps keep people in their seats. You’ll also save a half hour of your open bar for after-dinner festivities.

If you’re not planning on providing wine at the tables during dinner or champagne for your toasts, communicate this information with guests before the bar closes. They will need to get a fresh drink from the bar right before taking their seat.

Call it a Night

Whether you mean it or not, people assume that last call also means that your reception is coming to a close. You bar should close between 15 and 30 minutes before the end of your reception. Everyone will have plenty of time to finish their last drink and hit the dancefloor for one final song.

If you’re planning to have a reception continue well into the night, your bar should continue serving. In this case, an open bar with pricing based on consumption rather than number of guests could make more sense, as family and acquaintances likely won’t stay late.

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