What is an Open Bar?

Deborah Ng

An open bar allows attendees at an event to drink without having to pay. Guests are able to choose any available drink at any time. The person hosting an event often includes this service because of convenience and for the enjoyment of the guests, paying a fee in advance that covers the cost of all the drinks. A catering company can provide the service, or it could be formally provided by a bar or restaurant.

Guests can drink without paying at an open bar.
Guests can drink without paying at an open bar.

Types of Open Bars

The catering company, restaurant or host can specify the drink selection that is available at the open bar. A full bar contains nearly all types of liquor and some non-alcoholic drinks. Other popular options include an open wine bar or a bar that only serves beer. The service is not considered an open bar if exclusively non-alcoholic drinks are prepared.

A full bar serves nearly every kind of liquor as well as non-alcoholic drinks.
A full bar serves nearly every kind of liquor as well as non-alcoholic drinks.

Some hosts choose similar arrangements, such as timed or ticketed bars. The first is an arrangement in which the host agrees to pay for drinks for a certain amount of time, usually a few hours, after which the guests have to start paying. With a ticketed bar, attendees are issued tickets for a certain number of free drinks. Additionally, many companies allow hosts to specify which types of drinks they will pay for and those that must be paid for by guests. This is sometimes called a limited open bar. The opposite of an open bar is called a cash bar.

Guests might get shots from an open bar.
Guests might get shots from an open bar.


The primary advantage of an open bar is freedom for guests. They can order drinks whenever they like. Selection is another reason for this choice, as people can order from a diverse range of drinks. A bartender will be able to mix custom drinks and can supply virgin drinks to those who do not want any alcohol.

Social events may feature an open bar.
Social events may feature an open bar.


The main disadvantage of an open bar is that guests are able to order drinks without any supervision. This sometimes results in unruly or loud behavior that can be disruptive during a formal event. Also, if the bar has seating, it has the potential to draw attention away from the main attraction if a group of friends suddenly sits down.

Cost can also quickly become a concern with this type of arrangement, since overindulgent guests might consume far more liquor than was originally planned. If a restaurant provides the bar, then actual receipts could determine the cost of the bill at the end of the night. Open bars are almost always more expensive than other options such as cash bars. The cost can increase if the host allows people to order expensive types of liquor. Some restaurants and catering companies do not stock expensive liquors while running this type of service unless specifically requested by the host.


Generally speaking, people should tip the servers at an open bar as if the drink was full price, unless the hosts indicates that they're being otherwise compensated. People should not hover around the bar for a long period of time, because the event should be the center of attention, not the drinking. It's also important for guests to know their limits when drinking, so as not to become a nuisance to the host or other attendees. Basic courtesy and self-control is expected, which includes avoiding getting drunk or disruptive or taking advantage of the host by ordering a lot of expensive drinks. In some areas, bartenders may be prohibited from serving alcohol to people who look drunk, so guests should be aware of this possibility and not argue with the bartender if he or she refuses to serve them.


In many jurisdictions, the serving of alcohol at any event creates liability issues for the host and the bartenders. An intoxicated guest could go outside and cause trouble or get into an accident. In many jurisdictions, this can leave the host and the bartender legally responsible for monetary damages. Both the host and the bartender should have some way to manage people who seem to be drinking too much. Designated driver programs or confiscating car keys before serving drinks are both effective solutions.

An open bar might encourage excessive drinking.
An open bar might encourage excessive drinking.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Personally, if I went with an open bar at a wedding, I wouldn't invest in too many top shelf alcohols. Most drinkers I know are perfectly satisfied with cocktails made from well brands, especially if they're not paying for them. You'd want to go a notch or two higher than Old Rotgut, obviously, but guests at a wedding reception should understand that the budget extends to the food and beverages as well.

I agree that asking guests to pay for individual drinks seems to defeat the idea of a carefree celebration. A cash bar at a school reunion makes more sense, because some attendees might be tempted to drink too much when reunited with former buddies from younger days. At a wedding, however, more people would probably want to avoid embarrassing the bride or groom's family by overindulging.


@Cary, I prefer the open bar too. I plan to have one at my wedding, even though it is a bit more expensive. I would feel weird having a cash bar and making my guests pay. Open bars seem to be more common at the weddings I have been to. I don’t know whether or not I should upgrade to the more expensive alcohols though. I also like the idea of having a couple of people from my wedding party keep an eye on the guests and call a cab if necessary.


Open bars are great, even if you only offer a limited choice of alcohols. At a wedding, an open bar with just a few choices of beer and wine can provide a good selection for everyone without costing too much.

Post your comments
Forgot password?