Bar talk with Mint & Mirth: Licensing, insurance, and when to hire professional bartenders

Guest post by Joni

Joni Whitworth is the co-founder of Mint & Mirth — “the West Coast's best-loved bartenders.” She's also full of tips about bartending, drink serving, and making.

Joni and Jennelle of Mint and Mirth gives us the lowdown on wedding bartending. (Photo from Mint & Mirth's Instagram)
Joni and Jennelle of Mint and Mirth gives us the lowdown on wedding bartending. (Photo from Mint & Mirth's Instagram)

Let's talk about when you should hire professional bartenders for your wedding, when you shouldn't, and how to cut costs on the bar area in general.

The good news is that professional bartenders are not always necessary. There are two main variables at play here: the laws of your state, and the rules of your venue.

State laws vary widely and can change often, so I won't try to go into detail about the laws of each individual liquor control commission. You can usually visit your state's .gov website and find a section that details laws regarding drinking and serving alcohol, when and where it's allowed, and who is allowed to serve it.

The basics are these:

  • Some states have licences for people who serve alcohol (somewhat similar to a ServSafe® test).
  • These may be voluntary licences, i.e. to gain credibility and demonstrate professionalism, or mandatory licences, i.e. the server can't work without one.
  • Bar licences are not just for the person behind the bar mixing the drinks. In states that require one, anyone who serves an alcoholic beverage of any kind must have one, so that can include a barback, a server, etc.
  • Your city may also have its own custom alcohol laws, so check into that as well.

Venues set their own terms in accordance with their business plans and insurance, but the basics are these:

  • Most venues allow some form of drinking, although parks often don't — be sure to be clear on your venue's policies!

  • Some venues only allow beer and wine, but not to worry. We will have a whole other post on how to make “cocktails” with beer, wine, and champagne, and you can also check out our article on mocktails.
  • Most venues require around one million dollars of insurance coverage using something called Host Liquor Liability Insurance. This is basically a special insurance policy for the night that lists you, as the host, or your bartending company, as the server, as the responsible party for the night in the event of property damage, an accident, or (heaven forbid) death. Host Liquor Liability Insurance will name the venue as additionally insured. This insurance should cost you around $100 to $200 depending on the size of your wedding. Your bar catering company can purchase this for you, and if you don't have a bar caterer, your venue can probably recommend a company. Once you have it, make copies or email a PDF to your caterers, planner, venue, etc. so everyone is on the up and up.
  • If you want to have a cash bar, insurance gets much more complicated. I do not recommend it.
  • Some venues require that you select a caterer from their “approved list.” This is your cue to run! Nine times out of ten they're getting a payout from the catering company. They are not referring you to the best fit for your needs, but to whomever gives them the biggest kickback.
  • If your venue is someone's home or property, great! Just make sure you take the time to look up the homeowner's insurance policy, read it, and call the insurance company to ask questions.

How do you choose a reputable bar caterer?

Just like any other wedding vendor, they should have a nice web presence, good reviews, a standard contract, and a list of references you can contact. Tell them what you envision for the night and ask how they can make it happen.

How much should you pay?

Take into account the cost of living in your area, how much experience the bartender has, and the level of service you are getting.

  • If you want someone to design a bar menu to match your catering menu, plan with you in the months preceding the wedding, buy and bring all of the alcohol and ingredients, you should expect to pay around $50 to $100 per hour.
  • If you only need someone to show up on the day-of and pour beer and wine, you can get someone for around $20 to $50 per hour.

Now let's talk about times when you DON'T need to hire a professional bartender

If you've determined that neither your state nor your venue require one, you are in the clear. Work your social networks and find someone in your friends or family who might be willing to volunteer. They should be responsible, fun, gracious, and willing to attend your wedding as a sober guest, meaning no alcohol and no drugs of any kind. This is important — they should not be under the influence of anything during the wedding. I know this stipulation is no fun, but keep in mind that this is a big day. You don't want to be left with the unpleasant memory of something that went wrong.

Next, draw up some sort of contract or agreement that outlines when you'd like them to arrive and what you'd like to serve. Go over the bar menu and get an idea of how much of each ingredient you'll need (we will have another article that goes into pricing breakdowns and estimations of how much to buy). If you have any expectations about how they should dress, tell them that as well. Figure out who will set up the bar area, who will ice the kegs, and who will be in charge of cleanup afterwards.

This is a general outline of how licensing and insurance works in the world of wedding bartending, so please don't take any of this as legal advice. Now, what else would you like to know about this subject? Any specific things you've come up against during your planning process?

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Comments on Bar talk with Mint & Mirth: Licensing, insurance, and when to hire professional bartenders

  1. I would add that MANY venues require you use their own or a preferred caterer, and often those prices are better than prices you may find on your own with outside caterers. I have done tons of research on this specifically, and that’s what I found to be true in my area. I don’t care where the money goes (kickbacks) as long as I’m not shelling out a ridiculous sum, which independent caterers can be totally guilty of, as much as any that work with a venue.

    That in mind, many caterers also have their own rules about bar/alcohol. My venue doesn’t care what we do with alcohol, but the 2 caterers they make us choose from have their own rules and fees.

    I wouldn’t say that a catering/venue collab is cause to run at all. Just crunch your numbers and negotiate carefully.

    • I should add that bartenders are synonymous with caterers for the purpose of my statement. Our caterers (and most I’ve talked to) provide the bartenders.

    • Agreed. A bunch of the places we looked at, have worked, or worked with as caterers, had preferred caterers because they know the area, the access issues, the kitchen equipment, have proven themselves competent and trustworthy.

    • I run a lot of events at historic buildings (mansions, hotels, etc.), & these places are the #1 type of site to have an “approved vendor” list. It’s not just for kickbacks — it’s bec. they have worked with those vendors before & trust that the vendors won’t totally mess up their precious building! Some sites have unique requirements, things like delicate old wood flooring that they don’t want vendors lugging heavy equipment over. Anyway, approved vendor lists aren’t something to be scared of, just know what you’re getting into.

      Another point: you may be able to get a liability insurance rider through your or your parents’ homeowners insurance for as little as $50. Same coverage, save money, just ask your / your parents’ agent 🙂

  2. Question: Is it necessary to have someone man the bar if it’s just a beer/wine event? Like any other party, could you just have the booze in a couple of corners and have people help themselves? What are the potential drawbacks, other than guests over-serving themselves? I’ve been to some mighty awesome parties in my day, and I can’t remember one that had a designated bartender. Does that change once you have 100-150 people in one place? How does a bartender help?

    • Bartenders can help prevent overservice simply by forcing people to ask for rather than “sneak” a drink once they’re drunk. and also stock/crowd flow issues. A good bartender will be able to make drinks (even easy ones) faster than your guests can, getting everyone served faster. And unless you have everything available already sitting on the table so that there is no restocking, then you need someone in charge of that. (100 ppl @ 1 drink per hour x short 4 hour reception = 400 drinks. w/3 options = easily 700-900 drinks sitting on one table; it won’t fit.)

    • A bar tender can also ask for ID so if you have any sneaky teenagers who may be wanting to sneak a drink or two it makes it more inaccessible for them. It also makes for less trouble and that *hopefully* the amount of drinks that you have supplied, last the night.

    • As someone who used to work functions where we would have alcohol set up like this, it’s normally fine, but there are a couple of issues. 1) is mess. People pouring thier own drinks make hella mess. Bartenders have to clean up thier own mess, so they don’t make it as badly! 2) Related to 1, glasses. Glasses everywhere. No bartenders means no-one clearing up glasses, or people running out of glasses. So bear in mind how people will refill on drinks. 3) There will be that one guy/gal who decides to get ratarsed. You can minimise this by only serving wine and beer and no spirits or cocktails (or not strong cocktails!) and enlisting one of your attendees to be the person who tells the drunk person no more or they’re out.

  3. A caveat regarding “Some venues require that you select a caterer from their “approved list” If your venue is a house of worship, the approved list may well not be about kick-backs but about religious dietary obligations, so don’t just assume nefarious motives, or that “This is your cue to run!”. They may simply need you to pick someone who they can trust is truly halal, kosher, vegetarian, etc. Respect the list. Religious community venues are generally not trying to screw you over, just to be helpful.

  4. Living in Canada we have some different laws but that’s not what i want to post about. As a “never worked at a bar but I love caesars” girl I have worked four wedding bars. Every time it was on personal property and every time I was friend’s with a bridesmaid who was related to the bride or groom. So a reliable outsider basically. And I had a blast EVERY FREAKIN’ TIME! Now these were fairly informal, I was allowed to go and dance for a song and most were buffet where you didn’t need to pay more for just one more person. I was never paid and I never handled cash, two were open bar one had a donation jar for the food and it was open bar. If this sounds anything like what you are planning then feel open to asking your sibling’s friend to help out or anyone in a similar situation if they don’t like weddings they will say no, if they do they will say yes and it will be awesome. Not to say it’s 100% fun I have had to cut off some very jovial men, some not so jovial men and women and made sure 16 year old cousins aren’t puking (whom I didn’t serve) but still worth it every time.

  5. My fiancé and I were thinking of buying all the booze ourselves and hiring a licensed bartender. Our question is, could we charge a small amount for the drinks to offset the cost and keep that money?

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