I would not do a signature drink that you have to pay for; I do think it’s tacky. I think signature drinks are very cool, but I also think of them as a way to help keep the costs of alcohol down. I also think people would be confused if they had to pay for a special drink chosen by the bride and groom for their big day.
However, I don’t really see what the problem with cash bars. If you only offer beer and wine and you have a guest who doesn’t like either of those, having a cash bar would be a considerate thing. I hate beer and only like specific types of wine. So if I was a guest, and there’s no cash bar, you’re basically relegating me to having no alcohol at all or bringing in my own – which is the basically the same as buying it from the cash bar. And your venue may not even allow outside drinks to be brought in. I don’t drink a lot, but I might be peeved if I couldn’t even buy a drink I actually like on NYE.
I think that forcing people who don’t like your signature drinks or beer/wine to not have any drinks at all is far more rude than offering them more options. At least with a cash bar, I can politely decline what the bride and groom chose and get something that suits me (beer makes me ill, and wine tends to give me headaches).
Being a good host has far more to do with being gracious and accomodating as possible of your guests needs than it does with paying for everything. And the road goes both ways, guests are also supposed to be gracious to their hosts and appreciate that they have been invited to such an important event.
Another thing to consider would be a drink ticketing system. Instead of beer or wine, you could have two or three drinks of choice per guest and cash bar for anything more than that. If one doesn’t want to drink they can give their extra tickets to someone else who does. That’s something that our venue offered in place of beer/wine or signature drinks.
We ended up going with two wines I picked and actually bought directly from the winery (to pair with the cake), hard apple cider (my ‘signature drink’) and three types of canadian beer (my husbands’ signature drinks). We’re having a very small afternoon wedding/lunch reception and everyone has to drive home after, so most of our guests won’t be drinking very much.
We are having our reception at a restaurant, which has a bar in it. Since we are having a bar tender to serve our other drinks, there’s an open bar included pretty much automatically. I don’t think anyone will need to utilize it, since I know a lot of the guests don’t drink in the first place, and those who do like the alcohol we’re serving and in some cases helped me pick it out. 😉 We bought enough alcohol so that each guest could have a glass of wine, a bottle of cider, and a beer – even those who I know don’t drink, which I think helps offset those who might want to drink more – but I figure three drinks for a lunch reception that’s only a couple hours long is probably plenty?