28 Bartending Terms So You Can Order Exactly What You Want

Sometimes ordering a drink at a bar can be intimidating, especially if there’s no written menu to choose from. However, knowing some basic bartending terms can help — as long as you already know what kinds of spirits and cocktails you like. If you’re in a crowded bar, being decisive and clear when ordering will absolutely win you points with the bartender, especially if you tip well! 

Do you want to be able to order exactly what you want and sound cool doing it? Do you want to be able to skim through a specialty cocktail menu without looking up a bunch of terms and ingredients? Read on for a breakdown of common bartending terms you can use next time you go out for drinks.

1. Back

Let’s kickoff this list of bartending terms with an easy one. If you order a drink with a back, you’re asking for a non-alcoholic beverage to drink alongside the stronger one. A whiskey with a water back, for example, is whiskey and water in two separate glasses. While many people chase their drink this way, others sip it throughout or gradually mix it with their alcoholic beverage. 

2. Bitters

Bitters are an infusion of liquor with bitter herbs and roots, typically added to a cocktail for a botanical, sometimes medicinal flavor. When a bartender uses bitters, it’s to balance a drink’s sweetness and provide a richer, more complex flavor.

3. Buck

This isn’t one of those bartending terms that refers to to the tip. A buck is a drink made with your choice of base liquor, lemon juice, and ginger ale. It is commonly served in a highball glass.

4. Build

The oldest and most common method of creating a cocktail is the build. This requires mixing a drink by pouring all of the ingredients into the glass in which you’ll be serving it. It is the simplest and fastest way to make a mixed drink, so it should come as no surprise that it’s also the most popular! Some cocktail builds include a long list of ingredients that must be added in precise amounts in a certain order. Technically, however, putting ice and a shot of whiskey in a glass before using the soda gun to fill it with Coke also qualifies as building a cocktail.  

5. Burnt

If you order a burnt martini, there will be at least a few drops of Scotch in it. Some recipes call for one part Scotch to every two parts of gin. On this list, you’ll notice that several of the terms are most often associated with ordering a martini. This may have something to do with the classic drink’s status as the #1 most popular cocktail in the United States.  

6. Chaser

Not unlike a back, a chaser is a less powerful drink consumed after a strong one — most often after a shot. While most chasers are non-alcoholic drinks like soda, juice, or water, another common chaser is beer. The idea of a chaser is that it takes the edge off of a shot of liquor by introducing a smoother, often sweeter, liquid. (Dropping the shot of liquor into a partial glass of chaser before chugging the whole thing, on the other hand, is called a bomb.) 

7. Dirty

Unlike other bartending terms like neat, which a drink either is or isn’t, the word dirty can be used to varying degrees. The term is related to the presence of olive — whether that’s the fruit itself, olive juice, or the brine from a jar of olives. A dirty martini, for example, is a typical martini where some of the dry vermouth is replaced with olive brine. However, a person who really loves olives could order their martini extra dirty or even filthy. This would replace most, or all of the vermouth with the sour and salty olive marinade kept behind the bar

8. Double

Ordering a double of anything means you want it twice as strong. In a standard mixed drink, this would amount to two 1.5 oz shots of liquor. The amount of each of the other ingredients stays the same, making for a stronger taste of alcohol. If you want a drink with three ounces of booze that doesn’t taste that way, ask the bartender if they can make your drink in a highball (or larger) glass to accommodate more mixer liquid.

9. Dry

In a dry martini, which is where this word is most commonly used, the dryness is based on the ratio of dry vermouth to gin. The less vermouth in the martini, the drier it is! In contrast, though, wet isn’t always used this way. If you want a wetter martini, you want more (possibly sweet) vermouth.  

10. Finger

A finger of booze refers to the amount of liquor poured up to the width of a horizontal finger. Though it’s a sort of old-fashioned measurement, you still hear people describing cocktails with “two fingers of” a kind of liquor. Obviously, it’s an estimated amount, but common practice considers a finger to be about a 1-ounce pour (also called a pony). 

11. Fizz

A fizz is a mixed drink made with hard liquor, fresh citrus, and club soda. It’s simple, timeless, and should be readily available at any bar. For a classic cocktail at home, try this gin fizz recipe

12. Highball

A highball is a tall glass, holding between 8 and 12 ounces, which would likely be used to serve a double cocktail. However, if you ask for a drink in a highball and don’t specify that you want a double, you’ll receive a cocktail with a single shot of alcohol, and the rest will be a mixer.   

13. Lace

The top layer of a specialty cocktail, or the very last ingredient added, is called the lace. This is usually a floating liquid that is not stirred into the other ingredients in the glass.

14. Mixer

A mixer is a beverage used as a vehicle for hard liquor. Some popular mixers include soft drinks, fruit juices, tonics, or soda — simply carbonated water.  

15. Muddle

When a drink requires a bartender to muddle an ingredient, such as mint or another flavorful herb, the ingredient will be mashed lightly in order to release its oils and juices. Citrus fruits and seasonal berries are also popularly muddled cocktail ingredients. 

16. Neat

If you order a double bourbon neat, you get two shots of bourbon in a glass. Ordering any liquor neat is essentially like ordering a shot — it’s straight liquor. But in this scenario, it’s a bigger glass and typically enjoyed over a longer period of time. 

17. On the Rocks

This term probably has the most logical meaning on the list. On the rocks simply means with ice cubes. But it sounds way cooler, right? You don’t want a marriage or a business to be on the rocks. But Scotch or rum on the rocks can be very refreshing, especially in the warmer months. Some bartenders also recommend one large ice cube instead of several small cubes. 

18. Pony

Unlike the standard shot in the US, which is 1.5 ounces, a pony is a one-ounce pour. If you’re looking for something a little weaker, consider ordering your mixed drink with a pony of liquor rather than a shot

19. Press

Want all the bubbles of a vodka-Sprite with only half the sweetness? The vodka press may be your new best friend. A press is a serving of your choice of liquor mixed with half club soda and half Sprite (or other lemon-lime soft drink). 

20. Ricky

For something that’s a little less sweet and a little sourer, why not try a ricky? That’s your choice of alcohol with the juice from half a lime, topped with club soda! 

21. Shooter

A shooter is a miniature mixed cocktail that is consumed all at once like a shot

22. Shot

In the United States, a shot is a 1.5-ounce pour of straight liquor. When ordered, a shot often comes in a shot glass to be drunk all in one gulp. Shot glasses are also great for measuring alcohol for mixed drinks. A standard mixed drink typically comes with a shot of your choice of alcohol, and a double comes with two shots.

23. Sour

Ordering any kind of liquor sour means you want that liquor combined with lemon and lime juice and simple syrup. Sour mix is also a common cocktail ingredient found in margaritas and daiquiris. Fresh citrus juice adds complexity to any cocktail’s flavor profile. 

24. Twist

Many of the bartending terms on this list give off Old Hollywood vibes, and it isn’t hard to imagine a black-and-white bar scene with some glamorous person ordering their drink with a twist. The twist, in this case, is not all that surprising, as it also involves citrus. A twist refers to a bit of peel from a lemon or other citrus fruit that serves as the last ingredient or as a garnish.

25. Up

Up is short for straight up, but it doesn’t mean what you may be thinking. That’s because the way we use the term “straight up” now, meaning pure or plain, is really closer to the meaning of neat. Ordering something up or straight up means you want the drink chilled but served without ice. Generally, this means it is shaken or stirred with ice before straining into a glass and served. 

26. Virgin

The word, when used in its intended form, is really an outdated concept. And as non-alcoholic drinks and mocktails become more commonplace, you might hear it less at the bar, too. For now, however, the quickest way to order a specialty drink without the booze is to ask for it virgin. Virgin drink orders — either by those who can’t or don’t want to drink alcohol — include piña coladas, daiquiris, margaritas, and Bloody Marys (aptly called Virgin Marys.)

27. Well (Rail)

Well and rail are both bartending terms with similar meanings, though usage may vary by region. Regardless of which one you use, what you can expect to get is the cheapest available liquor in your drink. Think low-shelf, non-name brand bottles. Bars will frequently have happy hour deals or other specials on well or rail cocktails, as they are typically not expensive.  

28. Wet

Ordering a drink wet means you want more mixer than the drink generally calls for. You may be thinking, can a drink get any wetter? Isn’t it already fully wet? Like dry, this term can’t be taken too literally. It tends to refer to the proportion of mixer to alcohol, and some bartenders will even give you less than a shot of liquor in a wet drink. If you don’t want to consume too much alcohol and want to nurse your drink for a while, ordering a wet mixed drink may be a good solution. 

This list of bartending terms is not exhaustive, and its usefulness may vary from region to region. But as long as you sound like you know what you’re talking about (which, of course, now you do,) you should have no problem getting exactly what you want to drink!   

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