Jargon is technology. Language was created for communication, and sharing a set of slang makes it all the more efficient. A drink order to a bartender needs to be a particularly quick and clear statement. If not, you’re going to look like a novice, and you’re not going to get the drink you want. And the booze snobs will rub it in your face.
So learn these fundamentals of the saloon lexicon. You’ll look like a smart, sophisticated drinker, and more importantly, your libation will be served the way you want it.
ABV: n. Stands for alcohol by volume, or the percentage of alcohol in the solution. ABV equals 1/2 of the spirit’s proof.
Back: n. A small, non-alcoholic drink, like water or soda. Sip it alongside a drink you ordered neat.
Bruised: adj. A drink that has been over shaken and thus has more water than normal. It may appear murkier.
Cask Strength: adj. Most often used with Scotch whisky, but can be applied to bourbons and other whiskies. When the spirit is in the cask, it is much, much stronger-typically 60 to 65 percent ABV. Water is added later in the process to bring it down to 40 percent. Distilleries sometimes sell smaller runs of cask strength.
Chaser: n. A small, tasty drink to take directly after shooting something straight.
Cocktail: n. People call any mixed drink a cocktail, but that’s not actually accurate. Sugar, water, spirits, bitters. Technically a cocktail needs those four elements and it has been that way since long before Prohibition. A vodka and soda is not a cocktail. A Manhattan is a cocktail.
Cup: n. A punch-type drink that is made in smaller quantities to fit in cups or glasses (not in a big punch bowl). For example: “I’d like a Pimm’s cup, please.”
Dirty: adj. Means “with olive brine,” typically in reference to a martini.
Dry: adj. Very little vermouth in a martini. May refer to less mixer in a mixed drink.
Finger: n. A very informal measurement. It’s typically about an ounce. Put your finger horizontally on the side of the glass and pour your booze until it reaches the top of your finger. That’s one finger. “Barkeep, gimme three fingers of brandy, see? Mrah!”
Finish: n. Refers to wine. After you swallow, the finish is the vapors you continue to smell and taste.
Highball: n. Any spirit served with ice and a mixer in a tall glass (typically a highball glass).
Jigger: n. As a unit of measurement, a jigger is typically 1.5 fluid ounces. A jigger also a tool for measuring precise amounts of liquid. It looks like an hourglass and has two sides, for two different measurements. Jiggers typically range in size from .5 ounces/1 ounce, up to 1 ounce/2 ounces.
Lace: n. A half ounce of whatever you want on top. Or it may refer to the final ingredient of a drink that is pour on top and not stirred in. (It’s like a “top,” defined below.)
Legs: n. You swirl wine around your glass and watch as the “legs” slowly streak down. The French call it “tears.” It is supposedly a measurement of the wine’s quality. But it isn’t, it’s just physics. It just demonstrates how much alcohol is in the wine. The alcohol in the wine has a faster evaporation rate and a lower surface tension than the water in the wine, so it basically forces the alcohol to evaporate at a faster rate. It tries to climb, the water pulls it down, and it looks beautiful. For what it’s worth, Scotch has prettier legs.
Lightning: n. Often referred to as moonshine or white dog, lightning is basically unrefined whiskey that comes straight out of the still. Because it was traditionally produced in illegal stills, time was of the essence, so it was not allow to age in barrels like whiskey. Since the barrels give whiskey its color, lightning is clear. There are a lot of legal distilleries that are making it now, however, and some are quite tasty.
Long: adj. Means served in a tall glass. Generally mixed with juice or water. “I’ll take a dark and stormy, long.”
Mash: n. This is a distilling term for the combination of all the grain (malted barley, rye, wheat, etc) with water as it’s heated in a tun. This breaks down the starch and turns it into sugar. The resulting liquid is known as a wort.
Malolactic Fermentation: n. You may see this on some wine bottles. Grapes grown in cooler regions tend to be more sour, largely due to increase malic acid. Malolactic fermentation converts malic acid to lactic acid, which tends to be rounder and smoother.
Neat: adj. A spirit served straight out of the bottle and into a glass, unmolested. No ice, water, nothin.’ “Lagavulin, neat.”
Nose: n. The aroma, or the bouquet, of the wine.
One and One: n. A liquor and mixer, neither of which are specific brands. (ie. Gin and Tonic, Rum and Cola).
Over: adj. Means “on the rocks,” or poured over ice.
Peaty: adj. Peatiness is the smoky quality of a Scotch. Peat is the organic material you find in boggy, marshy places like Scotland. The Scots dried it and used it as a fuel source because it burns hot and fast. When the barley is being dried, Scotch distilleries use burn peat to aid in the drying process, and the smoke gets infused into the barley. Different companies let it smoke for different lengths of time (some don’t use peat at all). Laphroaig smokes theirs for 18 hours, which is why some liken it to drinking a burning tire.
In Scotland, many of the rivers pass through a lot of peat, giving the whisky a sort of golden, “peaty” color. That water gets used in the whisky. In terms of flavor, peatiness is a sort of earthy and smoky flavor. It gives Scotches, especially Islay Scotches, a distinctive flavor that differs from region to region.
Proof: n. A measurement of strength in spirits. It’s double the ABV.
Rinse: n. A small amount of liquid that is used to coat the inside of the glass and give a hint of flavor. “She made an amazing Sazerac with an absinthe rinse.”
Rocks: n. Ice. On the rocks would be over ice.
Short: n. Served in a short, rocks glass. “I’ll take a negroni, short.”
Shrub: n. Somewhat antiquated but making a comeback in the classic cocktail movement, a shrub is a vinegar-based refresher, generally fermented or with alcohol added. Used similarly to bitters.
Single-Malt Scotch: n. Scotch that is made at one distillery. Malted barley is the only grain that can be used (hence single-malt), and it must be distilled and aged for at least three years in Scotland.
Sling: n. A cocktail without bitters, so it’s just sugar, water, and spirits. Sweeter, generally.
Sour: n. A short drink consisting of liquor, lemon/lime juice, and sugar.
Sour Mash: n. When a mash is started using part of an old mash as its base. The old mash has active yeast in it, and it kick starts the fermenting process. Sour mashes do not produce sour whiskeys.
Spirit on Spirit: n. A drink that has only spirits-no juice or sugar added. Strong.
Squeeze: n. A piece of citrus (lime, lemon, orange) that is squeezed over then dropped in.
Stirred: adj. A drink that is stirred, not shaken, and then strained. There was a fine article on the science of shaken vs. stirred drinks.
Straight Up: adj. Straight = Cold, without ice. Up = stemmed glass. Straight up = a drink that is shaken or stirred with ice, then strained in an empty stemmed glass. Often confused with “neat,” but not the same.
Sweet: adj. Extra simple syrup in a drink or extra sweet vermouth in a Manhattan.
Tannins: n. Tannins are astringent biomolecules found in grape skins that produce a bitter effect, leading to a wine’s dry flavor.
Toddy: n. A drink made with liquor and hot water, often sweetened, spiced and served in a tall glass.
Top: v. A half ounce of whatever you want on top.
Topless: adj. No salt on the rim of your margarita glass.
Tot: n. A small amount of spirit. “Just a tot of brandy, please.”
Twist: n. A citrus peel twisted over the drink, to express the oils, and then dropped in.
Unleaded: adj. Non-alcoholic. Sans booze.
Up: adj. Served in a stemmed glass.
Virgin: adj. A mixed drink without alcohol.
Well: n. A well drink is one make with the house booze, i.e. the least expensive liquor behind the bar. Some bars have nice, known labels as their house booze, and some have rotgut. Generally to be avoided.
Wet: adj. Extra mixer or extra vermouth in a martini.
Got some others? Leave ‘em in the comments.