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How to Order Cocktails Like a Pro (and 3 Classic Recipes You Need to Know)

Here are all the phrases you need to navigate a cocktail menu with ease.
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Art Credit: Alice Gao

It's the end of the work day, you’re feeling good, and you’re out at a bar with your friends. You step up to the bar full of confidence, and that "at-last-I’m-free-from-the-office" exuberance, when the bartender asks you what you would like to drink. Suddenly, all confidence fails you; the wind’s been knocked out of your sails. You stutter for a second or two, trying to keep your cool, striving to come up with some smooth, totally in-the-know drink order.

Looking around at other drinks on the bar only confuses you further, since you don’t know what they’re called. All you can think of is chocolate milk--why are you thinking of chocolate milk?! Racking your brain, you finally blurt out, “Gin and tonic!” , or some other iteration with “and” such as rum and coke, vodka and soda, or 7 and 7. As the bartender looks at you in disdain, and your friends--not-so-subtly--step away in shame, you can’t help but think, “Is that really the best I came up with?” A tang of self-loathing taints your drink, and you promise to educate yourself for the next time. But then you don’t, and so the cycle continues.

It may not be as dramatic as all that, but you get the gist. Why should you continue on in this way? Life at the bar hardly has to be this difficult. It only takes a short list of words to take you from cocktail noob to the envy of the bar. Just memorize this list, and you’ll have heads turning, saying, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

The Basics:

1. Neat (adj.): as simple as it comes, neat is a term denoting alcohol at its purest form, a single alcohol with no mixers, water, or ice. Though some may order a drink neat in order to explore the complexities of the spirit, many use this term to impress the bartender or a significant individual at the bar. Origin: Middle English, fourteenth century.

2. On the Rocks (prep. Phrase, adj.): the opposite of neat, this is a drink served with ice. It can be as “Maker’s on the rocks,” or it can be used with cocktails such as “Margarita on the rocks.” Origin: said to come from the practice of using river rocks to cool whiskey or scotch. Whiskey stones are still used for coolants in drinks as this offers an undiluted flavor.

3. Up (adj.): synonyms: “straight up,” “straight.” On the rocks taken a step further, the ice is strained out of the drink and the cocktail is poured into a stemmed glass. Many of the classic drinks such as martinis and Manhattans are served in this fashion, and oftentimes one does not need to specify up to the bartender. See below for a classic Manhattan recipe.

4. Back (noun):synonyms: “chaser,” “on the side.” Typically served with a shot of hard liquor, a back refers to something served with a drink in order to cut the intensity of the burn or the flavor. It is usually non-alcoholic. The chaser can range from beverages as simple as water or lime juice to more unusual such as pickle brine. The small drink is meant to compliment the alcohol. Bombs are types of backs though they are served with the drink, as with the Irish Car Bomb.

Raising the Bar:

5. Well (noun): those drinks that are made with the cheapest alcohol at the bar. Obviously, this can vary from bar to bar. At your neighborhood joint, the well liquors will most likely be brands that you've never heard of.  It is better to order a drink by name. For example, instead of gin and tonic, Tanqueray and tonic or instead of rum and coke, Brugal and coke. Origin: the well refers to the area of the bar where the ice is stored. The cheap alcohols are kept in this area as well, out of sight of the patrons.

6. Dry (adj.):antonym: “sweet.” Refers to the vermouth used in the cocktail. Most often used when ordering a martini. Dry is not to be confused with a drink without vermouth. There are two types of vermouth, which as you probably guess already are dry and sweet.

7. Perfect (adj.): another vermouth term, referring to equal parts dry and sweet vermouth. A good example is the Manhattan, which though served with only sweet vermouth at many bars can have a delightful nuance with the introduction of dry vermouth.

8. Dirty (adj.): a cocktail that mixes with a brine, adding an acidic, vinegar taste to the drink as well as a cloudiness. Though it can range from pickle to tomato brine, the most common is olive brine as with the dirty martini. See below for a classic dirty martini recipe.


9. Double (adj.): quite literally double the alcohol. Think of it like when you’re at Starbucks. It’s that moment when you realize that you’re way more tired than you originally thought, and you tell the barista, “Make it a double shot,” or “Add a shot.” It does not mean that you’ll get twice the amount of drink; you will get double the strength.

10. Tall (adj.): the opposite of double, the alcohol is watered down with more mixers. Instead of being served in a short rocks glass or highball, it is served in the taller Collins glass. Same amount of alcohol, good idea as you progress later in the night.

11. Flip (noun): a class of cocktails shaken with a whole egg, achieving a smooth creaminess. Origin: the term was first used in the late seventeenth century to describe a frothy drink of beer, rum, and sugar, but the modern egg iteration was codified in the nineteenth. See below for a classic flip recipe.

12. Top Shelf (noun): the best alcohol available at the bar. If you order something that’s top shelf, be prepared to shell out the money that corresponds with your request.

Bonus:The essential spirit brands that everyone should know, ordered from cheap to expensive.

Vodka: Seagrams, Smirnoff, Svedka, Absolut, Skyy, Belvedere, Ketel One, Grey Goose

Gin: Gordon’s London Dry, Seagram’s Extra Dry, Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, Bulldog, Hendrick’s, Plymouth

Rum: Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Castillo, Brugal, Ron Zacapa,

Whiskey/Bourbon: Jameson, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve

Tequila: Jose Cuervo, Juarez, Sauza, Milagro, Partida, Patron

Don't forget to celebrate your new found cocktail savvy with these 3 cocktails to try at home:


01. Classic Manhattan:

Yields 1 serving


2 oz. bourbon

1/2 oz. sweet vermouth

1/2 oz. dry vermouth

2 dashes Angostura bitters

2 brandy-soaked Maraschino cherries


1. In a cocktail shaker, combine bourbon, vermouth, and bitters with a large helping of ice. Stir well, for 30 seconds, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with the cherries.

02. Classic Dirty Vodka Martini

We’re making it the James Bond way. Shaken not stirred.

Yields 1 serving


2 oz. vodka

1/2 oz. olive brine

1 olive (it can be stuffed)


1. In a cocktail shaker, combine the vodka, brine, and a large helping of ice. Shake for 10-15 seconds until well blended. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with olive.

03. The Coffee Cocktail

Inspired by a fantastic drink from the NoMad, this drink might just be a dessert.

1 oz. Cognac

1 oz. tawny port

1 small egg

1/2 tsp. sugar

Pinch of nutmeg


1. In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients with ice and shake 10-15 seconds until egg is blended and frothy. Strain into a glass and top with whipped cream if desired.

chill out music

Matthew Powell

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Matthew Powell is a food and lifestyle writer based out of New York City. He has been published in New York magazine, Bon Appétit, Interior Design, Good Housekeeping, and online entities.