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Bartender Basics: A Drinker’s Guide to Bar Terms

Bars and restaurants have an array of terminology expansive enough to fill dictionaries. Most are jargon strictly used by those in the industry and carry little utility for customers. However, some terms may be handy for the average drinker, whether to place the proper order, better understand any follow-up questions from the bartender or accurately follow a recipe while making cocktails at home.

While hardly exhaustive, here is a cheat sheet of some bar terms and what they mean.

86: Industry-wide slang that either means a product has run out or you’re being ejected and/or banned for bad behavior (“86’d”). When the time comes, you’ll know which applies.

A finger: Somewhat antiquated term of measurement, this means a finger-width amount of alcohol in a rocks glass, meant to approximate two ounces.

Back: Also called a chaser, a drink meant to be consumed separately but directly after a type of liquor.

Barback: The support staff who keeps bartenders’ wells stocked, cleans glassware, makes ice, busses empties and changes kegs. Many also make their bar’s signature cocktail ingredients like infusions, syrups, shrubs and tinctures, daily. Often the person doing all the real work.

Build drinks: Often highballs, these are drinks that are “built” in the glass. This includes drinks like Scotch and soda, gin and tonic, and vodka sodas.

Buy back: A free drink given to a customer, “bought” by the bar. Common qualifications to receive a buyback are: tipping well; being a regular customer; having already paid for two or three drinks; possessing a personality that the bartender finds pleasant and makes their day a little less stressful; not being rude; saying something funny or telling an interesting story; being around when the bartender just wants someone to take a shot with.

Call: The opposite of well drinks. These are drinks ordered by calling out a specific brand of liquor, e.g. Tanqueray and tonic, or Espolón and grapefruit.

Dry shake: To shake a drink vigorously and without ice. Commonly used for cocktails that incorporate eggs.

Dry: Unlike wine, where dry functions as the opposite of sweet, in cocktails it simply refers to the flavor of the primary alcohol in relation to lower-proof ingredients. A dry drink is not necessarily less sweet than a not dry drink, it will just taste more powerfully of ethanol.

Fizz: Sour drinks with the addition of seltzer/soda water. May or may not also include egg white.

Free pour: A technique of pouring alcohol directly into the glass, possibly with use of a speed pourer, rather than measuring exactly with a jigger. Can mean a heavier pour if the bartender likes you or counts slowly.

Highball: Drinks served in tall, straight-sided highball or Collins glasses. These generally include a spirit and non-alcoholic mixer. The narrowness of the glassware, in comparison to the rocks glass, makes it preferable for drinks with carbonated mixers, as the reduced surface area cause them to retain effervescence longer before they become flat.

Last call: The last chance to order a final drink before the bar closes.

Lock-in: A longstanding tradition where staff and certain well-regarded regulars may remain and drink inside the locked bar after closing time, without other customers present. If you are a non-employee who is allowed to remain during lock-in to drink with the staff, you have reached the highest level of bar-industry customer appreciation.

Martini: Traditionally a formulation of gin, vermouth and sometimes a dash of bitters, it unfortunately began to be used as a catch-all phrase that encompassed any cocktail served in a V-shaped martini glass.

Martini, no vermouth: See “Up.”

Neat: Two-ounce pour of liquor, served room temperature and without ice.

Rail: See “Well.”

Rocks: Ice. An order “on the rocks” is served over ice.

Rocks glass: A short, round tumbler that, ironically, is also the preferred glass for neat pours.

Royale: Originating from the Kir Royale, a version of the Kir cocktail that uses Champagne rather than still white wine, this term has since expanded for some to mean a drink topped with sparkling wine.

Service bartender: In restaurants or bars with table service, the service bartender is the person whose job it is to make drinks for all customers not ordering directly from the bar. Though primarily an industry term, it’s worth noting that if you’re ignored or brushed off while trying to order from a service bartender, it’s usually not because they’re being rude, but rather that they’re tasked specifically with making drinks for customers at tables.

Shooter: A cocktail, meaning a drink including multiple parts, but served in a shot glass and meant to be consumed in a single gulp. Generally terrible.

Shot: Like a neat pour, but usually slightly smaller at one and a half ounces, and served in a shot glass, because savoring the aroma isn’t really the point here.

Snapping: What one should never do with their fingers to signal a bartender.

Sour: This could mean an entire family of drinks that include all cocktails made with lemon or lime juice. Specifically, when preceded by a type of spirit (e.g., whiskey sour, gin sour) it’s a formulation of spirit + lemon juice + simple syrup/sugar. In the long-gone era of the 1990s, and some lower-end bars today, it may also mean a drink that includes “sour mix,” a poor approximation of real lemon juice and sugar.

Staff meeting: When bar/restaurant staff sneak a shot in the middle of a shift. If you are well-liked and seated near the staff meeting area (often near the service bar), you may receive one as well. Also sometimes called “barback line-up.”

Stir: One of the primary methods of mixing and chilling a drink, along with shaking and building, stirring is usually the preferred technique for drinks comprised entirely of spirits, with no fruit or citrus juices. The aim is for less agitation of the ingredients, and controlled water dilution.

Straight up: Unlike drinks served “up,” which are chilled, this term is primarily used by customers, rather than bar staff, and just means a neat pour.

Top shelf: An outdated term meant to imply more expensive, higher-quality liquor. It is generally not applicable in practice, as most large bars organize their shelves by function and frequency of use, rather than price. Also, the only shelf a bottle of Galliano ever seems to fit on.

Ultra-premium: A meaningless marketing term that in no way reflects the quality of a spirit inside the bottle.

Up: A drink chilled by shaking or stirring with ice, but strained and served in a glass without ice.

Well: Also called the “house” liquor, this is the bar’s default bottle when no specific spirit brand is requested. Unfortunately assumed by many to mean the worst/cheapest liquor in the bar, it can also be where the bartender stocks hidden gems and lesser-known, undervalued standouts that were found at a good price.