Language of the drink: A guide to navigating the craft cocktail menu

Christian Johnston Photo: Amy Jackson Christian Johnston Photo: Amy Jackson

Arriving at the new fancy cocktail spot on a Friday night, you nab a seat at the bar, and when asked for your order, you summon an episode of “Mad Men” and say, “I’ll have a whiskey, straight up neat, on the rocks in a tall glass.”

Pretty easy, right? Well, something’s wrong because the bartender looks at you like you just insulted his mother, and says, “Can you please elaborate?”

So, you roll the dice and decide to try something from the cocktail list, but when you begin to read it, your eyes glaze over. You know you like whiskey, but what are bitters? Does the menu really say shrub?

Relax, there isn’t a plant in your drink (maybe).

Bar lingo changes with the times, and learning a few key terms can make you feel as money as Vince Vaughn in Swingers, or at least earn you some cred with your cocktail artisan friends.


Pint: If you don’t know what this is, congrats on your fake ID.

Tumbler/old-fashioned/rocks: Averaging about half the height of a pint glass, this vessel holds your average two-piece drink or plain booze on the rocks.

Collins: A skinny, taller pint glass.

Highball: Shorter, fatter Collins, but not a full pint.

Cocktail/martini/coupe: Stemmed glassware that forms a V or rounded, upturned edges.

How to order

Shot: Depends on the bar, but most agree that it’s 1.5 ounces of spirit.

Neat: Spirit by itself, usually in a rocks glass, that is intended to be sipped on.

Rocks: Neat, with ice.

Up: Stirred or shaken over ice, strained and served in stemmed glassware.

Martini: A type of drink consisting of gin (vodka if requested) and vermouth. Not a style of drink as many have been led to believe—the word you’re looking for is cocktail.

Cocktail: Drink consisting of spirit, bitters, sugar and water.

Dry: Less vermouth. Asking for very or bone dry usually means no vermouth.

Tall: Asking for a big glass, usually a pint.

Single tall: A shot of alcohol with more mixer than your standard drink.

Double: Twice the alcohol, 3 ounces.

Not too sweet: An indicator to your bartender that you were scarred when you ordered the Neon Ramatazz Mojito Daiquiri at that dive bar in college and went into diabetic shock. If you’re in an establishment that’s known for good drinks and you respect the person behind the bar, refrain from this phrase. It’s the equivalent of ordering steak and potatoes from a chef and asking for it to not be too potato-ey.

The cocktail list

Simple syrup: Sugar and water. Usually a ratio of 1:1 but sometimes 2:1 for a richer flavor/mouth feel.

Cordial: A syrup that involves a fruit element.

Liqueur: Over the years this spirit’s meaning has been interchangeable, but in its original iteration is an herbal-based spirit.

Shrub: A syrup or cordial that contains vinegar. This does not mean your drink will be astringent—vinegar can do wonderful things to enhance and preserve flavor.

Tincture: The essence of something steeped and preserved in alcohol. For example, if you’re looking to make a drink spicy, you may want to make a habanero tincture. Place chopped habaneros in a jar and top with high-proof vodka. Wait three to five days, strain, and your habanero tincture is born.

Bitters: Similar to tincture, but with a bittering agent such as cinchona bark or gentian root.

Infusion: Placing a certain flavor into a desired spirit, such as pineapple-infused vodka. Think tincture on a larger scale.

Rinse: Simple coating of the glass with spirit or other liquid.

Vermouth: Aromatized wine. Needs to be refrigerated after opening and is only good up to one month after. Unrefrigerated vermouth that has been left on the shelf for months has led to some disdain for this product.

Aperitif: Spirit that normally comes with a bit of acid or dryness that helps stimulate the appetite.

Digestif: This sometimes-sweet spirit helps settle the stomach after a meal.

This should be enough information for you to brave any intimidating bar scene, but remember that a simple “please” and “thank you” will go much farther than a lexicon fancy cocktail lingo.

Christian Johnston is the manager of Tavola’s cicchetti bar and curator of the restaurant’s cocktail list. He can also be found behind the bar at The Alley Light.

You shared photos of what’s in your glass with us on Instagram. See more photos with #cvilleweeklycocktail.

–Christian Johnston