With the craft cocktail scene on the rise, and increasingly abundant opportunities to visit distilleries in Michigan, it may help to bone up on some common terms before heading out to enjoy local spirits.
Terms to use with a bartender when ordering spirits…
Aperitifs – Drinks served before a meal that are meant to stimulate the appetite.
Back – is a term used to order something to drink alongside your straight spirit, but not mixed with it.
Chaser – is a beverage or food that is slightly more palatable, meant to follow a straight shot. Tequila, for example, is often served with a lemon wedge chaser.
Chill – A bartender chills a glass by adding ice and then water and letting it sit for a minute or two. The water/ice is then poured out, leaving the glass cold to receive the drink that has been prepared.
Cocktail – Historically, this name was used to describe any drink that involved a mixture of four ingredients: spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. While that definition is still accurate, today, it is commonly used to describe any kind of spirits-based mixed drink.
Dash – A few drops or a very small amount of an ingredient.
Dirty – Commonly used when ordering a Martini, this means you would like your drink prepared with the addition of some olive brine, which will give it a salty, slightly acidic tang. It also makes the drink look a bit cloudy, or “dirty.”
Dry – Again, a term often used in conjunction with a Martini order, where it means less Vermouth is added, which reduces the sweetness. Overall, it refers to the absence of sugar in a drink so it may be used as a way to order any drink with less of a sugary additive.
Finger – This term is mostly seen in old movies, but is still recognized by most bartenders. It refers to the amount of liquid to pour up to the level of your fingers when they’re laced around the glass. One finger, two fingers, three fingers, etc.
Highball – Any spirit mixed with soda, served in a tall glass.
Mocktail – A mixed drink without alcohol has long been referred to as a “virgin” version of a drink. Most recently, with the increasingly complex and creative craft cocktails out there, they are often termed mocktails instead. These are drinks meant to mimic the taste of the cocktail, but without the kick.
Muddle – To crush up ingredients with a special tool called a muddler. The process extracts essential oils, and is commonly used with herbs like basil and mint, as well as fruit.
On the Rocks – If you want your drink served with ice, request it on the rocks. Because water from the melting ice can dilute the taste of the spirit, some bars serve drinks on large, slower-to-melt cubes.
Neat – The term used to order a spirit to be served entirely by itself with no mixers, ice, or even chilling.
Shaken – James Bond has had people wondering about this distinction for years. Most drinks are prepared by mixing the ingredients with ice, and then either straining or keeping the ice. Shaken drinks are shaken with ice, resulting in some added aeration and dilution, which creates a little froth and can be particularly good for citrusy drinks. Contrarily, stirred drinks are simply stirred with ice, resulting in a smoother mouthfeel and no ice, which works well for stronger drinks.
Straight Up – Commonly confused with “neat,” ordering a drink straight up or “up” means that a drink is being served chilled, but not over ice.
Toddy – A sweetened drink of liquor and hot water, often with spices and served in a tall glass. A hot toddy is commonly suggested when battling a bug.
Twist – Ordering something “with a twist” means a twist of citrus peel. The bartender uses a zester to peel some rind, which produces a thin, long twist of peel. If you don’t specify otherwise by default, the fruit will typically be lemon.
Well Drink – Commonly seen on Happy Hour menus, this is a drink made with a house liquor. As with a house wine, it’s whatever brand the bar or restaurant keeps as its basic liquor, usually, although not always, a cheaper variety.
Whiskey Stones – Small, reusable rocks that may be placed in the freezer then used to chill a drink without diluting it.
Terms used within the spirit industry…
Barrel – A standard unit of volume. A U.S. barrel is 31.5 gallons while a British barrel is 43.2 gallons.
Barrel-aging – Sometimes also referred to as cask-aging, this is the process of aging the product in a wooden barrel, most commonly one made of oak. The barrel may or may have been previously used to age another spirit or charred to blacken the inside. The aging process mellows some of the harshness of the spirit while simultaneously infusing it with color and character that comes from the wood.
Barrel Proof – This term may be found on the label of a whiskey bottle, indicating that the spirit was not diluted after it was removed from the barrel. The result is a much higher proof spirit than usual.
Blended Whiskey – A bottled product that results when producers combine different whiskeys.
Column Distilling – A newer and more efficient way to distill alcohol. Distillers pump the mash continuously into a column. Steam rises and evaporates the alcohol. Distillers can continue the process repeatedly. This results in a higher proof and more nearly pure alcohol.
Distillation – The process distillers use to separate alcohol from water. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. Therefore, it evaporates first and then distillers condense it back into liquid form.
Infusion – The process of adding an additional flavor to a finished spirit. This is typically accomplished by putting the flavoring ingredient, like a fruit or spice, directly into the spirit and letting it steep for a specific period of time in order to absorb the essence of the new ingredient.
Liqueur – A sugared and flavored distilled spirit.
Liquor – Historically this term referred to any alcohol beverage. Today it generally refers only to distilled spirits, although in Michigan liquor stores typically also sell beer and wine.
Mash – Sometimes referred to as wash (or in the case of brandy—wine) this term is used to describe the fermented liquid that is being distilled from grains or fruit.
Pot Distilling – Using a pot still to distill a wine or wash one batch at a time, with the alcohol evaporated into a tube or and condensed back into liquid. This is the earliest form of distilling, and is more labor-intensive than the Column Distilling frequently used today.
Proof – A historic term that allegedly traces its English roots back to members of the 18th century British Navy who had to douse their gunpowder in rum as a test of its potency. If the wet gunpowder still ignited, it was “proof” the alcohol content was high enough. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the term was established around 1848, where sprits containing 50% alcohol were defined as 100 proof for tax purposes. The higher the proof, the higher the tax. The term is still in use today, and in the U.S. it refers to twice the alcohol by volume of a spirit (e.g. a 40% ABV whiskey would be 80 proof).