Sometimes bar terminology and slang can make your head spin! The world of bar terminology is a muddled cocktail of terms that may mean one thing to you but something entirely different to your bartender.
You can order any spirit in various ways, such as on the rocks, straight up, or even neat.
There is almost no dispute that on the rocks means a drink served in a rock or old fashioned glass with ice. Ordering a neat drink is just as easy—it is a direct pour of spirits in your glass without any ice or mixers.
So far, we’re still coping, right?
Straight up and up opens an entirely different bottle of spirits altogether. In most cases, straight up and up are interchangeable terms, but they can become slightly confusing too.
Straight up can have a few meanings, like a drink chilled by stirring or shaking it with ice and straining it into a cocktail glass.
It can also be a different term for ordering a neat drink, and it can also tell your bartender that you’d like a chilled vodka (Martini) without vermouth…
Up usually means you’d like a chilled drink served in a cocktail glass.
We’ll dive into these somewhat confusing bar terminology to discover exactly what they mean. We’ll start simple with on the rocks and neat because most people know those terms and their associated meanings. Afterward, we’ll dig into “straight up” and “up” serving and ordering styles and unpack the numerous meanings attached to these terms and why they can be so confusing.
There are many styles for serving drinks, and many terms can be confusing. There are divergent opinions about some words (straight up and up).
In contrast, others are common enough to know they cannot have another meaning. We’ll unpack them below and help you when you’re at the bar to order what you want.
Drinks On the Rocks
On the rocks is a bar slang term for a drink served with ice. It simply means you’ll get a shot or around 2 oz of a spirit, served in a rock or old fashioned glass over ice.
But wait, there’s gotta be more to this, right?
The romanticized version of the origin comes from Scotland. The tradition was collecting small rocks from a riverbed to cool your whisky. This myth is probably just a myth.
The “rock in on the rocks” refers to ice chipped from a large block or rock of ice before the advent of modern refrigeration. Those pieces would appear as little stones, chipped from a rock when they were put in the glass.
Fast forward to 1933, when the first ejecting ice cube trays were invented. The ice cubes, well, looked like little rocks of ice.
If you’re interested in making crystal clear ice, follow these instructions. You can also take your “on the rocks” drink quite literally and use whiskey stones made from… you guessed it! Rocks.
Whiskey on the rocks is traditionally served in a rock or old fashioned glass.
Take It Neat
This is the “purest” form of drinking a spirit—no mixing, no ice. It is the spirit poured directly into a glass at room temperature.
A neat drink is the same as on the rocks, but without the dilution from ice. Many whiskey snobs sneer at people who drink their whiskey on the rocks because they believe the dilution interferes with the drink’s flavor.
A neat serving is undoubtedly one way of experiencing a spirit’s unique taste.
Neat drinks are slipped slowly to enjoy the flavors as they unfold. Apart from whiskey and brandy being served neat, top-quality vodkas and tequilas are commonly also served neat.
Straight Up vs. Up Drinks
Technically, “up” and “straight up” are interchangeable when you order a cocktail. Simply put, you want your drink shaken or stirred with ice and strained into a cocktail glass.
A Martini is the perfect example of a straight up drink.
But there’s a caveat when you dig deeper into these terms:
- Some people use the word “straight” when they mean a neat liquor pour. For instance, “bourbon straight” is a standard bar order, although it is neat.
- Other times white spirits are chilled and served in a cocktail glass—a typical example is chilled vodka (either shaken or stirred with ice beforehand) served in a cocktail (or other stemmed glass). But it is technically neat, or a “straight” shot, when the whole bottle of vodka is chilled in a freezer and served without ice.
- Straight may also refer to a neat pour of spirits or ask for their favorite liquor served “straight up,” meaning they want a neat pour.
- Shots are “neat” servings, but the term “straight” has more of a party vibe, while neat sounds more refined.
Things can become confusing when ordering a Martini “straight up” because a bartender may interpret it as you would like the vodka or gin chilled and served in a cocktail glass.
Without vermouth—to avoid this mistake, order your Martini “up.” When you order a drink “up,” you’re asking for a chilled drink served in a cocktail or stemmed glass.
Think about your drink being “up in the air” because the stem elevates it. The term having a drink served “up” dates back to around 1874, but nobody is sure from exactly where.
When you consider that ordering a drink “down” meant a chilled drink served in a rock or old fashioned glass, the correlation between “up” and stemmed glasses makes sense.
Remember, we are talking about bar terminology, which can vary from one region to the next or even from one bar to the next.
If you’re unsure about a term, and the bar isn’t too busy, ask your bartender what they mean when they hear a particular word. Most of the time, they won’t mind answering your questions, and they’ll appreciate that you’re trying to learn and understand the terminology.
There is no right or wrong answer to any of these terms because no authoritative or definitive bar dictionary gives a clear-cut answer to these terms.
Bartenders train at different institutions, and each bar defines what a particular word means—if you don’t know, ask before you get an upsetting drink you don’t enjoy.
Additionally, don’t let anyone stand in your way and tell you that you’re ordering the “wrong” way—order what you like, how you want it, and enjoy every sip.