The Essential Guide to Modern Cocktail and Bartending Terms


Since the word “cock-tail” was first defined in The Balance, and Columbian Repository in 1806, bartenders and drinkers alike have played a role in developing a unique, varied and at times amusing lexicon to describe the budding world surrounding the “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

The late 1800s gave us words like “syllabub,” “smash,” “sling,” “pony,” “toddy” and “nightcap” to describe popular serves and measurements of the era. The cocktail dark ages of the 1970s and ’80s, meanwhile, saw the rise of free-pouring and flair—two common bartending methodologies—and the use of “’tini” to mean anything but a genuine Martini. 

Now, with cocktail culture saturating the country anew, we’re in the middle of a glittering renaissance of bar lingo. The most common terms thrown about today are both functional and fun; they also offer a vivid snapshot of the current state of the industry in the U.S. and the way it is evolving. Reflecting the increasing crossover between restaurants and bars, for instance, many of-the-moment twists of the tongue are pulled directly from the restaurant industry (think “86’d,” “heard” and “behind.”). At Silver Lyan in Washington, D.C., for example, bartenders address each other as “chef,” as a sign of deference and respect, an organic evolution of their in-house language that predates The Bear. And as bars continue to adopt high-level scientific techniques, the nuances of redistilling, centrifuges, rotovaps and clarification demand their own attendant terms. “Recomposed lime,” for instance, is the name given by London bar Shapes to leftover lime juice that has been vacuum-distilled and then adjusted with salts and acids to replicate fresh lime juice as closely as possible in a shelf-stable form.

Much of today’s insider slang and phraseology originates from specific bars, organic developments born out of the culture and clientele of a particular outpost. Some of these terms have gone on to become universal (like the Ferrari, a 50/50 mix of Fernet-Branca and Campari), while others remain no-less-compelling localized oddities (see: “black toothpaste,” the term given to Fernet by Salt Lake City’s Water Witch). Inside jokes and shorthand abound.

Here, a non-exhaustive guide to the new vocabulary of cocktails. 

50/50 shot: A shot featuring two ingredients measured in equal parts. Damon Boelte kick-started the trend with the Hard Start (Fernet-Branca and Branca Menta) at New York’s Grand Army, and it’s since evolved to cover just about every imaginable combination of booze and bitter, including the aforementioned Ferrari, M&M (mezcal and Montenegro), Bro-Nar (bourbon and Cynar) and the Maserati (mezcal and Ramazzotti).

Amaroulette: Originated at the Fifty Fifty Gin Club in Cincinnati, this term is used by guests when they want the bartender to pick what shot of amaro they’ll drink. The term traveled to companion bar Homemakers, where the staff turned the concept into a physical wheel that guests can spin to determine the order. “When you spin, you win,” says general manager Rachel Flores. “Every time.” 

“Are you mad at me?” At Accomplice Bar in Los Angeles, a bartender might pose this question to a colleague when they’re in the weeds. “We ask each other this when we know no one is mad at us,” explains beverage director Ramsey Musk, “just to lighten the mood.”

Barbacking: Traditionally used to describe the entry-level position of assisting the bartender on duty, the phrase “barback for me,” when uttered during a shift, indicates a request for another bartender to discreetly ask for a guest’s name. According to some, the phrase has moved from behind the bar into everyday social interactions as well.

Bartender’s handshake: A shot ordered (or offered) to identify (or acknowledge) a fellow bartender. Whereas Fernet-Branca was once the go-to bartender’s handshake, others have since included Chartreuse, Jeppson’s Malört and even Angostura bitters. Now, in an era where bartenders take themselves less seriously, even once-maligned products like Stoli Blueberry, Malibu rum and Midori are fair game.

Blip: Also known as a “cheeky,” “little guy” or “shorty,” referring to small or mini shots that staff members share together or with guests, sometimes during a “staff meeting” (see below). 

Boomerang: When a bartender sends a cocktail to another bar or bartender, typically through a trusted intermediary who also works in the industry, as a gift or sign of camaraderie. At establishments like DrinkWell in Austin, Texas, the term serves a second purpose: “We also use this when R&D’ing cocktails to denote the drinks on the menu that are going to be popular with our industry friends. E.g., ‘Oh, this is a solid boomerang drink,’” explains owner Jessica Sanders.  

Burn the ice: When faucet water is continuously run over ice to melt leftover supply at the end of the night (or when broken glass falls in the ice well). Many eco-conscious bars eschew this practice as unnecessarily wasteful, so at bars like Sip & Guzzle in New York, ice is stored in totes in the freezer when not in use. Other places seek out alternatives for disposing of leftover ice, such as using it to water plants (when no broken glass is present, of course). 

Cheater bottle: An unlabeled, standard-size bottle that fits easily into a bar well, into which the contents of an oddly shaped spirits bottle are transferred to expedite and simplify service. 

Civilians: Guests who do not work in the hospitality industry. 

Close-looping: The practice of using ingredients in their entirety to create a zero-waste drink.

Club Sandwich: Another bartender’s handshake, the Club Sandwich is the combination of a beer and a shot (also known as a boilermaker). Club Sandwich combinations will vary, but at Water Witch in Salt Lake City, Hamm’s and Wild Turkey is what you’ll get.

Dirty dump: The practice of pouring a shaken drink from the cocktail shaker into the glass without straining it. The technique changes the texture of the drink and sometimes the flavor, if, for instance, muddled fruit is part of the recipe. In the last six years or so, some bartenders have reframed this practice as a sustainability initiative, employed to reduce water usage at the bar (relying on the ice that the drink was shaken with means less ice is used overall). Texas-based bartenders will tell you this technique is especially useful for making silky Margaritas. 

Down: When a drink is served in a rocks glass with no ice, like a Sazerac. 

(Joining the) Empty Bottle Club: When a guest gets the last pour of a special or rare bottle, an act generally documented with a picture of the bottle on its side. “This is my personal creation as an alternative to the more common parlance ‘dead soldier,’” says Matthew Powell, owner of The Doctor’s Office in Seattle.

Flash-blend: When a cocktail is blended using a flash blender (sometimes known as a stand-up mixer, spindle blender or Hamilton Beach, after a common manufacturer) for a few seconds with a small amount of crushed ice. This aerates the drink while chilling it quickly and is especially effective for tropical cocktails. 

Fruit bat: Used frequently at Estereo in Chicago, a “fruit bat” is a guest who eats the pieces of fruit on the bar that are intended for garnishing.

Fuzzy: Orlando Franklin McCray at Nightmoves in Brooklyn explains a drink is “fuzzy” when it is “pushed out of a small home-brew keg with CO2, and kept under pressure so [it has] a light effervescence but [isn’t] force-carbonated.” In other words, lightly carbonated. 

Garbage: Muddled fruit, herbs or other ingredients that remain in the bottom of a glass or shaker tin. 

Gaudy: In the age of Instagrammability, a “gaudy” cocktail is one presented with “lots of dry-ice smoke and various decorative items,” says Ektoras Binikos, co-founder of Sugar Monk in Harlem.

Grab Rangoon: The term is used at Nine Bar in Chicago to describe a person who is “overly or inappropriately touchy or grabby.” 

Layback: The act of bending backwards, or “laying back,” while someone else pours a shot straight from a bottle into the first person’s mouth. 

Razzle dazzle: At The Doctor’s Office, a “razzle dazzle” indicates “the moment the music crescendos in perfect timing with the first burst of flame from the TDO Spanish Coffee,” says Powell. “Also used for any particularly well-timed execution that leaves a lasting impression.”

Sacraficio or the Sacrifice: “Credit to our lead bartender, Raul, who takes all the open juices, soda, last bits of wine, etc., to make a punch for the house to enjoy post-shift,” says Althea Codamon of Aita in Brooklyn, describing the “sacrifice” or “sacraficio.” 

Shampoo: Code for a splash of Champagne at the Bamboo Room in Chicago.

Shifty: A liqueur, spirit or mixed drink consumed as a bar team, before, after or during a shift. Also called a “shift drink,” “onesies” or “cheeky.” At bars where alcohol consumption is no longer allowed during a shift, the “shifty” might be a shot of espresso, alcohol-free spirit or another beverage.

Sloppy steak: Nine Bar co-owner Lily Wang says the staff at her bar use this term for a person who is “sloppy drunk or wasted,” referencing a sketch from Tim Robinson’s comedy series I Think You Should Leave.

Snaquiri, or Snaq: An amuse-bouche cocktail given to friends or special guests upon arrival at the bar. Originally two full-sized Daiquiris, bars now also serve a smaller (often shot-size) Daiquiri as a more approachable version.

Spaggled: Devised by Jacon Wharton-Shukster, owner of Chantecler in Toronto, “spaggle,” or “spaggled,” is a “crude interpretation of Sbagliato,” says Josh Lindley of Bartender Atlas, referring to the Negroni Sbagliato. “‘Spaggling’ is adding sparkling wine to an already finished cocktail. A spaggled Negroni is different from a Negroni Sbagliato, and a Spaggled Daiquiri is divine.” 

Spiritfree: In 2017, Julia Momosé, owner of Kumiko in Chicago, released a written manifesto in which she advocated for the use of the term “spiritfree” in place of the more ubiquitous “mocktail” to give drinks made without alcohol the same respect and power as their alcohol-bearing counterparts. As the movement has grown, other terms, such as “alcohol-free,” “no-ABV” and “zero-proof,” have also become common, while “mocktail” has even begun to be reclaimed by some

Sprotini: Shorthand for an Espresso Martini, “Sprotini” is “a great example of a use of shorthand becoming the new and ubiquitous word for a thing,” says Yacht Club owner Mary Allison Wright, where the term originated. At the Denver bar, too, Peychaud’s bitters are “Peyshawty.”

Staff meeting: When a bar team takes a small shot together before, during or after a shift. Variations include “family meal,” “safety meeting,” “guild meetings,” “snack time” and “staff bonding,” among others. When Daiquiris are the drink in question, the phrase “Daiquiri Time Out” or DTO, is often called. Some bars have more specific code names: for example, “Uncle Ray is in Town” is code for J. Wray & Nephew rum shots at Drastic Measures near Kansas City.

Superjuice: An alternative to fresh citrus juice, superjuice is a combination of citrus peels and acid powder plus water, all of which is blended and fine-strained, then combined with fresh juice squeezed from the peeled fruit. Many bartenders make superjuice to close the loop on waste and increase the yield of their citrus. 

Training wheels, or wheels: Wright, of Yacht Club, says bartenders use “training wheels” to describe the act of taking a “back,” or a piece of fruit, with a shot to make it easier to drink. 

Water bombs: The staff at Fifty Fifty Gin Club chugs a small glass of water to stay hydrated during a shift. “You have to take care of each other during service, so line ’em up,” says general manager Flores. Just be sure to “never cheers with them: It’s bad luck.” 

Whip shake: A very short and fast shake with a small amount of crushed or pebble ice (or a single Kold-Draft cube). The point is to quickly chill the drink without adding too much dilution while also maximizing froth. Used primarily for cocktails that will be served over crushed ice (or those with pineapple juice).

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