Neat or Straight Up? A Guide to Commonly Misused Bartending Terms

BY: Shannon Grilli |Aug 31, 2022


Classic cocktails have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. But with the renewed interest in old-fashioned drinks like martinis, sazeracs, and, well... old-fashioneds comes an uptick in customers using and misusing common bartending terms.

But never fear! We threw together this handy bartending terminology guide to help you avoid these embarrassing mixology mishaps. Whiskey nerds, take note: if you've ever ordered your Maker's Mark "straight up" expecting a straight pour into a glass... keep reading.

Neat vs. up vs. straight up

These three terms are probably the most misused bartending terms of all. Here's what they actually mean:

Neat: Order your whiskey neat if you want it to be poured straight into a glass, at room temperature, without ice.

Up: Want that drink chilled instead? But still without ice? Order it "up" and the bartender will shake it with ice, then strain it into a stemmed cocktail glass. The "stemmed" part is important here since it's the added elevation that gives us the "up" here. Conversely, if you wanted the same thing, just served in a rocks glass, you could ask for it served down. However, that term has largely fallen out of fashion, and might perplex all but the most seasoned of bartenders. If he or she gives you a funny look, try ordering it chilled instead. 

Straight up: The term "straight up" technically isn't a real bartending term at all, but is what a lot of people mistakenly ask for when they really want their drink served neat. So how did it become a thing?

No one knows for sure, but the confusion likely stems from the use of the terms "straight" or "straight up" to mean "honest" or "direct". As in "Give it to me straight. Just the facts." Following that logic, it makes sense that if you want a glass of pure whiskey or another spirit, you'd ask for it "straight". Unfortunately, logic has no place here.

So what will you actually get if you order your whiskey straight up? That probably depends on your bartender's mood. A lazy bartender will probably just assume you mean "neat" and serve your drink that way. A bartender who's a stickler for terminology will probably chill your whiskey and serve it "up". And a good bartender will probably politely ask you to clarify what you really mean.

Pro Tip: a standard pour of spirit is 1.5 oz., but order a plain spirit "neat" or "on the rocks" and you'll likely get a 2 oz. pour instead. This is commonly known as a "rocks pour", and some bars charge more for it than they would if you were just ordering a plain shot.

Dry vs. wet

The terms "dry" and "wet" are most commonly used when ordering martinis and they can actually be a little confusing.

The dry in a dry martini refers to the vermouth used in the cocktail (which also happens to be "dry"). So you might assume that a dry martini is extra on the dry vermouth. But you'd be wrong.

Dry, in this case, actually means "easy on the", so when you order a dry martini, you're ordering a martini that goes lighter on the dry vermouth. If you want it with just a hint of vermouth (like Winston Churchill did), try ordering it extra dry

If, on the other hand, you want the bartender to go heavy on the vermouth, you'll want your martini wet or extra wet.

You probably won't want to apply this logic to other drinks, though. Ordering a "dry manhattan", for instance, won't get you a manhattan that's heavy on the rye and light on the sweet vermouth. A dry manhattan is its own thing—a manhattan made with dry vermouth, instead of sweet, and garnished with olives. 

Over vs. on the rocks

Finally! An easy one! Over and on the rocks both mean the same thing: served over ice. "On the rocks" has become the more ubiquitous term thanks to its use in movies and TV shows, but "over" is still a common term in some areas of the country or with bar patrons of a certain age.

Back vs. chaser

A back and a chaser are basically the same thing: a glass of something else that accompanies your main drink. But they tend to be used a little differently. A "back" is typically a drink that is sipped alongside another drink, while a "chaser" is meant to follow a drink that's thrown back quickly. Here are some examples:

"Bartender, a whiskey neat with a water back."

As opposed to:

"I'll take a shot of whiskey with a soda chaser."

The terms can be used interchangeably without confusion though, so fire (or gingerly sip) away!

Seltzer vs. soda

Who knew that even the cocktail mixers can be confusing? Most people know that tonic water is its own thing, but what about all those other bubbly waters behind the bar? Here's what you need to know: 

Seltzer: If you're looking for plain, carbonated water with nothing else in it, seltzer is the mixer you're looking for.

Club soda: Club soda might seem like the same thing as seltzer, but it actually has minerals added to it that give it a subtle difference in flavor.

Some people prefer one over the other, while others can't tell the difference or don't care. Either way, bars have both on hand, so choose whichever you like best.

Twist vs. squeeze

Believe it or not, this is a common bartending terminology mistake that results in a lot of drinks being sent back—usually because the customer doesn't understand what a twist really is.

A twist is a thin piece of citrus peel that the bartender twists over the drink to express the flavorful citrus oils into it. The peel is then usually dropped into the drink or draped across the rim of the glass as a garnish. You won't get any juice from a twist.

If what you really want is a squeeze of citrus or a wedge of lemon or lime served with your drink, be sure to ask specifically for that.