How to Order Classic Cocktails (The Right Way!)

If you enjoy sipping a cocktail when you’re out at a bar, chances are you’ve been flummoxed by the terminology. What does “shaken not stirred” mean, actually? What’s the difference between “on the rocks,” “up,” or “neat”? Cocktails can be ordered many ways, but there’s no reason to freeze up when you’re ordering a drink, or stick to that one drink you’re sick of having but know how to ask for it. Here, we’ve demystified some of the most common (and less common) terms so you can roll up to the bar, order your cocktail, and enjoy life.


When you order a drink “up” or “straight up,” it means it will be served chilled in a long-stemmed glass with no ice. Before that, it’s either shaken (with ice in a cocktail shaker) or stirred (stirred together in a mixing jug with ice), then strained into the glass (so that your hands will not warm the drink). Though you’ve probably seen more of the theatrics of mixologists shaking cocktails, stirring is also an important technique behind the bar, and is a more gentle way of combining the ingredients. The result is a cold, refreshing cocktail that won’t become diluted with ice. Martinis, as James Bond has made movie buffs famously aware of, are most often served up, but can be shaken or stirred depending on your preference. A traditionally stirred cocktail, the Manhattan, is a mix of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. Both solid, boozy choices at the bar.

On the rocks

“On the rocks” refers to a drink being served with ice cubes—the rocks, of course, being the ice. A “rocks glass” is a tumbler or low, wide-mouthed glass. Drinks served “on the rocks” include an Old Fashioned (bourbon, bitters, a large ice cube, and an orange peel), a Negroni (gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and an orange peel), and any other boozy cocktail that won’t be negatively affected by melting ice. Margaritas, for example, can go both ways—on the rocks, or straight up. Dealers choice.


Less common than a cocktail served up, a cocktail can be served “down,” which simply means that a drink that would usually be served in a stemmed glass like a Martini or Manhattan will be served in a tumbler/ rocks glass. This can make the cocktail less likely to spill (that stemmed glass is a tall order), but isn’t super typical.


There’s quite a bit of debate as to what “dry” means in reference to a certain cocktail, the Martini. Some claim that a “dry” martini refers to the variety of vermouth used in the cocktail (not sweet), while others argue that a “dry” martini simply means that less dry vermouth is used. Regardless, martinis are always always made with dry vermouth and either gin or vodka, along with a twist of lemon or an olive. With a twist means with a twist of lemon or lime peel. Dirty means that olive juice has been added to the cocktail, while a perfect martini is one that has equal parts sweet and dry vermouth in addition to gin.


If you hear someone ordering something “neat,” it simply refers to the booze being served plain, without ice, and at room temperature. Whiskey is often ordered neat, as it doesn’t need to be chilled to be enjoyed, but you can really order an liquor neat, if you just want to sip it without any accoutrement.


If a cocktail is requested “tall,” it refers to the glass (a tall, longer glass), and can often mean that extra mixer is added. If you’re not a huge fan of the taste of certain liquors, this can be a nice option—ordering a Screwdriver “tall,” for example, would mean you get a little extra OJ alongside your tequila.

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