According to the Henry J. Kaiser foundation, as of 2017, there were 28,348,600 adults between the ages of 19 and 25 living in the United States. That means that there are roughly 11,000 people turning 21, and ordering drinks for the first time on any given day. I don’t know your life, but if it’s anything like mine, a typical 21st birthday generally involves the following:
- Friends ordering shots, often with no input from the person doing them.
- A wide variety of various peoples favorite drinks being presented to the birthday-person for immediate consumption.
- several bottles of low-quality alcohol being given as gifts
- general drunkenness and frivolity
- a nice dinner with your family on some later date where you order something off the menu that sounds pretty okay but tastes kinda crappy.
You know what I don’t see a lot of? Education.
Nobody ever sits down and teaches you how to order drinks or what to order or what is in the drinks that they are ordering for you. For most people, their deepest educational knowledge will come from their one bartender friend who might tell them what is in a lemon drop shot or a green tea shot. Otherwise, it pretty much comes down to watching and listening to other people and praying to god you can figure it out.
Now luckily, people are generally pretty good at figuring stuff out, since we are basically hard wired to respond to social cues. Unfortunately that can only get you so far, and it also requires spending quite a bit of time in bars to do so… not everyone has the stomach (or the wallet) to dedicate to this kind of education. Luckily, you have me. Lets run through the basic gauntlet of how and what to order in a bar.
Side note, this is ONLY talking about hard liquor. Beer and wine are a little easier to navigate and don’t have as many ‘rules’ for ordering.
Ordering Drinks: Spirits
The first thing you should know about are your cardinal spirits: Vodka, Rum, Gin, Whiskey, Tequila (and maybe Brandy). These are their general qualities:
- Vodka: Neutral, colorless, flavorless (unless a flavored vodka), good mixer, good for shots (especially flavored vodka)
- Rum: Fruity and Spicy (like cinnamon spice), great for shots, made from sugar, good for beginners
- Gin: Tastes like Christmas trees, should not be done as a shot, not good for beginners
- Whiskey: Amber colored, made from grains, also not great for shots, so/so for beginners
- Tequila: Intense flavor, very popular in shots, prone to over-drinking and ruining tequila for you forever (which is a shame)
- Brandy: Tastes like fruit and oak, almost never done as a shot, an acquired taste, the cheap stuff is really bad and will ruin it for you
To say that these are the basics is an extreme understatement, but considering that you are reading this article, it’s okay. We all have to start somewhere. These are the basic spirits/liquors/alcohols that you will encounter and are most likely what you are trying to order. From here we will progress to modifiers or “How do I want to drink this liquor and what will my bartender put into it?”
Ordering Drinks: Modifiers
The most basic of modifiers will be your “Liquor and Mixer”. If you’ve hung around in bars much, you’ve probably heard someone ask for a “Whiskey and Coke” or “Gin and Tonic” or “Vodka Cranberry”. These are you Liquor and Mixers. First you name the liquor (Vodka, Rum, Gin, etc.), then you name the mixer (Coke, Sprite, Ginger Ale, Tonic, etc..). As a side note, many bartenders (myself included) have a bit of a pet peeve about ordering drinks by listing your mixer first (e.g. Coke and Jack, Cranberry Vodka). It doesn’t change anything but I guess that’s why it’s a pet peeve and not an actual problem.
Generally Good Mixers
|Rum||Ginger ale||Coke||Fruit Punch||Pineapple|
|Whiskey||Coke||Ginger ale||lemonade||apple juice|
|Tequila||cranberry||orange juice||grapefruit juice|
Now, I’ll be honest with you, some of these are a bit of a stretch for me… whiskey and Apple Juice is certainly delicious but you probably shouldn’t ask for it at a dive bar. Also, personally, I am fundamentally against Tequila and Cranberry Juice, but I certainly hear it ordered enough. That aside, if you go to your bartender and order drinks like a Whiskey and Coke or Tequila and Grapefruit Juice, they are going to ask you a few more questions. Or, they might just assume and you won’t get the drink you were thinking of. Either way, you need to know the next bit too.
Clarify how you want your Liquor and Mixer
Short, tall, double, neat, and many more… at some point these familiar words seem very unfamiliar. I’m sure some of them you already know and some of them you could figure out, but I will testify that I get plenty of 40+ guests ordering drinks using these words incorrectly or not at all. Many of these are either/or situations.
Short or Tall
This refers to how much mixer (soda or juice) you want in your drink. A ‘short’ drink will be served in a rocks glass with roughly equal portions of liquor to mixer. A ‘tall’ drink will be served in a larger glass with roughly two or three times as much mixer as liquor. If you don’t want to taste the liquor as much, order tall. If you do want to taste it, order short.
Single or Double
This part refers to how much alcohol you want in your drink. The standard pour at bars I’ve worked at in the past is 1.25 oz of alcohol with the double being 2 oz. The one I work at now, the standard pour is 2 oz with a double being 4 oz. This is something to keep in mind when ordering drinks and will vary from bar to bar. Dive bars tend to have larger pours while corporate restaurants and high end bars have smaller pours.
Importantly, when ordering a double, keep in mind that it doesn’t change the size of the glass at most places. This means that if you order a Double Whiskey and Coke, it will likely be served in the smaller rocks glass, meaning that you might have up to 4 oz of liquor, leaving only enough room for 2-3 oz of mixer. Some people want this. Some people don’t. If you are one of those people that don’t, you might consider ordering a “Double Tall” so that you maintain your 1:1 liquor to mixer ratio and effectively have 2 normal drinks in one glass.
Up or Down?
This section is pretty easy, seeing as how it pertains primarily to Martinis. Ordering a Martini properly is a complicated game that warrants it’s own post entirely. Conveniently I’ve already made that, so if you’re ready to take your drinking to the next level, check that out! Martinis are often seen as much more overwhelming than they truly are.
Ordering Drinks: Be Specific about your Liquor
When someone is ordering drinks in a movie, they never use brand names. Do you know why that is? Because they don’t want to deal with the hassle of either getting permission or getting sponsorship. Since they can’t ask for specifics, they ask for a ‘whiskey and coke’ or a ‘vodka and tonic’ If you ask for this at a dive bar, you will likely get the ‘Well’ spirit: the lowest shelf, cheapest stuff they’ve got. You might pay $4 for the drink… they paid $4 for the whole bottle, sometimes less. Some of this stuff is so cheap that you won’t even find it on the shelf at your local liquor store. It’s strictly ‘dive bar well’.
In the event that your bartender is not too busy or practicing their up-sell, they might ask you what spirit your are looking for in particular. This usually when you say a ‘call’ liquor: something you know the name of. Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Cuervo… though many people consider them to be ‘bottom shelf’, they are still the names you know the best. While they are often on special at dive bars, at more structured bars, these will generally cost $1-2 more than the ‘well’ equivalent.
In marketing, “top shelf” means premium spirits and premium prices for the discerning customer. In practice, in bars, top shelf is going to be basically anything on the back bar, or behind the bartender. If they have to turn around to get it, you are paying more*. Some of these names will be very familiar to the average customer: Grey Goose, Patron, Hendricks, Gentleman Jack, etc. When ordering drinks with these, you can expect to pay an additional $4+ a drink.
*also applies to prostitutes
DISCLAIMER: This is absolutely NOT how the alcohol industry itself categorizes the different spirits and brands. The usually go with well, call, premium, super-premium, and top shelf. For general purposes you can assume everything over call is more expensive, with some items (like Louis XIII) being absurdly expensive. Usually if it has a special display case or light or is sitting way up high, it’s going to be really expensive.
But what if I don’t want a mixer?
Well good on you! You’ve graduated to the next level of spirits enthusiasm: drinking without mixers. Or you are just ordering a shot, which I suppose is fine too.
Shots are different than the other two categories I’m about to talk about only in so far as how you are intended to consume them. You can get your shot chilled (shaken over ice, then poured out cooler and more diluted) or straight, where the bartender pours it out of the bottle and into the glass and right over to you. Either way, you drink the whole thing down with as much expediency as possible. Some shots, like Tequila, have a whole ritual surrounding their imbibing.
Many people will ask for a chaser, or a separate glass with a non-alcoholic soda or juice to help stop the burning from the shot. It is also not uncommon to ask for a beer as a chaser/accompaniment to the shot, which in the United States is often called a “Boilermaker” for God knows what reason.
The only real difference between a straight shot and a liquor ‘neat’ is going to be how you drink it and maybe what glass your bartender serves your drink in. A Whiskey (or Gin, or Vodka) Neat is just the spirit of your choice, poured straight out of the bottle and into a nicer glass (could be rocks glass, could be a snifter) and served. Unlike the Shot above, you do not drink this as fast as possible. You sip on it over the course of 15+ minutes and savor the taste. Obviously there will be a quality difference in the spirits you might choose when ordering drinks like this. You might do a shot of Fireball, and an Angels Envy Neat.
On the Rocks?
First, you do a Neat pour, often in the nicer glassware shown above. Then you add Ice. FIN.
Well, not quite. Some people can be quite particular about their ice actually, seeing as how it comes in all different shapes and qualities. Many people prefer large spheres which melt more slowly or even Whiskey Stones which are literal rocks that keep your drink cold without diluting the alcohol at all. If you are at a ‘regular’ bar that only keeps standard ice, the bartender might ask you how many rocks you want in your drink, with the typical answers being 1,3, or plenty (at least where I work).
Well, there you have it! The basic guide to ordering basic drinks! Hopefully this has been educational and will serve you well on your drinking journey, but it’s a little bit limited in scope.
If you want to learn more about how to order cocktails, I recommend checking out my Sours Post, for an idea of how cocktails are built and categorized. It should help you to examine cocktail menus a little bit better and create your own cocktails from scratch at home.
In the next part of this post, we examine when to order different drinks at different bars! The type of bar (or restaurant) you are in will definitely effect how and what you should order. Sure, you can order whatever you want wherever you want, but results (and your satisfaction) can really vary.