Bartending Terminology

We know alcoholic beverages by many names – beer, wine, whiskey, hooch, and booze, for starters – but to truly impress, a little bartending terminology goes a long way. It also makes it easy to know which drinks are most appropriate served when.
Spirits are any distilled beverage made from fermented grains and water and are usually considered ‘hard’ liquors – whiskey, bourbon, gin, rum, vodka, and brandy are most common.

Whiskeys are made in the US, Canada, and Ireland. Whisky, without the ‘e’, is made in Scotland and Japan. Bourbon is made only in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Distillation is the process of heating a mixture of fermented grains and water to the boiling point, sending the resulting vapor through a series of tubes to allow for condensation when it cools again, and capturing the cooled highly alcoholic distillate for bottling or ageing.

Hard liquors are distilled liquors. Soft liquors (beer and wine) are fermented to develop their alcohol content but they don’t go through the distillation process.

An apéritif is served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. These beverages, also called pre-prandials (before the meal), include almost anything that isn’t sweet or fruity.

A digestif is served after the meal as a means of settling the stomach and aiding digestion. These beverages are often called post-prandial or after-dinner beverages.

Beers are liquors made from fermented and malted cereal grains that’ve been flavored with the herb, hops. Color and body varies from light to dark, light to heavy, and alcohol content ranges between 3% and 30%, depending upon the country of origin.

Wines are fermented from grapes and other fruits, aged for at least a year before bottling, and they continue to develop after the bottling process, unlike other liquors. Alcohol content ranges from 10% to 16%, depending on process, the grape, and country of origin.

Champagne is a form of wine that undergoes special processing to produce tiny bubbles. Only such wines made in the Champagne region of France can bear this name.

Sparkling wine is bubbly wine made outside the Champagne region but sometimes made in the méthode champenoise. Wines with no bubbles are called still wines.

Brandy is distilled wine. Some brandies are made only in the region they are named for, such as Cognac and armagnac from Glascony, both regions in France.

Fortified wines start out as wine but brandy is added to stop fermentation. The added brandy increases alcohol content and means they last much longer than wine once a bottle has been opened. Fortified wines are instrumental in gourmet cooking.

Many of the most in-demand cocktails are flavored with fortified wines (white vermouth in martinis, red vermouth in Manhattans) but these wines, such as sherries, ports, Madeira, marsala, Campari, and Dubonnet, are also enjoyed without mixing.

Liqueurs, or cordials, are brandies and other liquors to which herbs, fruits, and nuts have been infused to give them a unique, distinctive flavor. These beverages are often sweeter and heavier than other liquors so they make excellent after-dinner drinks and they add flavor to many cocktails.

Some liqueurs have long and fascinating histories. Many of them were developed centuries ago by monks and alchemists (Benedictine, Frangelico) in their search for medicinal cures and their recipes have remained secrets all this time. Some of the most popular liqueurs have recipes never written down. In some cases, one person knows only part of a recipe while others know the other parts but no single individual knows the complete recipe.

Cocktails became highly popular during the American Prohibition era of the 1920s as a way to disguise the flavor of ‘bathtub’ gin, the foul-smelling and awful-tasting stuff cooked up in secret and served at speakeasies. They’re based on one or more liquors but are highly flavored with liqueurs, fruit juices, and other mixers.

High balls consist of one liquor and one mixer served over ice in a tall glass. Drinks served in tall glasses (Tom Collins) are also called long drinks. Short drinks are served over ice in small glasses (White Russian).

Drinks served neat, or straight, are poured straight from bottle to glass, with no ice added. Drinks served up have been shaken with ice but strained to remove the ice before serving (martini). That same drink served with the ice instead of up is said to be on the rocks.

Shots are a hard liquor served neat in a shot glass (jigger) and often accompany a beer. Shooters are served in shot glasses, too, but they are mixed drinks instead of straight liquor.