7 Bartending Terms and What They Actually Mean
Everything old is made new again, and bar slang is no exception. If you’ve spent an evening at a bar in the last few years, you’ve probably noticed that the bartender’s (and some customers’) language is peppered with quippy slang.
Some of it is probably familiar, but its origins or exact meaning maybe be a bit strange. To help you navigate your next bar order, we’ve put together a list of seven bar terms and their generally accepted definitions.
1. 86 (also 86’d, 86ing)
Within the bar and restaurant world, patrons and ingredients alike can get 86’d. If a bartender runs out of something or wants to get rid of it, she may tell other barstaff to 86 it. Likewise, a bartender can 86 a customer who’s had a bit too much by kicking them out.
86's etymology is a little murky with explanations ranging from alcohol strength to the number of bullets French soldiers were issued. Supposedly, its use in the restaurant industry dates back to the 1930s to signify that they ran out of something. There’s also the possibility that it comes from Prohibition-era raids at a bar called Chumley’s at 86 Bedford Ave in New York City. As this story goes, a paid-off police officer would tip off a bartender by telling him to 86 his customers. In this case, it meant for them to leave via the Bedford Ave exit. But probably the most likely story is that it’s just another example of diner slang and that rhymes with “nixed.”
This term for a small amount of a liquid—beer, water, soda, pickle brine, etc.—that accompanies a strong drink or shot is most likely derived from the French term chasse, which translates to “[it] chases.” Chaser has been in use in English since about 1800, but it most likely originally referred to the practice of taking a sip of liquor to quash the unpleasant aftertaste of coffee or tobacco.
3. On The Rocks
As one of the most commonly used bartending terms, it’s useful to know that this order will get you a bar’s standard pour (often 1.25, 1.5, or 2 oz) of straight spirit poured over ice in a rocks glass. Some Scotch whisky companies have asserted that this term comes from the Scottish tradition of chilling their drinks with rocks cooled in a river. Though interesting, the story is probably false.
A more likely story is that the term was born back in the days when ice cubes were chipped off of a larger block. As the phrase became more prevalent in pop culture, it became a more popular way to order whisk(e)y.
Up and neat are two of the most confused terms in the bartending world. A drink served up has been chilled through by shaking or stirring, then strained into an empty glass and served without ice. Its origins date back to 1874, but these are murkier than most. It’s likely that ordering a drink up meant that it was served in a glass with a stem. Though ordering something “down”—chilled and served in a rocks glass—is an extinct practice, it makes the stem seem that much more plausible.
A drink served neat, on the other hand, would be poured from the bottle into a glass and served at room temperature without ice. For spirits, this term seems to have arisen in the early 1800s, but was used to signify or order unadulterated wine from the late 16th century onwards.
6. Behind the Stick
If a bartender is behind the stick, he or she is working behind the bar doing the actual bartending rather than managerial tasks. Though this term is believed to have come from the wooden handles on beer taps, its exact origins are still unknown.
7. Finger (Unit of Measurement)
This measurement system hearkens back to the saloons of the Wild West. Patrons would order the size of their pour based on the width of the barman’s fingers. Since this system is rather imprecise, many bars have abandoned it entirely. However, others have begun the fight to standardize a one-finger pour.
Bars fighting to formalize the measurement have advocated that one finger equals a 3/4 inch pour in a standard rocks glass. This translates roughly to an ounce, so one finger would be one ounce, two would be two ounces, etc.