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Basic Cocktail Questions You Always Had But Were Too Afraid to Ask

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Whether you’re a complete cocktail novice, a freshly-legal drinker, or a booze-fiend that’s just let something slip through the cracks of your cocktail knowledge, we have the judgment-free answers you’re seeking. Here, 27 burning questions you’ve always had about liquor and cocktails, but were too afraid to ask.

What’s the difference between liquor and liqueur?   

Liquor refers to a distilled alcoholic spirit (vodka, whiskey, etc.), while a liqueur is a flavored spirit with at least 2.5 percent sugar by U.S. law. Liqueurs are usually lower in ABV and are called “cordials” in the UK.

What’s the difference between ABV and proof?

Both “ABV” and “proof” are terms that refer to the amount of pure alcohol in a spirit. ABV stands for “alcohol by volume,” which measures the amount of ethanol in a specific bottle of alcohol by percentage. The proof refers to the spirit’s alcohol content on a 0 to 200 scale. To calculate the "proof" of a spirit, simply double the ABV. For example, if a rum is 50% ABV it would be 100-proof.

What does it mean to order a drink “neat”, “up” or “on the rocks”?

When you order a spirit “neat,” it means you just want the booze poured straight into the glass with no ice or added flavorings. Ordering a drink “on the rocks” will get you a straight spirit or cocktail poured over ice in a lowball glass. Ordering a drink “up” means you want it chilled and strained without ice into a stemmed cocktail glass like a coupe. Don’t order a drink “straight up on the rocks” or you’ll confuse everyone.

What does a highball or lowball drink mean?

A highball and lowball usually refers to glassware. A highball glass is a tall, thin glass, and a lowball is a smaller, squat glass—also referred to as a rocks or old-fashioned glass. A highball can also refer to a type of drink, usually a basic mixture of a liquor and soda, like a Rum & Coke.

Do different glasses serve a purpose, or are they just for looks?

Glasses serve very particular purposes, which is why cocktails usually call for a specific one. Highball glasses and Champagne flutes funnel the bubbles of soda up to the top, preventing it from going flat. The wide opening on a lowball glass opens up the aromas of a cocktail or spirit, and certain speciality whiskey glassees claim to further enhance the experience of drinking whiskey. Some mugs are designed to keep drinks hot, like an Irish Coffee, while a metal Mint Julep cup keeps the cocktail frosty. A Hurricane glass is big enough to fit all those tiki ingredients, and a coupe glass delicately holds any drink that is served up.

Do I need to refrigerate alcohol?

Short answer: usually no. Most alcohol is shelf-stable and can be displayed on your bar cart without fear of spoiling. Most spirits do not go bad, though people sometimes store spirits like vodka in the fridge to avoid having to cool them with ABV-diluting ice. Cream-based liqueurs like Baileys are shelf-stable, but should be used within two years of opening. The notable exception to the rule is vermouth and other fortified wines. Just like a bottle of wine, an open bottle of vermouth should be stored in the fridge and used within two weeks of opening or it will turn—undoubtedly why so many people have a misinformed hatred of vermouth.

Is it safe to consume egg whites in cocktails?

Yes. Many people are afraid they’ll get salmonella if there are egg whites in their cocktail, but that is nearly impossible. Egg whites are shaken without ice very thoroughly in a cocktail, so that they emulsify. Agitating the whites causes their proteins to unfold and mixes in air bubbles, creating a nice foam for a cocktail that’s perfectly safe to drink.

Is it “whiskey” or “whisky”?

The difference in spelling indicates where the whiskey originated. Ireland and the United States (with a few exceptions) spell it “whiskey,” while pretty much the rest of the world—namely Scotland, Canada, Japan and India—spell it without the “e.”

What is peat?

You hear the word “peat” or “peaty” thrown around when describing scotch. Peat is spongy material comprised of decayed plant matter found in bogs, that’s harvested and burned to heat the stills. Distillers also burn peat to smoke and dry the barley, which contributes to scotch’s smokiness. The remote Islay region is particularly known for their smoky, heavily peated whiskey.

Should you add water to whiskey?

This is a matter of preference. Some people swear by drinking whiskey without even a drop of dilution, while others claim that a drop of water opens up whiskey’s aromas, making it more palatable. The type of water you use could even affect the whiskey. So, try it both ways and see which way you like it.

What’s the difference between mezcal and tequila?

Contrary to popular belief, mecal is not a type of tequila. In fact, it’s the other way around. Tequila is a type of mezcal that can only be made in Jalisco, Mexico from the blue agave plant. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made anywhere in Mexico from various types of agave. Mezcal is smokier than tequila since the agave pińas are roasted, instead of steamed, before they are crushed.

What are aperitifs and digestifs?

Aperitifs and digestifs are fancy names for liquors meant to stimulate the appetite or digestive system, respectively. They’re designed to be slowly sipped before or after a big meal, and are particularly popular in Italian culture. Popular aperitifs include bitter Campari and dry vermouth, while brandies and Sambuca are go-to digestifs.

What are bitters?

Bitters are highly concentrated, potent flavoring agents made from steeping herbs, roots, citrus peels, seeds, spices, flowers and barks in high-proof alcohol. You only need to use a few dashes in a cocktail, but it will hugely affect the taste of your cocktail for the better. Contrary to the name, bitters do not actually make your drink taste bitter. When used in the right quantities, they can spice up a drink in all the right ways, especially if you use flavored ones like Tiki or orange bitters to compliment the flavors of your drink. You can use bitters to add complexity to a cocktail, as an aromatic garnish, or even as a curative elixir to help alleviate digestive issues and hiccups.

What are botanicals?

The word botanicals is frequently used when describing gin. Botanicals are plant-based ingredients, such as juniper or coriander, used to flavor spirits, tinctures, bitters and oils. Without botanicals, gin would just be vodka.

What’s a “twist”?

When someone asks for a cocktail “with a twist,” they’re not asking for the bartender to surprise them. A twist refers to a swath of citrus peel—usually lemon, orange or grapefruit with no white pith—that’s twisted over a drink so that its zest is expressed, releasing a light and bright citrusy flavor into the cocktail.

What’s in simple syrup?

It’s all in the name: Simple syrup is a simple mix of water and sugar, usually in a 1:1 ratio. Simple syrup is used to sweeten drinks, and it is easily customizable with other flavors. Increasing the ratio of sugar to water will yield a sweeter, rich simple syrup, while using demerara sugar will give it a more caramely flavor. Honey can be swapped in for the sugar for a honey syrup, and endless other ingredients can be added to make flavored simple syrups.

What’s in sour mix?

Pre-made sour mix is an artificial syrup meant to replace a mix of fresh citrus juice and simple syrup. It’s probably why you’ve had less-than-satisfactory Whiskey Sours at a dive bar. Never make a cocktail with store-bought sour mix, and definitely avoid ordering ones made with it.

What’s a “chaser” or “back”?

“Chaser” and “back” are synonymous, both referring to something taken after a shot of liquor, to dull the burning sensation and cleanse the palate. The most famous chaser is the Pickleback—a shot of pickle brine taken after a shot of whiskey, effectively nullifying the taste of the whiskey instantly. People commonly order water backs with a stiff drink, to switch between the hard stuff and some hydration.

Should a Martini be shaken or stirred?

Technically, a Martini can be either shaken or stirred depending on your preference, but the classic way of preparing one is by stirring, which, in our opinion, yields the best balance. We feel personally victimized by James Bond for confusing the entire world on this matter.

How long should you shake or stir a cocktail?

Shaking a cocktail isn’t just about flair bartending, it serves a purpose—as does stirring. Shaking and stirring a cocktail is meant to incorporate all of the ingredients, chill down the cocktail and slightly dilute the drink to create balance. In order to achieve this, you should be shaking and stirring for at least a full 10 seconds unless otherwise noted. Drinks with eggs require longer shaking sessions, especially the labor intensive Ramos Gin Fizz.

What does muddle mean?

To muddle means to press ingredients against the base of the glass using a muddler, to extract the flavors from herbs like mint (in the case of a Mojito or juice from fruits like limes (in the case of a Caipirinha.

Does the type of ice you use in a cocktail matter?

Yes, the standard ice that comes out of your fridge dispenser isn’t going to cut it, since it will dilute very quickly before it’s had time to chill the cocktail. Large ice frozen in a mold will melt the slowest, while crushed ice will keep the cocktail super icy and dilute drinks with high-spirit contents like tiki drinks or Mint Juleps..

What does it mean to order a Martini or Manhattan dry, wet, perfect, etc.?

This refers to the amount of vermouth you want in a Martini or Manhattan. Dry doesn’t mean using dry vermouth—it means using less vermouth. Wet conversely means adding in more vermouth. A perfect cocktail calls for equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. And ordering a Martini "dirty" means you want olive brine added to the mix.

What’s a nightcap?

A nightcap isn’t a specific cocktail or even a particular type of drink—it simply refers to a drink that’s enjoyed at the tail end of an evening before bed. That said, classic nightcaps are usually digestifs meant to help soothe the tummy and mind before bed, like straight whiskey or Cognac.

How much is in one shot, finger, dram, etc.?

A conventional shot is 1.5 oz of liquid, though be weary of double shot glasses that can hold up to 3 oz. A finger of liquor is about an inch of liquid pour into a glass. A dram technically refers to an eighth-ounce of liquid, but is used colloquially to refer to a neat pour of whiskey.

Why do you light garnishes on fire?

It’s not just for show—flaming a garnish helps release more flavor into the cocktail or change the natural flavor of a garnish. Flaming an orange coin enhances the flavor of the peel’s essential oils, while smoking a fresh herb like thyme creates an interesting aromatic. That said, it does look really cool.

Do you blow out the flame on a cocktail before drinking it?

NO! IN NO WORLD SHOULD YOU DO THIS. Sorry, we promised this was going to be a judgment-free zone. But seriously, no, do not attempt to blow a flaming shot out, lest you want to spray molten liquor onto the bar and your friends. Please extinguish your drink responsibly before drinking it. In the case of a flaming shot, this means covering it with a mug or submerging it into a non-lethally alcoholic drink like a beer. Or, if it is an ignited 151-filled lime hull, push it into your tiki cocktail before proceeding.

Artile Courtesy of: Laura Reilly