Stock Your Bar with These Essential English Vocabulary Terms for Bartenders

Bartenders live their lives like rock stars or spies.

They deal with parties, drinks, people, music, gossip, secrets and the occasional hangover.

Along with others who work in the hospitality industry, they can travel and have a job anywhere in the world.

They can have a promising future and a huge network of friends and co-workers.

So, it’s not surprising that bartenders speak their own language as well.

Just sit at a bar and listen to the casual conversation between the customers and the bartenders. Their words will sound like some kind of code.

So even if you understand the words they say in English, you might not understand the terms and expressions they’re using (and you’re certainly not going to find some of them in the dictionary).

However, believe us, those words definitely mean something! And if you’re going to be a bartender, you’ll need to add these words to your vocabulary, too.

It’s more than just being familiar with the names of drinks. Knowing the name of every popular cocktail is just half of it—it’s also important that you understand exactly how to deliver what your guests want. Using these terms correctly guarantees everyone understands each other and that the customers leave happy.

So belly up (walk up) to the bar and let us pour you our own local “brew” of English for bartenders with these essential vocabulary words and phrases.


Language and Communication Skills Bartenders Need

A bartender doesn’t simply make drinks and put money in the tips jar. The main role of a bartender is to provide welcoming and warm customer service. In other words, to give their guests the best nights of their lives.

Knowing how to make drinks is connected to this role, but it’s only part of it.

Here are some language and communication skills that will help you provide an outstanding customer service experience and separate you from other bartenders:

  • Be attentive and listen to what customers are saying. If you overhear a guest telling a friend that they need an extra glass, deliver one before they have a chance to finish asking for it. It’s important to continually improve your listening skills.
  • Remember the names of recurring (regular) customers and their favorite drinks.
  • Communicate effectively through body language, like good eye contact and a strong handshake.
  • Speak in a relaxed and confident way, tell jokes, laugh, be friendly.
  • Get used to coded communication (i.e., “Whisky, neat!”). Drink orders won’t always be clear or in complete sentences, but they sure will be fast. Confusing words will make you look like a novice (beginner) and worse, your guests won’t get the drink they want.

Additional Resources for Bartenders

It’s best to start reviewing any employees handbook or training manuals provided by your employers. You can always find samples of these materials online if you don’t have one on hand.

If you’re still curious about English for bartenders (or you just want to have some fun with your friends), this YouTube channel will help you review the things you’ll learn at a bartending school and gives you insider tips from behind the bar.

And if you want to get started right now, visit this website with plenty of exercises designed specifically with bartenders in mind. These will help you improve your English, while also reinforcing some of the words and phrases from the list below.

A Glass of Essential English Vocabulary for Bartenders

You don’t need a fully-stocked bar to start mixing cocktails and getting tips. After all, many of the best drinks require only a few ingredients.

With just a dash of key words, a sprinkle of mixers, some fresh fruit and a handful of useful phrases, you’ll be able to stand out as a bartender and start happy hour off right!

Be warned though, some of these words and phrases can have different meanings, depending on the context. Get someone else to hold your beer and pay attention!

Essential Words for Bartenders

Spirits / mixed drinks / cocktails

Wait… aren’t they all the same? Well, no. We should start by clearing up this confusion. Knowing the difference between these three terms will help you understand the following words and expressions.

A mixed drink is basically a drink with two or more mixed ingredients. They can even be non-alcoholic. Some popular types of mixed drinks are cobblers—drinks made with wine or sherry, citrus juice and sugar.

Cocktails are any mixed drink containing three or more flavors.

Nowadays, the word cocktail is used for all kinds of mixed alcoholic drinks, from martinis to margaritas. But it originally referred to a drink made with “spirits, sugar, water and bitters.” That means that a gin and tonic isn’t a cocktail. Some popular cocktails are apple martinis, black Russians, cosmopolitans and Manhattans.

Now, when we’re talking about “spirits,” we’re not actually talking about a ghost or something haunting your basement or attic. Spirits refer to any unsweetened distilled alcoholic drink such as vodka, gin, brandy, whisky or tequila.


Oh, you should try a mixed drink with less sugar, such as vodka with club soda.

This store only sells wines and spirits. 

On the rocks

No, we’re not talking about actual rocks or stones of any kind. To have a drink on the rocks means to have a drink poured over ice. This is most commonly used with scotch or whisky, but it can be used with other drinks, too.

This expression probably comes from the days when ice cubes were chipped off of a larger block of ice or rock. As it became more famous, it turned into a more popular way to order whisky.


I’d like some Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks, please!

Oh, I love my scotch served on the rocks. It tastes so much better!


On the other hand, to have a drink served neat means to have it out of the bottle into a glass served at room temperature without ice. This way, you can enjoy the full flavor of the drink as it’s presented.


I always order my whisky neat. I prefer it at room temperature.

Note: It’s important to clarify that neat is used only with spirits. Which leads me to…

Straight up

This is where things may start to get really confusing, because drinkers tend to confuse this term with neat.

When a drink has been chilled through by stirring or shaking and then strained into an glass and served without ice, that’s a drink served straight up or just up.

Since both types of drinks are served without ice, you can see why people tend to get confused, but you don’t stir or shake a drink served neat.


I’ll have a bourbon, straight up, please. No, not straight up. Just a little ice.


A virgin drink is a very innocent one, since it’s a drink served without any alcohol in it.

So, if anyone asks for a virgin Cuba libre (like Sherman did in this clip from the “Big Bang Theory”), they’re asking for rum and Coke without the rum. In other words, just a Coke served in a tall glass with a lime wedge.


One virgin piña colada, please!


A few days ago, I remember sitting at the bar when a girl came in and asked for a dirty drink. I didn’t know what she wanted. Did she want it served in a dirty glass? Did she want higher alcohol content?

When you make a drink dirty, you add an extra ingredient or change some of the essential ingredients to slightly alter the color and taste of it. This change in ingredients makes the drink slightly tan, or dirty.

A dirty martini, for instance, contains olive juice, while a dirty mojito uses raw sugar instead of granulated white sugar.


I’d like a dry martini. With a lot of olive juice, please. Let’s make it really dirty!


Dry is a very simple and straightforward adjective that refers to a drink that lacks the qualities to make it sweet. For instance, a dry martini is used with dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth.

This term is often associated with martinis, but can also refer to wine or Manhattans.


Yes, I’ll take a dry martini—er, wait, make that two dry martinis.

Short / long

Short drinks are, basically, served in a short glass with ice and the standard measurement of spirits and mixers. These short drinks usually include a liquor such as amaretto or coffee for extra flavor.

On the other hand, a basic mixed drink such as a gin and tonic can be served long, which means that more mixer than usual is added to the standard amount to dilute (thin out) the alcohol content.

Also, long drinks are served in a long glass but have less alcohol content than a short drink.


I’ll have a Tom Collins, long.

And I’ll take a Black Russian, short.

Topless or naked

Asking for a topless or naked drink would probably get you something different than what you’re thinking. Topless is a term used mostly with specific drinks like a margarita. If you prefer your margarita without any salt on the rim of your glass, then you should ask for a topless or a naked margarita.


Bartender: How would you like your margarita?

Customer: I would like a topless margarita.


Last, but not least, we have the well drinks. Now, as a bartender, you might get to be very familiar with well drinks.

These drinks are made with the house liquor, which means the least expensive liquor behind the bar. A well drink could also be a drink where neither the brand of the liquor or the mix is mentioned, such as rum and Coke.


I wouldn’t order the well drinks in that bar. They use the cheapest stuff they can find.

Essential Phrases for Bartenders

Along with the words above, you’ll probably hear some of the phrases that follow.

Behind the Stick

Whenever a bartender is behind the stick, it means he or she is working behind the bar doing some actual bartending (instead of other tasks).

Behind the stick is a slang expression that might originally refer to the tap handles bartenders used for pulling glasses of beer, but its origins aren’t clear.


Hey, are you going to be behind the stick tonight?

No, I’m not actually working at the bar tonight!

Two fingers of…

Despite being no longer common, the finger method is an interesting piece of bar history. The expression comes from the American saloons in the Old West (1830s to 1920) where you would order whiskey and the bartender would pour the amount to the width of his two fingers.

So, for example, if you walked into a bar and requested two fingers of whiskey, you would have gotten a straight, room-temperature spirit in an old-fashioned glass filled to the height of two of the bartender’s fingers.

Since bartenders have different sizes of fingers, serving lacked consistency. But recently, there has been an effort to standardize the finger pour method again, so maybe it will become more recognized as the drinking culture evolves.


Give me two fingers of your finest sippin’ whiskey, barkeep!

Building a drink

This expression refers to a method for mixing drinks. When you’re building a drink, you start with ice and then build it by adding the spirit and mixers. For example, if you’re building a martini, you pour it in a mixing glass, then add the ice, the gin and the vermouth.

Rolling a drink

This is another method of mixing a drink. When you roll a drink, you first put the drink in the mixing glass and then gently pour it into a shaker tin or another mixing glass to mix things together. For example, a Bloody Mary is usually rolled because if we shake them, the tomato juice foams up.

Last call!

Finally, there’s no better expression to end this article than this one.

Last call is an expression used to refer when it’s about time for bartenders to close things up. It’s a warning from the bartender to the customers to order their last drinks, as the evening is wrapping up and the establishment is about to close for the day.

Every bar and establishment has their own way to give a last call.

Some don’t even announce it orally (out loud) but instead ring a bell or flash the lights!


And with that, we wrap up this article.

Now you have lots of new words and phrases stocked away, and you’re all set to go!

We raise our glasses to you. Cheers!

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