The Cocktail Glossary

The Cocktail Glossary could be invaluable. Image: J. Nisen.

The Cocktail Glossary could be invaluable. Image: J. Nisen.

The Cocktail Glossary

Like any specialized hobby, cocktail-crafting and drinking comes with its own special language and terminology. Defining the words is difficult since many of the definitions and origins are constantly in dispute and may change over time. I’ve taken a shot (several shots!), however, at listing some basic cocktail terms that may come up, along with general meanings. Of course, like anything that people get passionate about, some people’s ideas about what is correct when it comes to cocktails can be very different from others . . . and the arguments never end. Think of this as a starting point. We can worry about delving into the nitpicky details later.

Bitters: Bitters are a cocktail flavoring made from herbs, bark, flowers, seeds, roots, and/or plants steeped in or distilled with spirits. Bitters come in many different flavors and can be made with many combinations of ingredients. For example you may have peach, cherry or orange bitters. The most popular bitters used in drinks are angostura bitters or Peychaud’s bitters.

Chaser: A beverage (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) that is quaffed immediately after an alcoholic beverage. For example, beer is often used as a chaser for whiskey. One will drink a shot of whiskey and then immediately follow it with beer. Chasers are generally used when you don’t actually like the taste of what you are drinking. Better than having to have a chaser on hand, just choose drinks that you like!

Cocktail: A beverage that combines a base alcohol with a mixer.

In 1806, a newspaper first described a cocktail as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters–it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion.”

The derivation of the word is in dispute and may derive from the French word for “egg cup” (coquetier), or from a bar decorated with feathers from rooster tails. It may have come from “cock ale,” an old medicinal drink of beer and chicken soup. It might come from the practice of calling a tap a “cock” in old taverns. Or perhaps it comes from the usage of the word “cocktail” to describe the tails of mixed breed horses, which later came to represent anything mixed.

Collins: A Collins is a tall iced drink made with a liquor (usually gin or vodka), lemon juice, sugar, and soda water. It is garnished with a lemon slice and served in a special 10-12 oz. tall thin glass called a Collins glass.

Cooler: A cooler is a cocktail served in a tall slender glass like a Collins, but with a garnish of a spiral of citrus peel. It is usually made with soda and/or fruit juice.

Cordial: A cordial is an alcoholic beverage distilled with fruit pulp and/or juices. A cordial is similar to a liqueur, and in some places they are identical. When there is a distinction, it is usually that a liqueur is flavored with herbs instead of fruit.

Crusta: A crusta is a drink where a lemon wedge is passed around the rim of the drink and then the rim is coated in sugar. The drink itself also contains citrus juice and can be made with any spirit, although brandy is the traditional choice.

Dry: Sometimes people like their martinis “dry.” What does this mean? Well, martinis are made with some dry vermouth in them.

Counterintuitively, a “dry” martini has less dry vermouth in it than a normal martini. I hate to break it to people who think a “dry martini” means you just show the vermouth the glass and then put it away, but what you are drinking there is just really cold gin. It’s not a cocktail if you’re not mixing anything, so use that vermouth even if it’s just a small amount.

Falernum: Falernum is a sweet syrup used mostly in rum drinks, usually tropical or tiki drinks. Falernum was an ancient Roman wine. A modern Falernum contains almond, ginger, cloves, lime, vanilla and allspice.

Fizz: A fizz is a drink made with club soda. The typical ingredients of a fizz are the base spirit, lemon juice, sugar, and soda. A fizz is made by shaking the ingredients (minus the soda) with ice, straining the drink into an ice-filled glass, then topping off with the soda.

Flip: A long time ago, a flip was a combination of rum, beer, sweetener, and spices flavored up and heated by plunging a hot poker in it and stirring. An egg could be added to it as well, in which case it was called “a yard of flannel.” Today’s version of the flip can be hot or cold but always contains egg. It is no longer made with a hot poker, though, in case you’re squeamish about such things.

Float: Floating ingredients in a cocktail means that you pour them in carefully to create a layering effect. A very simple example of a float is a Tequila Sunrise, where grenadine is floated over the tequila and orange juice to create a red blush at the top of the drink. To float an ingredient, the bartender generally pours it slowly over the back of a spoon onto the top of the drink.

Grenadine: Grenadine is a sweet red syrup flavored with pomegranates. It is called Grenadine because it was once made only with pomegranates from Grenada. Most of the Grenadine you purchase in the store now is made from artificial ingredients. You can make your own by simmering 6 oz. of pomegranate juice until reduced by half. Add 3 ounces of superfine sugar and simmer until dissolved. Voila! You have your own Grenadine.

Highball: A highball is a cocktail served in a tall glass over ice. Highballs are made of a base spirit and a larger proportion of non-alcoholic mixer. The most basic highball is a Scotch and soda. Jack and Coke, Long Island iced tea, and gin and tonics are other common highballs.

Julep: A julep is a sweet drink made with a base liquor, water, sugar, and sometimes mint. Julep is derived from the Persian “julab,” which means rosewater. In 15th-century England, the word was used to describe a sugar syrup with various flavorings that would be mixed with medicine to make it palatable.

Muddle: Muddling is smashing or crushing ingredients with a wooden rod. Muddling is usually used with fresh herbs or fruit in order to release the flavors into the drink. When muddling, you muddle the ingredients first at the bottom of the glass, before pouring in the rest of the liquid ingredients.

Image credit:; under CC BY-NC 2.0

Pousse-café: A pousse-café is a layered drink that uses the float technique many times over to create a multi-colored drink that looks striped. This drink is made more for looks than flavor and needs to be carefully drunk with a straw, one layer at a time. If handled to roughly, it will dissolve into nasty looking and tasting brown sludge. This drink is more of a show of the bartender’s skills than anything else.

Punch: A punch is a drink usually made with rum as the base spirit and served from a bowl. Punches always contain some fruit or fruit juice. Punch originated in India where it was usually made with a wine or brandy base with sugar, lemon juice, water, tea, and spices. Once rum came out of Jamaica in the 1600s, it became the main spirit for punch, and whole establishments were made to serve it, called punch houses.

Rickey: A rickey is a drink made with lemon or lime juice, soda, and the base liquor. It is essentially a Collins without the sugar. It is usually made with gin or whiskey. You can also have alcoholic rickey, which is more like a flavored soda and does have sugar added to it.

Schnapps: A schnapps is a strong, clear alcohol that may be flavored with a variety of different flavors, usually fruit.

Simple Syrup: Simple syrup is basically just sugar dissolved in water. Putting the sweetener into a liquid form helps it dissolve more easily into a drink than granulated sugar. Simple syrups can be flavored for special purposes by adding other ingredients such as fruit or spices.

Sling: A sling is a cocktail made with juice, powdered sugar, and the base spirit. Slings can be served in an old-fashioned glass, or they can be served in a tall glass and topped off with soda.

Sloe gin: Sloe gin is gin flavored with sloes, which are a berry. Rather than being clear, sloe gin is a dark red color. You won’t see it often these days, but it is still made. Bols, Gordon’s, and Plymouth all make sloe gins, and Hiram Walker makes a very cheap version. You can also make your own by infusing gin with sloes, sugar, and spices, provided you can find some sloes.

Smash: Smashes are drinks of mint, sugar, and a base spirit. A classic smash is similar to a julep, but simpler.

Sour: A sour is made by combining the base liquor with lemon or lime juice and a sweetener. All of that is shaken with crushed ice and then strained and served on the rocks or straight up. The traditional garnish is an orange slice and a maraschino cherry.

Straight Up/On the Rocks: These are two ways of serving a drink. “On the rocks” means the drink is served over ice. “Straight up” means it is served without ice. When a drink is served on the rocks, it means that the ice will melt and dilute the drink with water over time. If you do not want your drink diluted, you would order it straight up.

Toddy: A toddy is a hot-water based cocktail, usually spiced. The word originally comes from the sap of an Indian palm tree, which was fermented into an alcoholic beverage


Food Lover’s Companion. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc, 2001.

A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. Oxford University Press, 1995, 2003, 2005.

Food & Culture Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Copyright © 2003 by The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2007, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009.


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