9 Cocktail Questions You’ve Always Wanted Answered

I was experimenting with a new cocktail creation the other day. It wasn’t quite right and Naomi suggested it might need tonic water.

“Will seltzer work?” I asked. “What’s the difference between seltzer and tonic water anyway?”

“Quinine?” Naomi offered. Neither of us knew the complete answer.

If you want to serve – and order – cocktails like a pro, there are some basics you should know. So here are nine cocktail questions you’ve always wanted answered. After all, the world of bartending is more complex than serving up a Coors Light or a shot of Fireball.

What is the difference between tonic water and seltzer?

Let’s start with the question that inspired this post. Seltzer, tonic water, club soda, and sparkling mineral water are all carbonated water. But they differ in minerals, additives, processing methods, and taste.

club soda, seltzer and tonic water

Seltzer is simply carbonated water. It has the truest water taste, which makes it easy to flavor. Many seltzers are also labeled “sparkling water.” There is no difference between seltzer and sparkling water – the name is simply decided by a brand’s marketing strategy.

Club soda is infused with added minerals such as potassium sulfate and sodium bicarbonate that give it a slightly salty taste. But these days many seltzers and sparkling waters also have added minerals.

Bottom line: there’s very little difference between club soda, seltzer, and sparkling water. They are all water infused with carbonation and may or may not have added flavors or minerals. Check the ingredients label to be sure.

Sparkling mineral water is distinct in that is comes from a spring with naturally-occurring carbonation. It contains a variety of minerals that vary based on the source of the water. Different brands will have their own unique taste.

Tonic water is also infused with minerals, but it adds in quinine, a compound that comes from the bark of cinchona trees. This gives it a slightly bitter taste. Tonic water is commonly sweetened with high fructose corn syrup or sugar and has about 120 calories per 12 ounces, whereas the other carbonated waters have zero calories.

The type of carbonated water you use can affect the ultimate taste of your cocktail.

Gin and tonic ingredients

What’s the difference between ABV and proof?

It’s important to know how much alcohol you are drinking since all spirits are not created equally. A Manhattan is not the same as a Smirnoff Ice. “ABV” and “proof” are both terms that indicate the amount of pure alcohol in a spirit.

ABV stands for alcohol by volume. This is the percentage of ethanol (alcohol) in a specific bottle. So if a bottle is labeled 10% ABV, that means it contains 10% alcohol and 90% water or other flavorings.

Proof refers to the spirit’s alcohol content on a 0 to 200 scale. Proof is simply double the ABV. For example, a 100-proof bourbon is 50% ABV.

What is the difference between straight up and neat?

Neat refers to a shot of liquor that is poured directly from the bottle into a glass. It’s served at room temperature with no ice or mixers. Liquors served neat, such as whisky or brandy, are meant to be sipped slowly without any dilution.

bourbon neat

A drink served “up” is one that is chilled or mixed – typically shaken or stirred with ice – and strained into a glass without ice.

When it comes to the terms “straight” and “straight up,” things get complicated. Straight up implies chilled, but it’s often used in place of neat. Straight is also commonly used in place of neat. So the bottom line is, if you’re not sure what your guest wants, ask them to clarify.

On the rocks is a drink served over ice, of course.

What makes a drink “dirty?” A change in color and taste due to the addition of ingredients. The most common example is a dirty martini, which adds olive juice.

Whiskey Glasses Square

How much is in a shot, a finger, and a dram?

A conventional shot is 1.5 ounces. A finger of liquor is about an inch of liquid poured into a glass.

Now, the dram – that is more complicated. In the U.S., a dram is technically an eighth-ounce of liquid. But the term, which originated in Scotland, commonly means “a serving of whisky.” It can be a different amount depending on where you order it. But it seems the term “dram” is often used more as a descriptive term than an actual measurement.

Why is it safe to drink raw egg in a cocktail?

The classic whiskey sour is made with bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and an egg white – not made with a whiskey sour mix. The egg gives the cocktail a rich, creamy texture and a smooth head of foam. But wait, isn’t it unsafe to consume raw egg?

While it’s never 100% safe to consume raw egg, the risks of consuming egg whites in cocktails are minimal. First, current food safety regulations require most chickens to be vaccinated against salmonella. Second, egg whites are shaken thoroughly without ice, so they emulsify. Agitating the whites causes their proteins to unfold and mixes in air bubbles, creating a nice foam that’s perfectly safe to drink.

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What is the difference between types of whiskey?

Whisk(e)y, scotch, rye, bourbon… What?

First, it’s ALL whiskey. It’s a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash (a mixture of grains).

whiskey barrels

Scotch is whisky that has been distilled in Scotland. It’s made primarily from malted barley. Scotch can be an acquired taste. It has that little extra “bite” that some people do not care for, but others absolutely love.

For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, it’s mash must contain at least 51% corn. The mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less, the distillate must be stored in charred new oak barrels at 125 proof or less, and it must not contain any additives. Bourbon is typically sweeter than other whiskies.

Rye is whiskey that is distilled from at least 51% rye – a type of wheat/grass that is closely related to barley. It’s a bit spicier than bourbon.

Is it “whisky” or “whiskey?” There are some (ahem, the Scotch drinkers) who are very serious about the way this word is spelled. It comes down to the whisk(e)y’s country of origin. Here’s a clever way to remember, courtesy of TheKitchn.com:

  • Countries that have E’s in their names (UnitEd StatEs and IrEland) tend to spell it whiskEy (plural whiskeys)
  • Countries without E’s in their names (Canada, Scotland, and Japan) spell it whisky (plural whiskies)
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What are aperitifs and digestifs?

Aperitifs are “before-dinner drinks” – a liquid appetizer, if you will. Too much sugar makes you want more sugar, so aperitifs have a dryer, more bitter profile that enhances your appetite for healthy food. They are also low proof since too much alcohol diminishes the appetite.

Examples of aperitifs include Aperol, Campari, Sherry, and Pimm’s.

Digestifs are spirits meant to stimulate the digestive system. They’re designed to be sipped slowly after a meal, but they are not dessert drinks. Digestifs are typically less sweet and have more alcohol than a dessert drink.

The origin of the digestif comes from Europe where it’s common to have multi-course meals later at night. The digestif has a richer flavor and higher alcohol content to help you relax and fall asleep after a large meal.

Brandies and Sambuca are common digestifs.


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What are bitters?

Bitters are highly concentrated flavoring agents made from steeping herbs, roots, citrus peels, seeds, spices, flowers and barks in high-proof alcohol. They were originally used for medicinal purposes.

There are hundreds of types of bitters. Even Campari is considered a digestive bitter. But the most common types you will use in your home bartending are the tincture bitters. They are used in small doses – known as “dashes” in recipes – and they pack a flavorful punch.

Bitters do not make your drink taste bitter. They add just the right spice and complexity to a cocktail when used properly. You can even make your own bitters with Everclear and your choice of botanicals.

What does muddle mean?

Lots of cocktail recipes tell you to “muddle” something. To muddle, you want to gently press ingredients against the bottom of a glass using a muddler. The goal is to extract the juices, oils, and flavors from your ingredients.

mint and peaches muddled

How hard you muddle depends on the ingredient. With fruit, you want to give it a good mash to release the juices and the oils from the skin. With leaves and herbs, the flavor is in the veins so you just want to gently press. If you muddle herbs too much, you’ll draw out bitterness.

Now you have a solid background in mixology so you can make amazing drinks and impress your friends!

9 cocktail questions answered

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