There are a thousand ways to enjoy a cocktail, from an elaborate tropical rainforest in a tiki glass to a simple shot of spirits in a tumbler. But why would you order neat, up or on the rocks and what does it mean for your drink?
It was a busy night in a dark cocktail bar in the foggy neighbourhoods of San Francisco. The music was loud, the bartender was full of Fernet and the line was getting shovey.
My friends all had their drinks of choice and now it was my turn.
“Gin martini, please,” I asked. “Very dry.”
“Up or on the rocks?” The man behind the jump shouted back. I wasn’t expecting this question. And I wasn’t too sure what ‘up’ meant.
“Um… on the rocks,” I shouted back. I knew that one, even though I didn’t really want an icy glass of watered-down gin.
I’ve now learnt my lesson.
But why would anyone ask for a martini on the rocks—and does anyone drink their gin and tonics ‘up’? And why couldn’t I ask for my martini neat?
You could argue that it’s impossible to order a cocktail neat. That’s because it’s really only for straight spirits. And confuse things, you can ask for your neat spirit ‘straight up’ too.
It means there’s nothing else with your spirit of choice at all. Unless it’s from the fridge, it’ll be room temperature, and unless you ask for it, the glass will be too.
For things like whisky, you can ask for add-ons—a drop of water or a single ice cube is pretty common for neat spirits.
Taking your drink neat means you want to enjoy the spirit in its purest form with no intrusion from any other flavours. It’s different from just smashing shots at the bar. This is when you want to savour the drink.
This is usually for high-end spirits like Timboon Railway Shed Distillery’s Christie’s Cut Whisky, Stone Pine Distillery’s Dead Man’s Gold Spiced Rum or Belgrove Distillery’s Peated Rye.
Drinks served up often come in that classic martini shape glass and—even though they’re chilled—contain no ice. Things like cosmos, gimlets and corpse revivers are usually served up. And until my trip to SF, this was how I thought all martinis came too.
But essentially it means the bartender will mix the cocktail with all its parts in a separate container (usually with ice) and will pour the drink into your glass.
Water is important in a cocktail. Of course, ice chills everything down to a lovely frosty temperature, but as it melts, it also does essential things to the taste.
Your bartender will know exactly how long to stir and mix your drink with ice to get those flavours right. When they pour into your glass, they’ve fixed the flavour to that point and it won’t change.
Obviously, these drinks won’t stay cold forever; cocktails served up are made with a fairly short life-span in mind, so don’t linger too long over yours or it’ll get warm.
On the rocks
I probably don’t need to explain this one, but once your bartender has mixed your cocktail, they’ll pour it into your glass over fresh ‘rocks’ of ice.
Keeping drinks cold is the name of this game. If they get too warm, they stop tasting as good, so the risk of over-dilution is worth it.
Drinks like a negroni or an old fashioned, as well as things like margaritas, mojitos and mules all need that extra help with keeping cold.
For drinks like negronis and old fashioneds, the advent of ice spheres and giant cubes means the ice doesn’t melt as fast but will still keep your drink cold, so you don’t have to worry as much with dilution.
Some cocktails can come with both
In spite of my surprise in San Francisco, martinis can be ok on the rocks. I think I’ll always prefer them up though.
And with those giant ice cubes, drinks like Manhattans can also have a foot in both camps.
Quite possibly the best Manhattan I’ve ever had was with The Gospel Distillery’s Straight Rye Whiskey from Melbourne VIC.
As you can see, I’ve tried it both up and on the rocks. Both work fantastically.