Whether we’re lawyers or lifeguards, doctors or ditch diggers, crooks or cooks, we all use slang in our lives. It’s not surprising that bartenders have their own unique lingo as well. Sit at a bar sometime and, for once, don’t watch the relentless Sportscenter highlights or dick around on your iPhone—actually listen to the casual conversation being bandied about by the bartenders when they think no customers are listening.
You might not understand some of the jargon, and you’re certainly not going to find most terms in the dictionary (or Urban Dictionary for that matter), but, believe me, these seemingly nonsensical words mean things—things both crucial and completely inane.
Thanks to Kyle Kensrue, beverage director at Randolph Beer and host of the upcoming ABV: A Beer Voyage; Nico Szymanski, head bartender at Irvington; Steve Schneider, bar manager and principal bartender at Employees Only; Brent Lamberti, formerly of The Corner Bistro, now national brand ambassador for elit by Stolichnaya; John McCarthy, cocktail director at Cedar Local; and many others who wished to remain anonymous* but who opened their kimonos (or, at least, their bar aprons) to reveal some lingo they unleash every single night.
Each bar will have its own unique patois, but many terms are widespread in the industry. Here’s a guide to common bar jargon.
“A while back some buddies and I started calling good looking girls ‘Abrams,’” Kensrue explains. “As in Abrams Targeting in the Navy. One of our bartenders was an old Navy guy. When a cute girl would walk by we would call out to each other ‘Abrams!’ as in: target acquired.”
A barrel-aged beer. (Could also be used, either fondly or disparagingly, to refer to a customer who is also a poster on the BeerAdvocate.com message boards.)
A small shot, often of beer, taken quickly.
Usually a small shot of Fernet-Branca given to a fellow bartender drinking at your bar (usually for free).
Behind the stick
Working at the bar that night.
Unnecessarily pretentious way of describing the beers, wines, liquors, cocktails, and other libations as bar has on its menu. Top bars are said to have a good “program.”
A drink sent from one bartender to another bartender at another bar, usually by a trustworthy customer.
To make a drink, usually a cocktail which necessitates adding many ingredients in a particular order, (i.e., “building” a Queens Park Swizzle).
“Burning the ice” means hitting the well with hot water at the end of the night—or, after accidentally breaking glass into it—in order to melt it quickly.
Often unlabeled bottles, kept in the bar’s speed well or atop the bar, of bitter, syrups, and liqueurs—sometimes housemade—that a bartender plans to use frequently during service and, thus, needs to have close at hand.
A female customer with large breasts, named after a famous Brazilian soccer player.
Moving behind the bar with other bartenders and barbacks to avoid tripping over one another.
A terrible beer—one so bad, it is isn’t even worth finishing for mere intoxication purposes. There is no choice but to immediately pour the remainder of the beer down the drain. Beer geeks often take a perverse pride in the beers they actually consider “drain pours.”
In the retail world, refers to good bottles of booze that for some reason were never purchased, thus ending up with dust caked on them. Behind the bar, could refer to certain oddball liqueurs that no customers ever order and no cocktails ever necessitates. [Compare to “turds.”]
A whiskey that is barrel-proof and extremely alcoholic. While hot on the palate, it may still be quite tasty (George T. Stagg, for instance). Most accurately refers to bourbons over 140-proof—the threshold for liquors one is legally allowed to bring onto airplanes.
Lambics and gueuzes from Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium. Highly-coveted by beer geeks and now somewhat rare in America.
The end of the bar nearest the door. This is where the best bartender should work.
The bartender that takes care of the drinks for the floor, as opposed to people sitting at the bar. Usually not as friendly as the other bartenders.
Where the waitstaff gets drinks ordered by people sitting at tables. Usually guests are discouraged from congregating around or ordering from the service bar.
Essentially a cocktail recipe. “For example, if I can’t remember the recipe for a cocktail I might call out to another bartender, ‘What’s the spec on the X cocktail?’” McCarthy says. “And they might respond, ‘Two, one, half, quarter, quarter, Ango’ and I’d now know exactly how to make the drink.”
A catchall term for any of the numerous styles of beer than can taste sour. This could include lambics, gueuzes, American wild ales, Flanders red ales, goses, and Berliner weisses.
An impromptu round of shots taken by the staff during a shift.
A packed bar. Three-deep means that there are about three rows of people at the bar. “We are three-deep every night,” claims Schneider.
A beer geek who cares more about quantity than quality. He would rather “tick” off many new beers quickly than savor a pint of one beer he’s already had before. Big fans of flights and samplers, tickers often think a mere ounce of beer is enough to truly “get” the beer, and, thus, log a nasty rating of it into Untappd.
The cash register.
An obviously awkward twosome who just met (and, sometimes, really are on a Tinder date). Szymanski explains they are “typically spotted once you hear awkward boasting of wealth, awkward glances at the guest’s phone or watch, awkward half-hug goodbyes, and yes, even awkward making out.”
Or “shelf turds.” Similar to dusties, beers that sit on shelves unpurchased for a long amount of time, thus “turding it up.” These turds could be great beers that simply are produced in a massive amount, rendering them less “sexy,” or beers that aren’t very good, and which no respectable beer geek will ever purchase.
Kensrue explains, “This is for the guys that walk in looking for the freshest IPA with an IBU count of 1,000, wearing plaid and a massive, burly beard. The obnoxious beer nerd who thinks he knows more than everyone in the place combined. We actually have a sign in the back that says ‘No Trolls.’”
Highly-coveted beers (i.e., “’Loons”) that beer geeks hunt with the same gusto that Ahab searched for Moby Dick. Often used jokingly or ironically. Beer geeks take pride in noting what they consider a whale and what they don’t—“Really? You consider Side Project Fuzzy a whale? Hmmm…”
*As one bartender wrote back to me, “(I) don’t feel comfortable giving up details for what is essentially a form of communication which would compromise any code of conduct and/or act of discretion that (we) use at work in accordance with guests.” I don’t really know what that means…but he didn’t participate.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.