- I’ve seen many customers panic when they don’t recognize the ingredients of some specialty cocktails.
- Knowing a couple of the most commonly used bar terms can boost your cocktail game and make ordering your next drink a breeze.
- Here’s a bartender’s guide to seven of the most confusing ingredients you’ll find on most cocktail menus.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As a bartender, I sometimes see a sense of panic in the customer’s eyes as they scan the menu.
That unsettling feeling isn’t because of the prices either. The anxiety often stems from having absolutely no idea what half the words on the menu mean.
Before I was a bartender, and just a cocktail server, I was often perplexed but too afraid to ask for clarification. Bartenders, after all, can be quite judgmental.
And even if you request and get your explanation, those can be equally meaningless. If a customer asks, "What is Fernet?" and as a reply, they get "Well, Fernet is a digestif," that still doesn’t help most people.
The whole bar-going experience could be made much easier if it were clear what all these crazy cocktail ingredients are, what they taste like, and why we bartenders use them.
With that in mind, here’s a bartender’s guide to seven of the most confusing ingredients and terms that will boost your cocktail game and make ordering your next drink a breeze.
Sarah Jacobs/Business Insider
Fernet is a type of common digestif most widely associated with the brand Fernet-Branca, which has distilleries in Milan and Buenos Aires.
There are other types of Fernets. What defines them is their bold, herbaceous, bitter flavor.
You might ask the bartender how much Fernet is in a cocktail if those qualities don’t sound appealing. When used in small amounts, I like to think of Fernet as a way to add depth to a cocktail, like the classic Toronto, without overpowering the flavor of the base spirit.
Flickr Creative Commons/Franz Conde
The yin to the digestif’s yang are aperitifs. Aperol, Campari and Cynar — the last of which is also considered a digestif because of its artichoke composition — are all aperitifs you’ll commonly see used by bartenders.
Aperol — whose namesake cocktail the Aperol Spritz was slandered this summer by The New York Times — is used in one of my favorite twists on a Last Word cocktail, the Paper Plane.
Campari is one of the three spirits in the ubiquitous Negroni, and Cynar has a flavor I almost love too much to combine in a cocktail, preferring to sip on or shoot it alone.
Aperitifs like those three are significantly lower in alcohol content than most spirits, so are great for drinkers who need to take it a little easier.
Flickr Creative Commons/Jeff Wilcox
Bitters can be a detail meant for aesthetic flourish in an egg-white cocktail à la latte art, or they can be a vital part of a cocktail’s build, like in an Old Fashioned.
You can be assured for the most part though that if you see a bitters ingredient listed in a cocktail, you will taste it.
As the name implies, bitters are super dense in flavor, and usually high in alcohol by volume. You only need a drop or two for impact.
More than once I’ve kicked myself for forgetting a drop of bitter that changes the entire character of a cocktail. On my current menu, I work with a cocktail called The Diablo that can be served with or without a locally made ghost-pepper bitter.
Even though it’s only one drop, it’s been sent back multiple times on account of being too spicy.
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