Confused about how to order a whisky at a bar? These simple tips will help!

Confused about how to order a whisky at a bar? These simple tips will help!

I love the scene in Ocean’s 11 (the 2001 version) when Danny (George Cloony) sits down at the table with Tess (Julia Roberts) and orders “a whiskey, and a whiskey.”  He makes 2 gestures with his hands – a ‘small’ and a ‘large.’  The scene is funny, and charming, and shows how comfortable with whisky Danny is.  And if I’d been the bartender on at that bar on that night, I would have had questions.  So many questions.

Let’s be honest – ordering whiskey can be intimidating.  At its best it’s not easy, and the pressure of a busy bartender doesn’t make it any easier.  So how can you make the ordering whisky easy, and fun, and making sure you get what you want?  Here are some simple tips to get you started.

Step 1: See what’s available

Many bars offer a list of the whiskies they have available to order, or a menu of available whisky cocktails, or at least have their whiskeys on display on the back bar – the shelves behind the bartender where they show off the good stuff.  Have a look!  You might see something you like, or maybe something you’ve heard of from a friend – that’s a great place to start!

Step 2: Don’t be afraid to ask

Restaurants sometimes have someone on full-time staff to help their guests choose a wine; the “Sommelier” (so-mall-YAY).  There’s no whisky sommelier (not yet, at least), but there is a bartender who should know what’s available and to help guide you.  New to whiskey?  Not sure what you’d like?  Ask the barkeep a few questions.  Tell her what you like and what you don’t.  Looking for a cocktail?  Tell him that’s what you want!  Looking for something easy to sip on?  Let her know!  Are their whiskies you like, or don’t like, and looking to try something new?  This is great ammunition to get the conversation started.  Don’t be afraid to say “I’m usually a vodka person but tonight I want to try whisky.”  That’s where I was in late 2000 – a ‘gin guy’ who ‘wanted to try whiskey.’  I asked a bartender and the rest is history.

Step 3: Think about how you want it served

There’s a difference between drinking and tasting whisky (which you can learn more about in my eBook, “How To Taste Whisk(e)y”), and that should affect how you order your whiskey.  If you’re looking to taste whisky, order the whiskey “neat,” which means no ice, no water, no other mixers or garnishes – just the whisky in a glass.  If you’re there to drink whiskey (as in, you don’t really care about the nuances, you’re just looking to get a job done) order it however you like!  Neat? Rocks? Water? Cola? Milk?  Hey, it’s your whisky.  You’re never wrong for ordering it how you like it.  Maybe get adventurous – try that whiskey in a way you’ve never had it before – you might like it!

Step 4: The ask

Ok, it’s time.  Time to tell the bartender what you want. Remember that she’s busy and has other guests to serve, so be kind and concise.  There are some quick industry words you can use to help make things move along – here are a few:

  • “Neat” – Nothing in the glass except the whiskey.  “Redbreast neat,” for example, means “Redbreast Irish Whiskey served in a glass with no mixers, please.”
  • “Rocks” – The whisky served over ice.  “Johnnie Walker Black Rocks,” for example, is both a statement (because it is a great whisky) and an order, telling the bartender “Johnnie Walker Black Label served over ice, please.”
  • “______ Back” – Another drink served on the side; kind of a nicer way to say ‘chaser.’  A “water back” or a “cola back” are common, but a “beer back” (fill in your favorite beer) is OK too.
  • “_____ Manhattan” (or other cocktail name) – A way to tell the bartender what type of whiskey you’d like in your drink.  Asking for a “Woodford Old Fashioned,” for example, tells the bartender you want an Old Fashioned (a really nice, easy cocktails with whisky, sugar, bitters, ice and some fruit – traditionally a lemon peel) made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon.

Those 4 are enough to get you going, but how does that work in the real world?  Say, for example, I’m ordering an Auchentoshan Three Wood (a fantastic Lowland malt matured in seasoned Bourbon, Oloroso and PX Sherry casks).  My order would go like this:

“I’d like an Auchentoshan Three Wood, neat, with a water back and a straw, please.”

This tells the bartender everything he needs to know.  The whisky, how I’d like it served, and what I want on the side.  The bartender can make the drink, I get what I want, and everyone is happy.

Step 5: Sit back and enjoy your whiskey!

You got it!  There it is.  A whisky.  In front of you.  Waiting for you to enjoy it.  Sit back and reap the benefits (responsibly, of course).

Step 6: If at first you don’t succeed…

Take a peek at the last line in step 2 – “… and the rest is history.”  The ‘history’ part is that I absolutely hated that first dram.  It was too salty, and too spicy, and too smoky.  And if I had stopped there this would be a very different story.   You might not like your first taste of whiskey, and that’s OK!  One of the greatest things about whisky is its variety.  There are many different styles and types; even 2 distilleries across the street from each other can produce very different whiskies (look at Glenfiddich and Balvenie).  Keep up the search.  You’ll find your whisky.


How do you like to order your whiskey?  If Danny Ocean had walked into my bar and asked for a ‘whisky and a whisky’ I probably would have guessed he wanted a whisky on the rocks and a shot of whiskey to get started, but hopefully you know better and then I don’t have to assume 🙂  And remember – There’s no right or wrong whisk(e)y, no right or wrong way to drink whisk(e)y, there’s only the whisk(e)y that you like. And that’s all that matters!