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How To Order Whisky | Neat, Straight Up or On The Rocks

Last Updated: June 21, 2023

Whether you're a seasoned drinker or a newcomer to the world of spirits, understanding the different ways to order whiskey can sometimes be confusing. This post explores the differences between the three typical methods of serving whiskey (neat, straight up and 'on the rocks'). We'll also look at what a standard measure means worldwide and what you get if you ask for "2 fingers" of whiskey.

What is Neat vs Straight Up vs "On the Rocks"

Neat Drinks

"Neat" means the drink is served at room temperature in a glass without ice, without any mixers or additional ingredients. This is how most people order Scotch. For more information see our post on How to Drink Scotch the Proper Way.

woman holding a tumbler of neat whisky

Neat whisky in a glass tumbler - image credit OurWhisky Foundation Jo Hanley

Straight Up Drinks

"Straight-up" means the drink is served chilled, generally by shaking or stirring with ice and then strained into a glass without ice. This method results in a cold drink without any ice cubes for further dilution. Straight-up is how you would serve a Martini or a Manhattan. Straight-up could also mean a bottle that has been pre-chilled (I’ve had Tequila Liqueur served this way) and then served as is in a glass (again, no ice, not 'on the rocks'). A good way to think of ‘straight up’ is the glass is often ‘up’ on a stem, but then it’s not always that simple. Straight up can get confusing as some people (and I’ve done this) might ask for a drink ‘straight’ or ‘straight up’ and think it means ‘neat’. A good bartender will ask for you to clarify how you want your drink - if you’re ordering dark spirits (i.e. whiskey or Scotch) then you probably want it ‘straight out of the bottle' and neat. If you order vodka or gin “straight up”, there’s a good chance you want it pre-chilled somehow, either from the fridge (not all bars keep booze in the fridge though) or stirred or shaken with ice and strained. 

woman holding a whisky cocktail in a coupe glass

Whisky cocktail "straight up" - image credit OurWhisky Foundation- Jo Hanley

On the Rocks

"On the rocks" means the drink is served over ice cubes in a glass, which can dilute the drink as the ice melts. The ideal ice in this situation is a single large cube or sphere, as the smaller surface area of bigger cubes (and especially of spheres) chills your drink but with a slower melt and, therefore, less dilution. 

james bentley whiskey glasses

James Bentley whiskey glasses with a large spherical ice cube

What is a Standard Measure of Whisky

A standard ‘shot’ or ‘pour’ of whisky is not standard worldwide.

In the USA a ‘single’ may be one fluid ounce, which equates to 30 ml, which is also the standard measure in Australia however the USA has no legal ‘standard’ for a single serve so it could also be a jigger or short shot, which is 1.5 US fl oz = 44 ml (was 2 US fl oz / 60ml prior to prohibition).

In New Zealand, the standard pour is called a ‘double’, but it is only a 30ml measure. It comes from an older measure ‘nip’ which was 15ml. You can order a nip of whisky in Australia, but you’ll get a 30ml pour. Order a double in Australia, and you’ll get 60ml of spirit. 

25ml or 35ml is a minimum pour or “shot” of spirit in the UK - but it depends on the bar - this can cause all sorts of confusion when you’re looking at whisky prices, as some lists may seem overly expensive or amazingly cheap until you realise what measure you’re getting.

A pony in the USA is 30 ml (based on it being half a pre-prohibition jigger) but is only 25 ml in the UK, however, as the UK minimum pour may vary from bar to bar, you could also end up with a 35 ml pony. Which is where we come to the half and half.

Order a half-n-half at a bar and the USA, and you’re likely to be handed milky cream, but order a half-n-half (which is actually a “hauf an a hauf”) at a pub in Scotland, and you’ll get half a pint of beer and a ¼ gill (25-35 ml depending on the bar’s standard shot) of whisky. Be wary of ordering this in England or Ireland as you’ll probably end up with a pint of two beers mixed together.

Female bartender pouring whisky

Female bartender pouring whisky into a jigger - image credit OurWhisky Foundation - Jo Hanley

What Does “2 Fingers of Whiskey” Mean

Two fingers is an old way of measuring spirits, the equivalent of two finger widths, and useful only if you do not have any other way of measuring out equal pours. It’s not a particularly good unit of measure as the volume poured will vary with the diameter of the glass you’re using. Two-finger widths on a wide-based tumbler are going to get you a lot more whisky than two fingers in a Copita or highball glass.

According to Jeffrey Morgenthaler in The Bar Book  “only cowboys in old movies measure their whiskey in fingers”. 

If you do ask for “‘two fingers’ of whisky at a bar in the USA, then you’ll likely get 2 or 3 fluid oz of whisky (60-90 ml) depending on what the bar’s standard measure is. Don’t use this terminology outside the USA; they almost certainly won't know what you’re talking about and might think you’re a little odd wanting fingers in your whisky. Ask for a double if you want a double measure (unless you’re in NZ when that’s actually a single - see Standard Measures above).

If you want a single measure, just ask for the whisky by name; “can I please have a [whisky name]”. If you want ‘two fingers’ then it’s “can I please have a double [whisky name]”. See our Scotch pronunciation guide for help on saying Scottish Distillery names.

Whisky Cocktails

If you’re not sure about drinking whisky neat, but want to order a drink that will give you a taste for whisky then order an Old Fashioned, a Sazerac or a Manhattan. 

An Old Fashioned is usually made with rye or bourbon - if you’re wanting to experiment with other flavour profiles, ask for it to be made with scotch or brandy/cognac. An Old Fashioned comprises a spirit, a sweetener and bitters. The sweetener (usually sugar syrup) will take the 'edge' off your spirit of choice, making it a lot easier to drink, in addition to the dilution effect of the ice. I like to use maple syrup in my Old Fashioned as it pairs really well with my favourite rye for cocktails (Gospel Solera), and I don't then have to bother making sugar syrup.

A Sazerac is an Old Fashioned with an absinthe rinse or spritz (though it should also be made with Peychaud's bitters).

A Manhattan is usually made with rye (and sweet vermouth and bitters) but order it with Scotch, and it becomes a Rob Roy. I loved Rob Roy cocktails long before I learned to love scotch whiskey.

Do you enjoy Scotch and Coke but want to avoid asking for Scotch and Coke? Ask for a Smokey Cokey, a highball cocktail made with Lagavulin 16 and cola. Lagavulin often has these on their Feis (Islay Whisky Festival) menu.

Female bartender making whisky highball

Female bartender making whisky highball - image credit OurWhisky Foundation - Jo Hanley

Order What You Like

Ultimately, there is no 'right' way to order YOUR drink. It is your drink, order it however you want it. If that's with ice, coke, or ginger beer, so be it.

I have happily consumed Laphroaig Triple Wood over ice on a steaming hot day because I wanted something peaty and cold, and it was precisely the sort of drink I was looking for. I got started on whisky by drinking Johnnie Red and Coke, and Bundaberg Rum and Coke before that (I'm Australian, and Bundy is a right of passage). Canadian Club and ginger ale is a really refreshing beverage. And I LOVE whisky-based cocktails.

So don't be afraid to drink it how you want it. If you'd like some tips on getting the most out of drinking a Single Malt Scotch though, see our Guide to Drinking Scotch Like a Boss.

close up of three glasses, one is a whisky cocktail with an orange twist and the other two glasses contain neat whisky

Whisky variations - one whisky cocktail and two neat whiskies. Order the style of drink you most enjoy drinking. Image Credit - OurWhisky Foundation - Jo Hanley

About the author

Amanda

Amanda is an Australian-born photographer, digital nomad and whisky lover. Her passion for travel and whisky lead her to Islay, where she fell in love with an Ileach (an Islay native). Amanda and Roddy now share their Spirited Adventures.

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