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On the Rocks Meaning: Order, Serve, and Drink on the Rocks

It’s no secret that cocktails are a popular drink choice for many people. What may be less known, however, is that not all cocktails are created equally.

Scotch on the rocks in whiskey glass

In fact, the way you order and drink a cocktail can make all the difference in how good it tastes, including whether you serve the cocktail on the rocks, meaning with ice.


On The Rocks Meaning

The term “on the rocks” can mean different things depending on the context. The most common usage is to order a drink “on the rocks,” meaning that the drink is served over ice.

Two glasses of whiskey on the rocks and a bottle

You can serve a cocktail and straight liquor on the rocks, as it can help cool them down and make them more refreshing.

Another usage of “on the rocks” is to describe a person who is drunk. This usage comes from the phrase “rolling on the rocks,” meaning being so intoxicated that you can’t stand up without assistance.


Best Drinks on the Rocks

So, what are the best drinks on the rocks, and why? We’ll share the best types of liquor for this serving style and why it helps improve the drink for particular tastes.

Glass of Bourbon Whiskey, on the rocks

Bourbon

Bourbon is one of the most popular types of liquor served on the rocks. Bourbon can be a bit harsh or strong tasting when enjoyed straight, but adding ice can help to cool it down and make it more palatable.

Old Fashioned Bourbon on the Rocks with an Orange Garnish

Additionally, pouring bourbon or whiskey on the rocks can improve the aroma and taste, especially for sweet and sour whiskey like Jameson Irish Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey, which has a distinct oaky finish.


Scotch

Scotch is another liquor that benefits from being served on the rocks. The smokey flavor of Scotch can be too intense for some, but adding ice can help to mellow out the flavor and make it more enjoyable.

Scotch on the rocks

The ice also helps to release some of the alcohol’s more subtle flavors, making it easier to distinguish and appreciate the different layers of the Scotch.


Gin

Gin is less common for drinking straight, but high-quality gin such as Tanqueray London Dry can be delicious straight, especially with one or two big ice cubes. The ice highlights gin’s subtle flavors, especially if you squeeze some lime in the cup before sipping.


Tequila

Tequila is a popular liquor to take shots with, but it’s excellent for sipping too. When served on the rocks, tequila’s earthy essence and sweet, spicy flavor shine agreeably.

silver tequila shot served on the rocks in a small glass

Some great tequilas to serve on the rocks include Hornitos Reposado, Don Julio Blanco, and Patron Silver.


On the Rocks vs. Other Styles of Serving

Now that you understand what “on the rocks” means and how it can benefit your favorite liquors, here are some other styles of serving drinks.

bartender serving a glass of neat whiskey

Neat

Serving liquor neat means drinking it straight, without any ice. Some people prefer this style instead of on the rocks for their whiskey, gin, tequila, and other liquors because they prefer their drink at room temperature.

Delicious Bourbon Whiskey Neat in a Glass

Otherwise, they might enjoy the zing of the sharp alcohol taste and don’t want to mute it with ice. Finally, drinking liquor or a cocktail neat ensures you can take your time sipping it without it getting watered down.


Straight Up

Serving a drink “straight up” is similar to “neat” in that the result includes no ice. However, the drink has to be previously shaken or stirred with ice, then poured or strained to remove the ice.

Making dirty gin martini shaken served straight up

This serving style is ideal for cocktails like martinis, margaritas, and manhattans because it preserves the flavors while still ensuring they are cold and refreshing.


Shot

A shot is straight liquor served in a small glass, usually between 1.25 and 1.5 fluid ounces.

Three shot glasses being filled with a drink

The idea is to take it in one gulp, and it can be an ideal way of drinking if you aren’t trying to savor the alcohol’s flavors. People take shots of many types of liquor, including tequila, vodka, gin, and whiskey.


Up

Up is the same serving style as “straight up,” mentioned above, but just a shorter way of saying it. Therefore, if you order a drink “up,” the bartender will shake or stir your beverage with ice. They will then pour it and serve it without the ice.


How To Order On the Rocks

When ordering a drink on the rocks, you can use simple terms like “on the rocks” or “with ice.” You can also be more specific and ask for your drink to be poured over ice, on the rocks with lots of ice, only a few pieces of ice, crushed ice cubes, or on one big rock (i.e., one large ice cube).

man hands pouring whisky from jigger into glass of ice, whisky on the rock

These more particular descriptions will help ensure that your drink is made exactly the way you want it.


How To Serve On the Rocks

If you’re a bartender in training or simply want a few tips before serving friends and family at an upcoming event, here are some helpful tips for serving on the rocks beverages.

Whiskey on the rocks sitting on a bar top in a fancy restaurant

Don’t Let the Liquor Sit Too Long

When someone orders a drink on the rocks, they likely want to drink to be cold and refreshing, which is perfect for enjoying on a hot day. However, if you leave the drink unattended for too long, the ice will melt and water down the beverage.

On the rocks can ruin the liquor flavor and make it less enjoyable to drink. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure that you serve the drink right after putting ice in it, or else the person who ordered will miss out on all the benefits that come with it.


Choose the Correct Glassware

Different types of glasses can impact and improve the experience of drinking on the rocks. For example, choosing a glass with a smaller opening is ideal if you want to prevent the ice from melting.

Statement glassware and large ice cubes to make fancy cocktails

Select the Appropriate Drink

Not all drinks are best served on the rocks. For example, if you’re pouring a high-quality whiskey that someone will like to sip for a long time, neat is usually the best way to enjoy it.

Also, martinis and blended drinks like Daiquiris or Pina Coladas are usually not as ideal with ice.


Choosing the Rocks 

Finally, the type of ice you choose can also impact the drink. You might choose crushed ice for a drink if you want it to be extra cold throughout, but you will compromise on the taste as smaller ice pieces melt faster, thus watering down the drink at a quicker rate.

Whiskey with a large cube of ice

Alternatively, if you use just one large ice cube when you order on the rocks, your drink might not be as cold throughout, but you’ll be able to sip it for longer without it watering down.


Bartending Terms

There are other bartending terms that you can use to order a drink that best suits your taste by getting even more specific about what type of drink you’re looking to receive.

Twist

A twist means that the drink will come with a citrus peel. This peel adds a hint of zest to your beverage but also a visual appeal.

Chilled

Ordering your drink chilled means you want it served cold. This description doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be ice in it, so you should still say on the rocks if you want to add ice.

Dirty

Finally, a “dirty” drink typically applies to cocktails, and it’s when you add olive brine to the drink, which gives it a salty, pungent kick.


How Do You Drink Your Liquor?

Everyone has their own personal preference when it comes to how they take their drinks, so what’s yours? Leave us a comment below and let us know!

Written by Rocco

Rocco is a Florida State University alumnus with years of bartending and hospitality experience. From slinging hundreds of vodka sodas a night in jam-packed college bars to serving carefully crafted cocktails in upscale restaurants, there’s not much he hasn’t done behind a bar. Now, Rocco shares his knowledge and passion for all things alcohol-related here on My Bartender for bibulous readers everywhere to enjoy.

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