Is it Neat, Up, or Straight Up?

One of the Great Bar Debates Answered

Chart illustrating the difference between a neat or straight up drink
Illustration: Hugo Lin. © The Spruce, 2018 

What exactly is the difference between a neat, an up, and a straight up drink? It's a common dispute in the bar and, as many bar arguments go, there is quite a bit of confusion. While there are accepted definitions for each term, things are rarely black and white in the bar.

If you want to get technical, there is an easy way to tell the difference between neat and up drinks: Up drinks are chilled and neat drinks are not. And yet, not every cold drink would be considered up.

What Is a Neat Drink?

Neat is used to order a drink that is served with no ice or mixers. It is, quite simply, a straight pour of liquor from the bottle into the glass. Neat drinks are also served at room temperature. It's similar to drinks on the rocks, in that the drink is designed to be sipped slowly so you can enjoy the distilled spirit's unadulterated taste, but without the dilution.

Whiskey and brandy are most often ordered neat because many drinkers prefer to drink them at room temperature. Top-shelf tequilas and vodkas are commonly served neat as well.

While sippers of these liquors are thought of as neat drinks, the term can technically be applied to shots, too. In this case, however, the word straight is used most often. For instance, most people would order a straight shot of tequila rather than a neat shot. Essentially, in this context, neat has more of an upscale, fancy connotation while straight feels more like a fun drunken party.

What Is an Up or Straight Up Drink?

Up and straight up are often used interchangeably. These words usually describe a drink that is chilled with ice—either shaken or stirred—and strained into a glass without ice. Typically, these drinks are associated with a cocktail glass and this makes it easy to remember. Just think of it as being served in a glass that is elevated (up) by a stem.

Straight up can bring the most confusion because drinkers use it to refer to both neat and up drinks. Some of this confusion goes back to the multiple meanings of straight in the bar, which circles back to those orders like a straight shot of tequila. For the most part, however, you can think of martinis as good examples of straight up drinks.

So, What Does Straight Mean?

Straight is where things get really confusing because drinkers use it in a few different ways:

  • Some use straight when they order a straight pour of darker spirits. For instance, "bourbon straight" is a common order, even though would technically be neat.
  • Some use straight to mean a white spirit chilled and served in a cocktail glass. An example of this would be chilled vodka in a stemmed glass. If that vodka was diluted with ice, it would technically be up. If, however, the bottle of vodka itself was chilled and no ice is added, it would be neat.
  • As mentioned, straight can also refer to a pure pour for a shot of liquor. This may be tequila, vodka, whiskey, or even rum.

The Ambiguous Bar

In this debate, it's also important to remember that we are talking about the bar here. Given the nature of an environment that involves liquor and fuzzy memories, there is often no real right and wrong answer.

Though many people accept the definitions above, the correct answer can often be ambiguous. While there are bartending books that act as guides through the basics of mixing drinks, there is really not a definitive or authoritative dictionary for the bar. It's a lot like trying to define what is a martini and what is not or differentiating cocktails from mixed drinks.

Some drinkers also get into the habit of calling one type of drink by a certain name. This can be passed along through families, friends, or the community and you'll also find regional preferences for using these terms. It's a bit like the pop versus soda debate: Call it what you will, it's the same drink! The problem in the bar is that if someone interprets your drink order the wrong way, you might not get exactly what you wanted.

No matter which side of the argument you're on, if you are having one of these philosophical bar debates, you may find it hard to persuade the other side. It may be best to simply agree to disagree and buy the other person a drink. Just make sure you know how they like it!