What does “on the rocks” mean?

The phrase “on the rocks” is a common term used in the world of bartending and drink enthusiasts. But what does it really mean? Let’s dive into the origins, usage, and variations of this famous phrase.

The Origins of “On the Rocks”

The phrase “on the rocks” is believed to have originated in the United States during the late 19th or early 20th century. It describes a method of serving a drink, usually a spirit like whiskey or scotch, where you pour the spirit into a glass over ice cubes. The “rocks” are the ice cubes.

But why “rocks”?

The term is thought to have come from an old practice of chilling drinks with river rocks. Before the invention of modern refrigeration, people would gather smooth, flat stones from rivers, clean them, and then chill them in the winter. These chilled stones were then used to cool drinks.

“On the rocks” in Bartending

In the bartending world, “on the rocks” is a specific instruction on how to serve a drink. Customers who order a drink “on the rocks” want their drink served over ice. This is typically done with spirits like whiskey, scotch, or bourbon but can also be requested for other drinks.

Ordering a drink “on the rocks” can change the flavour profile of the beverage. The ice cubes dilute the drink as they melt, softening the harshness of high-alcohol spirits and bringing out different flavours. Of course, whether this is good or not is a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer to take their spirits neat, or without any ice.

Types of Ice for “On the Rocks”

All ice is not created equal, especially when serving drinks “on the rocks”. The size and shape of the ice can significantly affect how quickly it melts and thus how much it dilutes the drink.

The standard ice cubes found in a home freezer are often small and melt quickly, which can lead to a watered-down drink. Many bars and restaurants use larger, specially made ice cubes or even ice spheres for serving drinks “on the rocks”. These larger pieces of ice melt more slowly, providing a gradual dilution that can enhance the flavours of the spirit without watering down the drink.

Ice Spheres vs Ice Cubes

Ice spheres and ice cubes are the two most common types of ice used for serving drinks “on the rocks”. But what’s the difference?

Ice spheres are large, round pieces of ice made using a special mold. Because of their shape, they have a smaller surface area compared to an ice cube of the same volume. This means they melt more slowly and dilute the drink less. Ice spheres are often used for high-end spirits that are best enjoyed with minimal dilution.

Ice cubes, on the other hand, are more common and easier to make. They can range in size from small cubes made in a home freezer to large, perfectly square cubes made in a professional ice machine. The size and quality of the ice cube can affect how quickly it melts and dilutes the drink.

Finishing up

So, the next time you hear someone order a drink “on the rocks”, you’ll know exactly what they mean. Whether you prefer your spirits neat or on the rocks, it’s all about personal preference and enjoying the drink in the way that tastes best to you.


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