So many parts of cocktail orders have become almost fetishized, if only because they’re fun to say. “On the rocks.” “Bone dry.” “Extra dirty.” The language that’s developed to describe drinks is fun and self-consciously flirty. But a strange thing happens when that language is developed and used over the course of years and decades. We forget what a lot of those words mean. They’re fun to say, but we have no idea what we’re saying.
So what’s a twist? The term is usually used to mean any piece of citrus, and often when people order one they’re specifically asking for a wedge of fruit. But a twist is actually a thin piece of citrus zest, used to give a drink just the subtle botanical flavor from the citrus oils without the blunt tart acidity of the citrus juice. The zest is the only active part of the twist, but the pith doesn’t really detract anything, so you can either cut a thin slice of an entire lemon peel, or use a zesting tool to dig out a twist.
Now, that twist can add all sorts of flavor to a cocktail just by dropping it into the drink, but to express the flavor further, you can actually twist the twist (preferably over the glass) or you can rub it against the lip of the glass. If you’re the pyromaniacal type, you can further express the oil by flaming the twist briefly with a match.
The only drinks that can’t benefit from a twist are cream-based. Otherwise, anything from a vodka rocks to a gin and soda to a Manhattan can benefit from the subtle flavor of a twist. (Anything that already uses a citrus juice, though, might as well get an entire wedge.)