“Theoretically uncomplicated, their very simplicity dictates that they be properly made, or they will be disappointing.” So Masahiro Urushido, bartender and owner of NYC’s Katana Kitten, writes about the Highball in his book The Japanese Art of the Cocktail. His book includes a section of beautiful riffs on the humble Highball, which most of us know as spirit, sparkling mixer, and sometimes juice (think gin & tonic or Paloma). But there’s much more to this easy-drinking combo to explore.
The Nice And Easy Option
The Highball generally lends nicely to mellow daytime drinking (excluding potent potables like the Long Island Iced Tea). First, they’re easy to make. It’s a tried-and-true category dating back to the 1800s, and many two- or three-ingredient drinks are popularly served in a highball format.
Second, the Highball is useful for those looking to control, reduce, or eliminate alcohol intake while still enjoying a lovely “responsible day drinking.” Since many consist of a couple of ounces of challenging spirit topped with soda and juice, they’re already diluted. It’s easy to adjust the proportions to allow for more or less alcohol. The Japanese whisky highball is all about proportions (more on that in a moment). In addition, many of the recent zero-alcohol spirits on the market work incredibly well in the highball format. I’ve had no-alcohol (N.A.) gin & tonics that taste so authentic they’ve left me wondering if I could have a second sans repercussion (spoiler: I could).
Highballs are an unusual category as a bar menu focus, but it’s happening more often. It can feel weird to lay out $16 for vodka with some cranberry juice and lime. On the other hand, proportions and ingredient quality can make or break an otherwise uncomplicated drink.
“Highballs, at their essence, are about simplicity,” says Colin Berger, bar manager at the newest outpost of high-concept steakhouse Rare Society in Mill Creek, Washington. “I am a big believer in not complicating something that is delicious ‘as is.’ My favorite take on the Highball uses high-quality soda water, a mild rye whiskey infused with green apple, and lemon peel.”
Variations On A Theme
Of course, the category also lends itself to endless riffs, embellishments, and innovations. At The Other Room, a craft cocktail spot in Lincoln, Nebraska, bar manager Jordan Gish notes that highballs on the menu change frequently. “They vary a lot based on what fruits, veggies, herbs, and flavors are in season. We also like to use different spirits as well.” One of the bar’s most popular highballs, Dragon’s Blood is a complex blend of white rum, barley shochu infused with Thai chilies and ginger, blood orange, lime, five-spice-infused honey, and housemade blood orange soda. The drink was crafted and perfected by bartender Kyler Faerwald, who now holds court at Death & Co’s Denver location.
In Portland, Maine, you’ll find The Danforth: a cozy New England restaurant recently opened by the Death & Co team (they’re everywhere!) through their hospitality group Gin & Luck. Here you can order a Jukebox Highball. Scotch whisky, cherry liqueur, and toasted oat soda water make a daring blend of earth notes, candied fruits, and a hint of vanilla sweetness. Perfect for pairing with the many roasted veggie dishes on the menu or the restaurant’s signature take on Pigs in a Blanket.
The Highball Machine
The Suntory Toki Highball Machine might be the most fun of all the highball trends. Whisky-and-soda highballs have taken off in Japan over the past couple of decades, emphasizing pre-chilled ingredients and exacting proportions, featuring the light-bodied, fruit-driven whiskies for which Japan is well known. Suntory has created a mini-industry out of this fact with its highball machine, emphasizing Toki, its contemporary blended whisky that is easy to drink, with silky hints of fruit and spice. Urushido notes in his book that he’s been told by Suntory that Katana Kitten sells more Toki highballs than any other bar in the world. Bartenders can program specific proportions (giving each bar a claim of proprietary uniqueness) and finish drinks with intriguing garnishes, bitters, and more.
“Our staff definitely nerds out on the machine with our guests,” says Carl Brown of San Francisco’s tropics-themed Kaiyo Rooftop, where the Toki highball machine is often a surprise for guests. “They’ll ask what it is and when we explain it, they’re very excited to try a highball.”
The interactivity between guests, bartenders, and machines helps elevate the simple whisky soda to something worthy of a night out. A specific feature of the device is its ability to create exceptionally high carbonation levels in the soda. “We recently held a water-tasting where we compared the carbonated water produced by the highball machine against a well-known imported carbonated water, says Mike Lerman, general manager at California’s Tetra Hotel and its Japanese-themed bar Nokori. “The difference was so clear (no pun intended).” Lerman notes that the wonderful bubbles and aggressive effervescence create a “creaminess” Lerman notes. You’re essentially getting a sort of whisky “champagne.” “When you choose the setting that includes the whiskey, and you see how it is so uniformly combined it is as it’s dispensed, it’s tough to return to a hand-mixed highball.”
For those seeking a different spirit (these machines are only allowed to dispense Toki), all three restaurants have a respectable menu of creative highballs. Bartenders can also dispense only the machine’s carbonated water and mix a drink with whatever the customer requests, though they may only sometimes advertise that fact.
As mentioned, the Highball also slides effortlessly into low-ABV and zero-alcohol / non-alcohol trends. Combined with tonic or sparkling water and lime over crackling ice, an N.A. gin or low-ABV liqueur is bright and refreshing and will help keep you clear-headed on a sunny afternoon. One of the niftier trends we’re seeing is using an aperitif or digestif instead of a more potent alcohol and pairing it with umami-driven juices. A bitter red Italian aperitif sidles up to grapefruit juice and soda nicely. At the same time, a milder liqueur like Sorel (hibiscus) or Cordusio (berries, not yet available in the U.S.) is complemented by pineapple or yuzu juice and a little cinnamon simple syrup or topped with ginger beer and lime. Play with the proportions till you hit the sweet spot that works for you.
“I think the biggest appeal to a great whisky-and-soda is that you can have a delicious beverage and not get too intoxicated,” says Brown. “Which was why the whisky highball was created in the first place. And the carbonation can bring out more flavor from a spirit, so you can taste subtle notes you might not find sipping it neat or on the rocks.”
Zero Proof Options
At Allegory–an art-driven craft spot in Washington D.C.–you’ll always find zero-alcohol cocktails on the bar’s regular menu and its pared-down companion Library Menu, a category for which the Highball was seemingly born to highlight. The Mimsy, created by Deke Dunne, is described as a “highball meets a root beer soda.” It’s an earthy melange of dandelion root tea, fig, root beer, cocoa, vanilla, and sparkling water. Verjus–an acidic juice made from unripe grapes, crab apples, or similar tart fruits–is a popular ingredient in N.A. cocktails, adding the bitter notes found in aperitifs, offsetting the often too-sweet character of traditional mocktails. Among the many rotating N.A. drinks on the menu at NYC’s posh Mediterranean restaurant IRIS, you can sip on the Herbed Verjus Highball, described as a “cross between a white wine spritz and a gin & tonic.”
These days, you’ll also find a lot of canned cocktails billed as “highballs,” which may seem a bit lazy. The House of Botanicals recently pointed out how easy it is to make your hard seltzers at home for a fraction of the price of a case of White Claw. Still, reaching for a chilled canned cocktail at a picnic is pretty nifty. LA-based distillery Greenbar recently unveiled a broad range of canned Highballs and Spritzed in alcohol and no-alcohol versions. Canned Whiskey + Soda, Gin + Tonic, and Rum + Cola (with an UnGin + Tonic and UnRum + Cola) are made using the distillery’s spirits and a fairly complex mix of spices and other natural flavors. You can drink them straight from the can or bottle, but we recommend pouring them over ice into a highball glass (or plastic cup at the beach). It adds to the overall experience, but you’ll also savor your drink over a longer time. Add bitters and a creative garnish to bring that canned cocktail to life!
1 oz Singani 63
1 oz London dry gin
.5 oz Cointreau
1.5 oz lychee shrub
.5 oz lemon juice
4 oz kombu water (seaweed-infused water)
Rinse a highball glass with a small amount of absinthe and discard. Fill with a cube of ice. Combine all other ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, shake and strain into the highball glass. Garnish with lychee fruit.
Tyson Buhler, The Danforth, Portland ME
1.5 oz Famous Grouse Blended Scotch
1 tsp Lazzaroni Maraschino
1 tsp Clear Creek Kirsch
4 oz toasted oat water
.75 oz vanilla syrup
2 oz lime soda
Combine all ingredients except soda in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a highball glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a large, fresh cherry. (NOTE: The Danforth uses a fancy lime acid and phosphate, batches large servings, and kegs the whole thing under pressure)