Apparently, we have Lord Byron to thank for the Highball. According to The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, it was in the opening cantos of his Don Juan poem (published in 1819) that he references ‘hock’ – a mix of German white wine and soda water – as a hangover cure.
While its simplest format (alcohol and a lengthener) has remained unchanged over time, the Highball as we know it has undertaken numerous iterations. From brandy and soda water – popular in mid-19th century Britain – to Cognac and soda, Scotch and soda and, with the gin boom of the Noughties, the Gin and Tonic.
It’s also been adopted by whisky brands such as Japan’s Suntory, which popularised the canned Highball in Japan and cemented themselves in the cocktail’s history. Today, a Highball can be any spirit lengthened with a mixer.
On trend tipple
The Highball trend has been gathering momentum in bars over the last few years. One of London’s recent champions has been Martyn ‘Simo’ Simpson and his team at Milroy’s, who introduced whisky Highballs on tap during summer 2020.
‘We needed to have a drink that people could have outside that was light and fresh,’ Simpson explains. ‘So we looked at what they did in Japan, where a lot of it comes in cans or half-pint dimple mugs.’ Now, the team mixes a rotating selection of whiskies with water, add tinctures to bring out certain flavours, carbonate them and serve them straight from bar-top taps.
Right now the Highball is dominating menus of some of the UK’s best bars, introducing more ingredients, techniques and flavours to the serve. In fact a bar dedicated to the cocktail – Soda & Friends – opened earlier this year in London, with no less than nine on its menu.
Why has the Highball become so popular? ‘I think it started slowly over the last couple of years, but significantly in the last year it has just grown and grown,’ explains drinks consultant Anna Sebastian. Currently overseeing the drinks menus at the iconic American Bar at The Savoy, she tells me that two of its best sellers are Highballs, including the Hanky Panky Highball (recipe below).
Located in the City of London, Silverleaf is serving up a drink simply called Strawberry/Lapsang, which combines Nikka Days Japanese whisky, Port Charlotte Islay whisky, strawberry water and Lapsang Souchong tea.
Meanwhile in East London at A Bar with Shapes for a Name, you’ll find the award-winning carbonated Pastel cocktail. This is a mix of Haku vodka, recomposed lime, rhubarb and Capreolus Distillery raspberry eau de vie.
Meanwhile in Cornwall the bar menu at Adam Handling’s Ugly Butterfly features Kissing’s In Fashion – Cuban rum, with elderflower liqueur and white pepper cordial, lengthened with mint and gorse soda.
Of course, bartenders have the skills to hi-fi their Highballs, but making them at home doesn’t have to be a faff. In fact, the Highball might just be the easiest cocktail to make at home. What’s more, fundamentally, it can be the best way to explore your base ingredient.
Rainbow of flavours
Indeed, for Simpson, it’s all about elongating the flavours of the spirit you’re using. ‘Water brings out the lighter flavours of any spirit: whisky, tropical; calvados, apples; Sherry, chocolate,’ he explains.
Soda & Friends co-owner Nate Brown agrees. He has a nifty metaphor for explaining why sometimes those nuanced flavours in spirits are easier to find once you dilute them. ‘If you’ve ever used Microsoft Paint there’s the colour bar. Think of the colours as flavours,’ he says.
‘When you serve a spirit neat you often can only see that purple splodge, for example. Once you elongate the colour bar – in drinks terms by adding soda, tonic or water to a spirit – you can suddenly see – or taste – all the other colours that make it up.’
Both Simpson and Brown also point out the virtues of pulling out specific flavours of a spirit and amplifying them in your Highballs with other ingredients, like tropical syrups, flavoured sparkling waters, fruit concentrates, cordials and tinctures.
‘Look at things like flavoured vodkas, gins and sodas,’ adds Sebastian. ‘You can even carbonate your own using a SodaStream.’ Tying it all together with a garnish that nods to the overriding flavour of your cocktail is your final, optional, flourish. Happy Highball-ing!
Six Highball recipes to try at home
Whether you want to try a bartender-level recipe or an easy serve, here are some Highballs to play around with in your own living room…
Scotch & soda
Garnish: Lemon twist
Method: Add whisky to glass over ice, top with soda water and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.
60ml of your favourite Scotch
Two Cents Plain soda water
The T & T
Garnish: Grapefruit half moon
Method: Add tequila to glass with ice and top with tonic water. Add a pinch of rock salt and stir. Garnish with a half moon of pink grapefruit.
60ml El Rayo No.1 Plata tequila
Double Dutch Indian Tonic Water
Pinch of salt
Calvados & Co
Garnish: Apple slice
Method: Add the calvados to the glass with ice and top with soda. Add a barspoon of eau de vie and stir. Garnish with an apple slice.
60ml Avallen Calvados
1bsp Capreolus 1,000 Trees Apple Eau du Vie
Hanky Panky Highball
From the American Bar at The Savoy
Garnish: Orange coin
Method: Build the alcoholic ingredients over ice, top with tonic water and stir. Add orange bitters and garnish with an orange coin.
20ml Bombay Sapphire gin
20ml Bacardi rum
10ml Cocchi Torino
10ml ruby port
5 dashes orange bitter
From Soda & Friends
Method: Build alcoholic ingredients over ice and top with soda. Stir to combine and garnish with a single blackberry.
40ml Islay malt whisky
20ml crème de mûre
10ml Victory Bitter
75ml soda water
Roller Zuko Highball
Garnish: Lemon wedge
Method: Add whisky to your glass over ice and top with ginger ale. Stir and garnish with a lemon wedge.
25ml Kensei whisky