The Whisky Highball is one of the simplest yet most rewarding drinks for the sophisticated imbiber to knock up at home. At its heart it may only be whisky, ice and soda, but this belies the complexity of the drink, with the lengthening spritz of the soda water teasing apart the flavours of the spirit in the glass.
As with so many classic drinks, the exact origins of the Whisky Highball aren’t known, however its first written mention has been traced to a play called My Friend from India, written in 1894, where one of the characters requested a ‘high ball of whiskey’.
Five years later, bartender Chris Lawlor wrote about a High Ball in his recipe book The Mixicologist. He stated: ‘Put in thin ale-glass one lump of ice, fill with syphon seltzer to within an inch of the top, then float one half jigger of brandy or whisky.’
Prodigious drinker and talented author F Scott Fitzgerald included mention of the Highball in The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925, triggering an increase in the drink’s popularity in the US.
However, it was the introduction of the Whisky Highball to Japan in the 1950s that has arguably ensured its continued popularity into the 21st century. The serve was quickly adopted into the country’s drinking culture, with highball bars opening across Japan. Indeed, you’ll find the drink listed in virtually every drinking establishment in the country even today.
As cocktail culture experienced a huge upswing in the Noughties, with different bartending styles being shared between countries and across continents, the Japanese style of bartending came to light. The precision used to hand cut and store ice, and the tools and techniques of making drinks captured the imagination of bartenders across the world and kickstarted a renewed fascination with the Whisky Highball.
Generally speaking, the best whiskies to choose for a Highball are those from Scotland and Japan, with blends and single malts both ideal for use. Irish whiskeys and American whiskeys lend themselves to mixers with more sweetness, such as ginger ale.
How to make a Whisky Highball
When it comes to preparing a whisky highball, make sure your ice is properly frozen and your soda is chilled. Fill your glass with ice, add 50ml of whisky and top with the soda. Give it a gentle stir, and add a citrus peel garnish – lemon or orange would be the classic choice, however you could experiment with pink grapefruit peel.
Best whiskies to try in a Highball
Bowmore 12 Year Old
Located on Islay in the Hebrides, Bowmore is the oldest distillery on the island, receiving a licence in 1779. Islay is famed for its smoky whiskies, with flavours ranging from gently smoking embers all the way to chewing on a lump of coal while smelling iodine. Bowmore 12 year old is somewhere in the middle, with charred pineapple, mango, honey and vanilla alongside bonfire smoke drifting on the breeze. Alc 40%
Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend
Blended whisky maker Compass Box is known for being rather unconventional in its approach to whisky creation, and the industry is much more fun for it. Its Artist’s Blend is inspired by the whisky blenders of the late 19th century, and their archive recipes. This has a high proportion of malted barley. Apple compote, lemon peel, cinnamon and clove, vanilla pod and toasted almonds make for a beguiling Whisky Highball. Alc 43%
Cutty Sark Original
Named after the tea clipper ship, Cutty Sark was created in 1923 by Francis Berry and Hugh Rudd, the partners of Berry Bros & Rudd. The aim was to create a lighter style of blended whisky. Made with a focus on whisky from Glenrothes, mixed with liquid from across Scotland, it’s an easy-drinking dram of lemon curd, shortbread, almonds and vanilla. Alc 40%
Based in the Scottish Highlands, Glenmorangie’s distillery boasts the tallest stills in Scotland, which leads to a delicate flavour profile of its spirit. The Original is a 10-year-old single malt that’s aged in ex-bourbon casks. Orange zest, vanilla and clotted cream are topped with chopped hazelnuts and honey in this moreish dram. Alc 40%
A blend from Japanese company Suntory, the Hibiki brand is worshipped for its quality whiskies. A beautiful bouquet of stone fruits, flowers and sandalwood leads to a palate of orange, apricot, caramel and date sponge. The stunning bottles the liquid comes in are an added bonus and make excellent water carafes once emptied. Alc 43%
Johnnie Walker Red Label
The world’s biggest-selling blended whisky, Red Label was first made in 1909. A blend of up to 30 malts and grains from across Scotland, it’s recognised for its mixing prowess. Aromas of lemon and orange citrus, wood smoke, toffee and Victoria sponge lead onto a sweet and spicy palate of caramel, toffee apples, vanilla, clotted cream and pepper. Alc 40%
Nikka from the Barrel
This squat little 50cl bottle may look like aftershave, but it’s one of the best bangs for your buck when it comes to Japanese whisky. A blended whisky dialling in at 51.4%, it’s a heavyweight liquid with oodles of complexity. Sweet caramel and cinnamon mix with orange zest, pear, coffee, clove and dried chilli flakes. Alc 51.4%
Toki is a blended whisky sourced from the Hakushu, Yamazaki and Chita distilleries owned by the iconic Japanese company Suntory. Fruity aromas of banana and melon, accompanied by vanilla, oats and oily gears leads onto a light, grassy palate with further melon and vanilla, alongside pear, almonds, cinnamon and nutmeg. Alc 43%