Homebound days call for one specific, simple whiskey cocktail above all others: the highball. Once a sad, neglected well drink in the U.S., the last decade has returned the classic, refreshing whiskey highball to prominence.
What’s a highball? A classic whiskey highball generally contains just three simple ingredients: whiskey, club soda, and ice, with a simple garnish of citrus or fresh herbs. It’s this simplicity that lets each ingredient show its full potential (though a highball can be made with other sodas, spirits, and can include other ingredients like tea).
Part of the drink’s momentum has come from the ubiquity of Japanese whisky around the world. Japan is known for its precisely made highballs. But while a certain number of stirs, and the right ratio of soda water to whiskey are important, those factors are actually relative to the whiskey you’ve chosen. And choosing the right whiskey is both the challenge of the drink, and the fun of it.
So how do you pick the right whiskey? There are different approaches.
“The whisky has to be just the right balance,” says Sian Buchan, co-owner of Uno Mas, one of Edinburgh’s best new bars of 2020. Your whiskey of choice, according to Buchan, should be, “fresh and light enough to work with the soda, but with enough punch to stand up to the dilution and really sing. Scotch-wise, I think Monkey Shoulder works well. And for American, a rye heavy bourbon would be my choice.”
Not everyone feels strongly about bourbon and rye in a classic highball. “It’s hard to find American whiskies that fit the bill,” says Caer Ferguson, an award-winning Austin-based bartender and co-founder of the traveling Daijoubu Pop Up Bar. “My favorites are usually Japanese whiskies,” she explains, “and Scotches that have a good amount of green and fruity notes with a hint of peat.” Ferguson tends to stick to blended whiskeys, but at the end of the day she’s looking for “something complex. The whiskey will open up a lot with so much soda water.”
A whiskey “opening up” refers to the release of more subtle flavors that become more prominent when the whiskey is diluted or experiences a temperature change. It’s why most experts suggest adding a few drops of water, or ice, when sipping whiskey on its own. But a highball (and soda water specifically) amplify these flavors.
Whiskey expert and author Lew Bryson has two rules for a highball: The whiskey should be, “not too expensive (because you’ll want another, for sure, and maybe three), not too strong (because that misses the point), not too delicate (because, well, dilution!).” But it’s his second rule that you should internalize: Don’t overthink it. It’s about simplicity and efficiency, after all.
Simplified, the whiskey should be affordable, flavorful, complex, and on the lower end of the proof spectrum. We suggest having fun trying different whiskeys. Here are some to get your started.
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