So what is a highball? A highball is just a base spirit and mixer served over ice, ideally in a tall glass. Whiskey soda, rum’n’coke, gin’n’tonic, and 7’n’7 are easy to say and even easier to make. They are usually quite forgiving as to the amounts and qualities of various ingredients used. However, Dale DeGroff in The Essential Cocktail cautions that a highball shouldn’t be too strong – if you want a strong drink, have a Martini or a Manhattan. A good guideline for a highball is 1 1/2 ounces spirit, maximum, and 4-5 oz of mixers.
So let’s start with one of my favorites, the Presbyterian. It’s like an upgraded whiskey and soda, but drier than a whiskey and ginger.
- 1 1/2 oz rye, bourbon or blended whiskey
- 2 oz ginger beer
- 2 oz soda
Build over ice in a tall glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
A proper ‘Press’ needs a strong ginger beer with some oomph to it. Sweet supermarket ginger ales won’t cut it. I really like Rittenhouse rye in this one, but an affordable aged bourbon like Elijah Craig 12 y/o is also quite tasty. In the past, an economical blended whiskey would have been used, as the sweetness and carbonation of the ginger and soda takes the harsh edges off of the whiskey.
A common topic of discussion when cocktail geeks get together is what to order in bars that you know couldn’t make a ‘proper’ cocktail if you explained it to them for an hour. Highballs are a great fallback because most bartenders know them and they are hard to screw up. Even in cocktailian bars where every drink is carefully measured, the highballs get free-poured. However, that doesn’t mean that a sophisticated drink is out of reach, although you might have to talk your next airport bartender through this next one.
- 1 1/2 oz Campari
- 1 1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano)
- 3-4 oz soda (or as little as a splash)
Build over ice in a tall glass. Garnish with an orange slice, if desired.
An Americano is a very satisfying refresher. I find that it makes a good introduction to Campari, as the bitterness is balanced a bit by the sweetness of the vermouth. Apparently the name comes from the American fashion of mixing different boozes together, which was somewhat novel in turn of the last century Italy. By the way, this drink is also the inspiration for the Negroni. The story goes that the Count wanted something stronger and had the soda replaced with gin.
Another fascinating topic is where the term ‘highball’ comes from, since it precedes the drink. The glass, presumably, was named after the drink. One early use of the word was in railroading – the Encyclopedia Britanica says “One early type of American signal consisted of a large ball that was hoisted to the top of a pole to inform the engineman that he might proceed (hence, the origin of the term highball).”
A highball glass is a straight sided cylindrical glass from 8-12 ounces. I’ll go out on a limb and say that a highball glass should be 10 oz for use with the pre-ice recipes of about 6 ounces that we’ve been using. But just try to buy one or two glasses that small at a homewares store. The American home market seems to demand bigger and bigger glasses -to the point where the highball has become a 14 oz chimney glass appropriate for a Zombie and all its lovely ice. Commercial service still uses smaller glass, but unfortunately a case of 10 oz glasses at a restaurant supply place is 36 glasses, probably more than you’ll ever need.
Highballs do not have to be carbonated – they can be made with juice as well. As an example, here is one I recently whipped up for a guest.
- 1 1/2 oz vodka
- 3 oz cranberry juice cocktail
- 1 1/2 oz orange juice
Build over ice in a tall glass.
One last thing about highballs – they are, of course, excellent hot weather drinks. Thirst quenching and refreshing, a tall icy gin and tonic is practically emblematic of summer.