The Art of the Highball
Through the ages, the highball has evolved from being a simple whisky and soda serve to being a delicate blend of whisky, soda & ice. Invented in the UK, adopted by the US and perfected in Japan - this unique serve is far more than first expected. Let us take you on the journey of the art of the highball.
What is a Highball?
The beginning of the highball story must start with the invention of soda. As a key component of this serve, without soda there would be no highball. Following the popularity of soda, it wasn’t long before a taste of spirit & soda swept across the world, starting with Cognac & soda.
Another key component of the highball is ice and it wasn’t until 1880s that ice became more widely available and fashionable in drinks.
So, with soda and ice now firmly on trend, the missing ingredient to pave the way for the highball we know today was the rise of whisky. It was Cognac’s misfortune, one part Napoleonic wars, two parts decimation of vineyards due to Phylloxera aphid, that allowed Scotch to steal its crown as the spirit of choice for the upper and middle classes.
Winston Churchill himself references his tastes changing from Cognac and soda to whisky and soda in his autobiography ‘My Early Life’.
New York bartender, Patrick Gavin Duffy, opened a café in New York City frequented by British actors due to its proximity to the Old Lyceum theatre which the transatlantic talent of the day were said to order Scotch and soda. This encouraged Duffy to place a large shipment to satisfy demand.
Once the shipment arrived, he reportedly sold little but Scotch and Soda and credits himself with introducing the highball to Americans.
Sales of Scotch boomed on the black market during prohibition – and the highball is a serve called out in the underground drinking dens that Gatsby frequented in the classic tale, The Great Gatsby.
Post prohibition, whisky and soda established itself as a drink of choice, as referenced in Vogue’s Book of Etiquette in 1948 and Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts in 1949.
The highball trend continued until the 1980s until, like many a whisky serve, it faded away during the vodka boom. It was its reintroduction in Japan as a refreshing post-work drink that started a second wave of fame.
Japanese Highball History
In the 1950s, the highball was the drink of choice in the thousands of Suntory’s Tory bars that served the Japanese salaryman. Simply topping off a tumbler of ice and whisky with soda water, Tory bars began to serve the masses, driving a new trend.
Decades later, whisky was in steep decline in Japan and fell out of favour with the younger generation. The subprime mortgage collapse in 2006 changed all that. It had global repercussions, and plunged much of the world, including Japan, into a deep recession.
The youth of Japan were re-evaluating what was important and began looking back with a sense of nostalgia towards the old ways of eating, drinking and socialising. Suddenly, what their grandparents used to do, eat and drink became perceived not as old fashioned and dated, but as authentic and real.
Suntory in 2008, with a desire to recruit a new generation of whisky drinkers, spearheaded a dedicated highball campaign which helped start the ‘highball boom’ in Japan. The traditional izakaya – informal venues where people could enjoy both food and drink once again – became incredibly popular.
Domestic consumption of whisky rocketed as the izakayas of Japan were serving highball on draught in mugs as a food friendly serve. The intricacies of Japanese bartending techniques, now revered around the world, took this thirst for a highball and perfected it into an art form with handcrafted ice and stunning garnishes.
Suntory, in an effort to create the perfect highball worked to develop a machine that could elevate the highball above the level that even a highly skilled bartender could create, by producing ice-cold whisky and soda with a level of carbonation even greater than Champagne. So from casual, relaxed izakayas to an upmarket cocktail bar, the highball became a favourite in Japan and sparked a revival for this serve around the world.
How to make your own highball:
There are three key factors to consider when looking to create the perfect highball.
Temperature is crucial for a good highball. Temperature affects the retention of carbonation and helps balance the dilution for a longer period of time. The glass, whisky and soda should ideally all be chilled in order to maintain strong carbonation levels.
A higher level of carbonation creates a fresher serve and smaller bubbles help to deliver flavour throughout the drink.
The ratio of whisky to soda is essential in balancing the drink - one part whisky to three parts soda as a general rule. You can adjust the ratio, depending on the flavour you are looking to create and the serve occasion.
Toki Highball with Grapefruit Peel
120ml Soda water
+ Grapefruit peel for garnish
1. Add ice to a highball glass and stir to chill glass
2. Add Toki and stir to chill whisky
3. Top with soda
4. Garnish with grapefruit peel
Jim Beam Lime & Mint Highball
30ml Jim Beam
120ml Soda water
10ml Sugar syrup
+ Lime wedge for garnish
+ Mint sprigs for garnish
1. Chill the glass, soda, and Jim Beam
2. Squeeze a wedge of lime and drop it in the glass
3. Add other ingredients (Jim Beam/Sugar Syrup/Mint Sprigs) and muddle gently
4. Fill the glass with ice
5. Pour soda gently filling the glass
6. Stir gently and garnish with a mint sprig