Build Your Best Highball
April 19, 2021 –––––– Zak Kostro
Perfect for leisurely sipping on a balmy summer night, the Highball is enjoying a revival in the U.S. But in Japan, Highballs are a way of life, says Masahiro Urushido, managing partner and bartender at Japanese-style cocktail bar Katana Kitten in New York City. “The Highball has been popular for over 100 years,” Urushido says. “I think the reason is because it's so versatile.”
An ideal whisky drink, the Highball allows the spirit to step into roles usually occupied by beer, or even wine. “It pairs pretty much with anything you're eating, almost like champagne,” Urushido adds. Highballs also temper the potent proof of whisky. “It's not a strong drink,” says Peter Mizutani, senior bar captain at Conrad Tokyo hotel's bar TwentyEight. “Japanese people drink Highballs to enjoy the atmosphere. Maybe in the U.S. or Australia or Europe, they enjoy their whisky neat, but in Japan we prefer to drink whisky with soda water.”
How to Make a Highball
- 1½oz. whisky
- 4 oz. chilled club soda
- Lemon twist for garnish
Add a long spear, two or three large cubes, or several hefty chunks of ice to a chilled Highball glass. Add whisky and give it 10 gentle stirs. Slowly add soda. Stir gently once or twice more, and garnish with a lemon twist.
⇒ Tweak your technique. Slow your stir. The key to a good Highball is a delicate touch that doesn't agitate the ingredients and lose bubbles. “You don't need that much stirring,” says Urushido, who uses his barspoon to “just lift up the ice from the bottom.”
4 Key Elements of a Highball (Besides Whisky) & How to Hack Them
1. Ice: Japanese bartenders prefer chunks of crystal-clear, hand-carved ice. But Hidenori Komatsu, owner of Apollo Bar in Tokyo's upscale Ginza shopping district, says that flavor is most important—namely, that the ice “doesn't contain impurities such as chlorine, has high transparency, and doesn't have a unique flavor.” At home, use ice from filtered or bottled water that spent no more than 24 hours uncovered in the freezer to avoid off flavors, or follow our DIY tips.
⇒ Raise your home ice game. Without a special directional freezing tray designed to produce clear ice, you can still improve ice clarity by freezing twice-boiled distilled water. The lack of air and impurities creates clearer cubes. Keep ice from cracking in the glass by tempering in the fridge for an hour, or at room temperature for 10 minutes before using.
2. Fizz: Urushido likes Q Mixers' club soda for its high bubble content. But any type of soda will perform better if chilled before you begin mixing the drink. It retains more of the carbonated gas in the liquid, and “the higher the carbonation the better,” Urushido notes.
⇒ Out of club soda? Try this trick. Seltzer water has bubbles but lacks the distinct taste of club soda with its added minerals. To lend seltzer or homemade soda water the alkaline edge of club soda, you can experiment with adding small pinches of sea salt and baking soda.
3. Glass: A Highball glass should be large enough to hold the liquid along with plenty of ice, and have sides that are straight or curve inward at the top. Avoid using a wide-mouthed or pint glass; they allow bubbles, and flavor, to dissipate.
⇒ No Highball glass? No problem. Urushido says a glass stein stored in the freezer keeps the Highball cold longer since the handle prevents direct contact with the main part of the glass. “That's kind of the classic vessel in Japan,” he adds. Or sip your Highball from a large bordeaux-style wine glass that conveys the whisky's aroma and displays the garnish, notes Komatsu.
4. Garnish: Lemon twist is a classic garnish for good reason. “Citrus aroma is very neutral,” complementing a range of whisky flavors and styles, Urushido explains. Lime, orange, or grapefruit work well too.
⇒ But if you're out of citrus... Other ingredients work too. Vary your garnish according to your whisky. Taking his inspiration from a sherry cask-aged Macallan Highball, Komatsu proposes raisins to highlight the “sweetness of dried fruits.” To enhance the brininess of an Islay malt like Bowmore, he suggests a salt-rimmed glass. Fresh herbs match well with rye or bourbon.
What Whisky to Use?
Any whisky you enjoy on its own will go well in a Highball, as the dilution and effervescence serve to reveal and lift up its flavors. After whisky style, the obvious consideration is price. But given the simplicity of the Highball, the flavor of the whisky remains largely unadulterated, making it a perfectly suitable vehicle for showcasing even some of your finest whiskies.
$50 & UNDER
Suntory Toki, 88 points—Smoky embers, roasted spices, buttered popcorn, and orchard fruit
Johnnie Walker Double Black, 90 points—Smoke, peat, apple, and orange
Powers Gold Label, 90 points—Ground cinnamon, coriander, and nutmeg
Laphroaig 10 year old, 92 points—Band-Aids, seaweed, smoldering peat, vanilla, and caramel
J.P. Wiser's Triple Barrel Rye, 90 points—Blackberries, tart kiwi, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon, 82 points—Baking spices, freshly baked bread, and cinnamon roll
$75 & UNDER
Nikka From the Barrel, 94 points—Butterscotch, orange peel, autumn leaves, and spice
Compass Box The Peat Monster, 93 points—Grubby peat, fudge, and mellowing cigar stubs
Writers' Tears Double Oak, 94 points—Chocolate, cinnamon, and pot still spices
Macallan 12 year old Double Cask, 90 points—Raisins, figs, hazelnuts, blanched almonds, and leather
Forty Creek Unity, 92 points—Luscious caramels, grape jelly, and hot rye spices
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, 94 points—Oak, allspice, pepper, and cloves
$100 & UNDER
Yamazaki 12 year old, 93 points—Lychee, spring blossoms, lily, rose water, and raspberry meringue
Dewar's 21 year old Double Double, 94 points—Chocolate-dipped raspberries, gingersnaps, and bold sherry fruit
Tullamore D.E.W. 15 year old Trilogy, 88 points—Barley sugar, lemon bonbon, and vanilla
Ardbeg Uigeadail, 94 points—Peppery peat, warm tar, and coffee grounds
Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Ninety Nine Proof, 92 points—Fruity, fading dry pepper, and spent gunpowder
Barrell Cask Strength (Batch 23), 92 points—Herbal antiseptic, tarragon, and caramel