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The highball is an incredibly simple cocktail, made only with whiskey, soda water (although other fizzy liquids can be used), and often a slice of citrus for garnish. But this belies the care and attention often given to concocting this deceptively easy drink.
The highball has been around for more than a century, and while it fell out of favor in recent years it has come roaring back into bars and restaurants in the US, as well as people’s homes. This is due in large part to its continued popularity in Japan and the explosive growth of the Japanese whisky category here in the US. And while Japanese whisky is indeed one of the best styles to use in a highball, there are plenty of other options to choose from. Bourbon, Irish whiskey, scotch, and even rye can all play a part in this drink if you use the right proportions and, crucially, choose the right bottle. We spoke to some bar industry experts to get their recommendations on the best whiskey in many different categories to use when making this classic. Here are the best whiskeys to use for your next perfect highball.
Best Overall: Suntory Toki
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Pear, Vanilla
This blended whisky was introduced by Japanese spirits powerhouse Suntory a few years ago and is perfectly suited for the classic highball. The liquid is a blend of whisky from Suntory’s three distilleries, Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita. It’s light and floral, with just a bit of spice and vanilla notes from the malt and grain whiskies included in the blend.
Try this with different types of citrus garnish for riffs on the basic highball, and be sure to pay attention to the quality of ice and soda water, and you’ll see why Toki is a go-to highball whisky for many drinkers in the know.
Best Budget: Paul John Nirvana
Region: India | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Butterscotch, Baking Spice
This Indian single malt whisky is produced in the Indian state of Goa and has been a favorite of many brown spirits fans and bartenders as a new and vibrant choice to use in a highball since it was first released in 2020. Best of all, you can usually find a bottle for less than $30, which is a very reasonable price for such a complex whisky.
There are bright spice and citrus notes on the palate, and not a whiff of smoke to be found, making this a great budget option to consider for your next highball, especially on a hot summer day when something refreshing is in order.
Best Japanese Whisky: Hibiki Harmony
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Honey, White Chocolate, Orange
Japanese whisky is a perfect choice for a highball, given how popular the drink is in that country. For Thandi Walton, lead bartender at Bar Margot inside Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, Suntory makes a blend that is her go-to whisky for this time-tested classic.
“Personally, I enjoy Hibiki Suntory Japanese Whisky with soda water, which brings out its notes of honey, orange zest, and sweet chocolate,” she says. The age statement bottles of Hibiki are pretty hard to find these days, so best to stick with this newer NAS expression that is much more readily available.
"Hibiki Harmony is my personal favorite in a Japanese-style highball, with a large swath of orange peel to bring out those bright citrus notes." — Prairie Rose, Editor
Best Under $50: Johnnie Walker Black
Region: Scotland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Peat, Spice
“For highballs, I usually look for whiskies with lots of varied flavors and aromas to draw from, as it gives you a little wiggle room to add subtle (or not so subtle) inclusions if you’d like,” says Cory Mendonca of Main St. Provisions in Las Vegas. “Or just gives you some space to play with how different carbonated lengtheners can draw out different notes from the spirit. Johnnie Walker Black Label has been a great go-to recently for this reason.”
While this blended scotch is a bit more expensive than the entry-level Red Label, you can easily find a bottle for under $50 at most stores or online retailers.
Best Splurge: Nikka Coffey Grain
Region: Japan | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Oak
Nikka is Japan’s other major whisky producer, with several distilleries that make a variety of grain and malt whiskies, both peated and unpeated. The Coffey Grain whisky is a grain whisky made at Miyagikyo and is named after Aeneas Coffey who invented the column still. This produces a different kind of distillate from a pot still, and this whisky, in particular, is arguably more bourbon-like than you would expect. Still, it’s light and crisp, and while it might cost close to $100 for a bottle, it’s well worth the splurge if you would like to really go the extra mile with your next highball.
Best Irish Whiskey: Slane Irish Whisky
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Spice, Dried Fruit
“Slane Irish Whiskey’s unique triple cask process shines beautifully in a highball, showcasing its notes of tropical and stone fruits, baking spices, and caramelized sugars,” says Luke Nevin-Gattle, bar manager at Broken Shaker at Freehand in Chicago. “My preferred serve is a Slane Highball built as follows: 1.5 ounces of chilled Slane Irish Whiskey, served over clear ice in a tall glass, with a cold premium sparkling mineral water very gently stirred in, and a garnish of a freshly manicured orange peel.”
Best Scotch: X by Glenmorangie
Region: Scotland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Honey, Pear
This new single malt from Scottish distillery Glenmorangie was designed specifically for mixing in cocktails. Aged in both ex-bourbon barrels and new charred oak casks, it has a bit of a sweeter palate than Glenmorangie Original, which is a spicier dram better suited for sipping on its own. This means that X is entirely suitable to use in a highball, as the flavors expand nicely with seltzer, tonic, ginger ale, or whatever else you decide to use. A slice of lemon will brighten things up here nicely, so don’t forget your garnish!
Related: The Best Scotch Whiskies in 2021
Best Rye Whiskey: Wild Turkey Rye
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50.5% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Cinnamon, Orange
Wild Turkey is best known for its classic 101 proof bourbon, but the distillery also makes an affordable rye, also at 101 proof, that should not be overlooked. This is a rye whiskey with a rye content that hovers right around the legally required amount (51 percent), so the spice is present but not nearly as present as it is in the many 95-100 percent rye whiskeys out there.
Try this one in your next highball for a refreshing drink that has a bit of spice but will still play well with a bit of citrus or even a slice of pear.
Related: The Best Rye Whiskeys in 2021
Best Bourbon: Maker’s Mark
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Butterscotch, Vanilla, Citrus
Good bourbon can work wonderfully in a highball, particularly if wheat is used as the secondary grain in the mash bill instead of rye. The palate will be a bit sweeter in a wheated bourbon, so a good way to counterbalance this is to make a highball with ginger ale for the bit of spice it provides. And Maker’s has a bit higher proof than similarly priced bourbons, which means it stands up to such a simple usage and provides an extra burst of flavor and heat in the drink.
“Most of my clientele in Atlanta prefer Maker’s Mark with ginger ale to accentuate this whisky’s notes of caramel and vanilla." — Thandi Walton, lead bartender at Bar Margot, Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta
Best Blended: Compass Box Artist’s Blend
Region: Scotland | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Baked apple, Vanilla, Spice
“If I am looking to have a scotch highball, which is my favorite style, I am looking for a scotch that is the perfect combination between quality and affordability,” says Deke Dunne, bar supervisor at Allegory at the Eaton Hotel.
“Compass Box Artist’s Blend is a blended whisky that has both deliciously fruity notes and seasonal spices, which means it works beautifully in the summer, winter, or anywhere in between. It has a big body that holds up very well when mixed with soda or mineral water. Plus, it is also relatively affordable, coming in around $40. Artist’s Blend highballs are going to keep you very happy all summer long.”
The best whisk(e)y to use in a highball is Toki (view at Drizly), an affordable Japanese blend from Suntory. Besides its reasonable price and wide availability, Toki has the right balance of sweet and spice on the palate, with just the faintest whiff of smoke, and does not overpower this simple, refreshing, and approachable cocktail. This is a great whisky for anyone who is new to making (or drinking) a highball that will not disappoint.
What to Look for
Obviously, whiskey (and whisky) runs the gamut as far as proof and tasting notes. But for a highball, a lighter style is generally the way to go, something that won’t dominate your palate with flavor and an ABV that is too high. The point of this drink is to be refreshing, and maybe even one that you can down a few of in one sitting. The whiskey also doesn’t have to be very expensive since you will be mixing and diluting it, but by all means, get something special if you feel compelled to do so.
What makes a whiskey work well in a highball?
This depends on your palate, but usually something light and flavorful in the 80-90 proof range. It can be smoky, spicy, or sweet, but with enough punch to shine in this simple and refreshing drink.
What type of whiskey is ideal for a highball?
Japanese whisky is a very popular choice, particularly the less expensive blends. A nice, smoky blended scotch is a good way to go as well, perhaps something with a cask finish for an extra burst of flavor. But you can experiment with other types of whiskey as well, from Irish to bourbon to Indian single malt.
What's the best ratio of whiskey to soda in a highball?
The general rule is to use a 4:1 ratio of soda water to whiskey. This allows you to enjoy the drink and experience the art of its simplicity without getting bogged down in booze. This is not meant to be a spirits-forward cocktail like a Manhattan.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.
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