One of the most well-known examples of a broad style of cocktails called highballs, the Whiskey Highball comprises just a few simple ingredients: whiskey, soda water, and ice. However, its popularity shows that a drink with only a few ingredients can still showcase a range of complexity.
Drinks in the highball template involve a base spirit combined with a mixer to lengthen, the latter of which is usually carbonated. The drink is built and served in a tall, comparatively narrow glass—the highball glass, or often a similarly shaped Collins glass—which gives ice ample contact with the liquid. This also allows for minimal agitation and creates a narrower opening, which some argue keeps the sparkling drink effervescent for longer by reducing the surface area of the drink.
Highballs encompass a staggering array of popular drinks, from the Gin & Tonic to the Rum & Coke, Vodka Soda, and countless others. But the term highball itself, when used as a modifier, generally refers to a spirit mixed with soda water. While it’s nearly impossible to pin down the origins of who first mixed booze and bubbly water, the practice gained popularity with the industrialization of soda water production in the 1800s, which allowed seltzer to be created and bottled at scale.
Some stories have it that the Brandy and Soda was a favored early combination, but the Scotch & Soda seems to be where the combination of whisky and sparkling water really took off in popular taste. Over the 20th century, as the distribution and reach of regional spirits spread more easily across the globe, the Whiskey Highball rose to prominence, an endlessly modifiable riff on a classic template.
The secret to crafting an excellent Whiskey Highball is in the details. Whiskey quality is important, but not as key as making sure to use a whiskey you truly enjoy—if you wouldn’t prefer to sip it neat, don’t use it in this drink. You’ll also want to use high-quality ice to control both temperature and dilution, and freshly-opened club soda that has been chilled for as long as possible. The colder temperature helps slow the rate at which carbon dioxide molecules escape the water in which they are trapped, effectively dictating whether you feel the fizz on your tongue or if it leaves the glass first.
Rules for creating a Whiskey Highball range from loose to exceedingly strict. Many Japanese bars, for example, have famously perfected their method down to the precise number of revolutions you should stir each glass. However, whiskey choice always remains a matter of preference. Bourbon, rye, wheated whiskey, scotch, or Japanese whisky will all work well. The cocktail is simply meant to enhance and lengthen the base spirit with as little alteration as possible, intended to be in service to the whiskey’s flavor, rather than diluting or masking it.
2 ounces whiskey
4 ounces soda water, chilled
Add the whiskey into a highball glass with ice.
Top with soda water and stir gently and briefly to combine.
What’s The Correct Ratio for a Highball?
Unless otherwise stated, most highballs (including a classic Whiskey Highball) should follow a 2:1 combination of soda water to spirit, or twice as much mixer as alcohol. Not coincidentally, a standard 10-ounce highball glass filled to the top with one-inch cubed ice and two ounces of whiskey will have around four ounces remaining of empty space for soda water. However, the volume of your glass may vary by glassware producer, so if you plan to free-pour your Whiskey Highball, it can help to measure exact proportions once so you know how high to top with soda in the future.