If you judge by volume consumed in a lifetime, the Highball is easily my favorite mixed drink. So I find its recent elevation by the Japanese bar culture, with its reverent ceremony, gratifying. However, their slow build approach—chiseling ice, layering components and stirring exactly 13 1/2 times, puts a damper on the consumption angle. Therefore, herewith is a primer on the drink without the ritual.
Spirit content: A Highball is technically almost any spirit and mixer served in a Highball glass, but we’ll ignore Gin & Tonics and Rum & Cokes and narrow the focus to brown liquor with sparkling water. Traditionally this meant blended Scotch, but any whiskey can improve the taste of seltzer—and vice-versa. Japan has developed its own whiskies—such as Suntory Toki—specifically for that purpose. The Canadian whisky drinkers of the Mad-Men era understood that bubbles added burst to that smooth alcohol. Almost any straight rye or Bourbon has the stamina for this drink. And don’t feel that it’s a waste of precious single malts, especially peaty ones that give up their marine notes in a spray of club soda. And lest we forget, Jeeves regularly served B&S (Brandy & Soda) to rescue the hapless Bertie Wooster from a funk.
The proportion: This is totally subjective. The Japanese lean to lower-proof ratios, but if you’re using a high-quality spirit you might want to start at one-to-one and fine-tune in stronger or weaker proportions from there.
The glass: As the name implies this is key. A Highball should come in a tall, thin vessel—the better to distribute ice throughout the liquid and keep the surface area (where it loses fizz) to a minimum. Taller, thinner Tom Collins glasses are just as good. Tubby Old-Fashioned glasses are unacceptable and should be sent back to the bartender with a stern talking to. Twelve ounces is maximum capacity. If you’re feeling underserved, order a second.
The additive: The Seven & Seven notwithstanding, we’re talking carbon dioxide and pure water, not soda pop. The choice is seltzer water or club soda (the latter contains salt). If your barman is gunning down your drink with soda from a hose, dismiss him. Bottled soda is fine in small (circa eight-ounce) formats. Vessels defined in liters lose fizz on the way down. Or you can make your own—with your choice of water. The old-school soda syphon is fun for its Three Stooges theatrics, but more convenient are gadgets like SodaStream and Drinkmate (see page 160), which let you customize the amount of CO2 with fewer or more blasts.
Ice: Speedy melting makes crushed and chipped ice the enemy. Large square cubes stack nicely in a highball glass and offer consistent cooling throughout the drink. If you don’t want to spend precious drinking time prepping ice with a chisel, get a classic ice tray. Some home icemakers even dispense ice that stands up to dilution. A universal Highball rule of thumb: If you find clear liquid and no ice in the last inch of the glass, something has gone terribly wrong.