Thanks to the increasingly imaginative world of modern mixology, drink descriptions now come with rosters of ingredients: small-batch liqueurs, housemade shrubs and syrups, pickled garnishes, and even smoke infusions. That’s all well and good when you’re in the mood for pomp and circumstance in a glass, but when it’s minimalism you seek, say hello to the highball. Though the classic cocktail may be short on ingredients, it’s long on understated elegance.
What is it?
By definition, a highball is made up of a single spirit and soda water served over ice in a tall glass. While any kind of booze is technically fair game, whisky has become the most ubiquitous. As for what sets it apart from a plain ol’ whisky-soda, Steen Bojsen-Moller, beverage director for hospitality group F10 Creative and owner of cocktail lounge Seymour’s in Palm Springs, says it’s all about “really good ingredients.” He’s added a Japanese highball to the menu at Palm Springs steakhouse Mr. Lyons that incorporates Suntory Toki whisky from Japan, East Imperial soda water from an artesian spring in New Zealand, and a slice of lemon.
“We put the chilled highball glass out with the whisky in there, on good ice, pour in a little soda water and send out the bottle alongside it, “Bojsen-Moller explains, “so then people can top it up from there if they want.” Though most recipes call for two-to-four parts soda to one part whisky, being able to customize the booze-to-soda ratio is certainly a perk — as is the fact that the carbonation does the mixing. Bojsen-Moller says, “It’s a built cocktail.”
Where is it from?
As with many staples of the bar world, the highball’s history varies depending on who you ask. Some swear it dates back to a bubbly brandy concoction in London first whipped up in the late 1700s, while others say it popped up in the U.S. more than a century later, named after ball-pole contraption on railways that signals to trains to proceed at full speed since the drink can be made rather rapidly. One thing is clear: The whisky-based version rose to popularity in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, and had ebbs and flow of interest over the next several decades as the highball became a way to deliver high-octane whisky in a lower-alcohol package.
Why is it hip again?
Behemoth Japanese whisky distiller Suntory began the push to bring the highball back into favor in recent years. While its offerings have been historically high-priced, especially in North America, it changed the game in 2016 when it released its more affordable blended Toki, making smooth Japanese whisky-based highballs less cost-prohibitive. Then, there was the renewed interest in Suntory’s shiny highball machines, which blend the booze with sparkly soda water and pump the whole thing through a draft system à la beer on tap. Though they’ve been in use in Japanese bars for decades, American bartenders are getting hot for highballs, with some importing the sleek systems and others simply adding classic highballs or their own spins on the sessionable sipper to their drink lists.
“There are whole menus built around highballs now,” Bojsen-Moller says. Colony Palms Hotel’s Purple Palm restaurant in Palm Springs offers six whimsical plays on the classic, such as rye and root beer and Mezcal mixed with prickly pear soda. Over the last few years, multiple Los Angeles venues opened with cocktail programs focused almost entirely on highballs, including downtown L.A.’s ’80s-esque The Slipper Clutch and Highland Park’s vinyl bar Gold Line.
What do you pour it in?
A tall, slender highball glass is an excuse to be as simple or as stylish as possible, notes Leslle Sarego, assistant manager of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. “Because there’s more surface space,” she says, “you can see the patterns more.” Given the area’s love of all things midcentury, Sarego says groovy highball glasses from the ’50s and ’60s are popular finds. “They have great patterns and designs,” she says. “The ’50s was minimalist modern, but the ’60s was pops of color — and gold and metallics were very big.”
As for why old-school highball designs were, well, so much cooler back in the day, Sarego says, “I think people socialized and entertained more at home. It was important to have all of these things to make the evening more special. Now, people are trying to replicate that midcentury look in a modern way, and barware is an easy way to do that.”
When do you drink?
In Japan, highballs have long been popular for pairing with food, from sushi to izakaya, as an effervescent alternative to a beer. But they’re also good for kicking off an evening, according to Bojsen-Moller. “A highball is super refreshing, and you can stretch it out a little, so it’s a great first or second cocktail of the night,” he says, adding that you might want to move on afterward. “It’s probably not what you’d want to be hitting at 10 o’clock at night following a big meal.”
Mr. Lyons’ Japanese Highball
2 ounces Suntory Toki Whiskey East Imperial Soda Water to taste Lemon slice
Pour 2 ounces of Toki over one large ice spear or four cubes in a chilled highball glass.
Serve East Imperial Soda water bottle on the side and add to desired taste. Garnish with a slice of lemon.