These highball cocktail recipes make for really excellent day drinking


Written by:

“Theoretically uncomplicated, their very simplicity dictates that they be properly made, or they will be disappointing.” So Masahiro Urushido, bartender and owner of NYC’s Katana Kitten, writes in his book The Japanese Art of the Cocktail about the highball. His book includes an entire section of beautiful riffs on the humble highball, which most of us know as spirit, sparkling mixer, and sometimes juice (think gin & tonic or Paloma). But there’s much more to this easy-drinking combo to explore.

The Nice and Easy Option

In general, the highball lends itself nicely to mellow daytime drinking (excluding potent potables like the Long Island Iced Tea). First, they’re easy to make. It’s a tried-and-true category dating back to the 1800s, and many two- or three-ingredient drinks are popularly served in a highball format.


Responsible Day Drinking


Second, the highball is useful for those looking to control, reduce, or eliminate alcohol intake while still enjoying a lovely drink, in other words “responsible day drinking.” Since many consist of a couple ounces of hard spirit, topped with soda and/or juice, they’re already diluted. It’s fairly easy to adjust the proportions to allow for more or less alcohol. In fact, the Japanese whisky highball is all about proportions (more on that in a moment). In addition, many of the recent zero-alcohol spirits now on the market work incredibly well in the highball format. I’ve had no-alcohol (NA) gin & tonics that taste so authentic they’ve left me wondering if I actually could have a second sans repercussions (spoiler: I could).
All that said, highballs are an unusual category as a bar menu focus, but it’s happening more often. It can feel weird to lay out $16 for vodka with some cranberry juice and a lime in it. On the other hand, proportions and ingredient quality can make or break an otherwise uncomplicated drink.

“Highballs, at their essence, are about simplicity,” says Colin Berger, bar manager at the newest outpost of high-concept steakhouse Rare Society, in Mill Creek, Washington. “I am a big believer in not complicating something that is delicious ‘as is.’ My favorite take on the highball uses high-quality soda water, a mild rye whiskey infused with green apple, and lemon peel.”

Variations on a Theme

Of course, the category also lends itself to an endless array of riffs, embellishments and innovations. At The Other Room, a craft cocktail spot in Lincoln, Nebraska, bar manager Jordan Gish notes that highballs on the menu change frequently. “They vary a lot based on what fruits, veggies, herbs and flavors are in season. We also like to use different spirits as well.” One of the bar’s most popular highballs, Dragon’s Blood is a complex blend of white rum, barley shochu infused with Thai chilies and ginger, blood orange, lime, a five-spice-infused honey and housemade blood orange soda. The drink was crafted and perfected by bartender Kyler Faerwald, who now holds court at Death & Co’s Denver location.

In Portland, Maine, you’ll find The Danforth: a cozy New England restaurant recently opened by the Death & Co team (they’re everywhere!) through their hospitality group Gin & Luck. Here you can order a Jukebox Highball. Scotch whisky, cherry liqueur and toasted oat soda water make for a daring blend of earth notes, candied fruits, and a hint of vanilla sweetness. Perfect for pairing with the many roasted veggie dishes on the menu or the restaurant’s signature take on Pigs in a Blanket.

The Highball Machine

Suntory Toki Highball Machine

Of all the highball trends out there, the Suntory Toki Highball Machine might be the most fun. Whisky-and-soda highballs have taken off in Japan over the past couple of decades, with a particular emphasis on pre-chilled ingredients and exacting proportions, featuring the light-bodied, fruit-driven whiskies for which Japan is well known. Suntory has created a mini-industry out of this fact with its highball machine, emphasizing Toki, its contemporary blended whisky that is easy drinking, with silky hints of fruit and spice. Urushido notes in his book that he’s been told by Suntory that Katana Kitten sells more Toki highballs than any other bar in the world. Bartenders can program specific proportions (giving each bar a claim of proprietary uniqueness), and finish drinks off with intriguing garnishes, bitters, and more.

Kaiyo Rooftop Bar photo credit Kaiyo

“Our staff definitely nerds out on the machine with our guests,” says Carl Brown of San Francisco’s tropics-themed Kaiyo Rooftop, where the Toki highball machine is often a surprise for guests. “They’ll ask what it is and when we explain it, they’re very excited to try a highball.”

The interactivity between guest, bartender and machine help elevate the simple whisky soda to something worthy of a night out. A specific feature of the machine is its ability to create particularly high carbonation levels in the soda. “We recently held a water-tasting where we compared the carbonated water produced by the highball machine against a well-known imported carbonated water, says Mike Lerman, general manager at California’s Tetra Hotel and its Japanese themed bar Nokori. “The difference was so clear (no pun intended).” The very fine bubbles and aggressive effervescence creates a “creaminess,” Lerman notes. You’re essentially getting a sort of whisky “champagne.” “When you choose the setting that includes the whiskey and you see how it is so uniformly combined it is as it’s dispensed, it’s really hard to go back to a hand-mixed highball.”

For those seeking a different spirit (these machines are only allowed to dispense Toki), all three restaurants have a respectable menu of creative highballs. Bartenders can also dispense only the machine’s carbonated water and mix up a drink with whatever the customer requests, though they may not always advertise that fact.

As mentioned previously, the highball also slides effortlessly into low-ABV and zero alcohol / non-alcohol trends. Combined with tonic or sparkling water and lime over crackling ice, an NA gin or low-ABV liqueur is bright, refreshing, and will help keep you clear-headed on a sunny afternoon. One of the niftier trends we’re seeing is using an aperitif or digestif in place a stronger alcohol and pairing it with umami-driven juices. A bitter red Italian aperitif sidles up to grapefruit juice and soda nicely, while a milder liqueur like Sorel (hibiscus) or Cordusio (berries, not yet available in the U.S.) is complemented by pineapple or yuzu juice and a little cinnamon simple syrup, or alternatively, topped with ginger beer and lime. Play with the proportions till you hit the sweet spot that works for you.

“I think the biggest appeal to a great whisky-and-soda is that you can have a delicious beverage and not get too intoxicated,” says Brown. “Which was why the whisky highball was created in the first place. And the carbonation can bring out more flavor from a spirit, so you can taste subtle notes you might not find sipping it neat or on the rocks.”

Zero Proof Options

At Allegory—an art-driven craft spot in Washington D.C.—you’ll always find zero-alcohol cocktails on both the bar’s regular menu and its pared-down companion Library Menu, a category for which the Highball was seemingly born to highlight. The Mimsy, created by Deke Dunne, is described as a “highball meets a root beer soda.” It’s an earthy melange of dandelion root tea, fig, root beer, cocoa, vanilla, and sparkling water. Verjus—an acidic juice made from unripe grapes, crab apples or similar tart fruits—is a popular ingredient in NA cocktails, adding the bitter notes found in aperitifs, offsetting the often too-sweet character of traditional mocktails. Among the many rotating NA drinks on the menu at NYC’s posh Mediterranean restaurant IRIS, you can sip on the Herbed Verjus Highball, described as a “cross between a white wine spritz and a gin & tonic.”

RTD Highballs

These days, you’ll also find a lot of canned cocktails billed as “highballs” which may seem a bit lazy. The House of Botanicals recently pointed out how easy it is to make your own hard seltzers at home, for a fraction of the price of a case of White Claw. Still, reaching for a chilled canned cocktail at a picnic is pretty nifty. LA-based distillery Greenbar recently unveiled a broad range of canned Highballs and Spritzes in both alcohol and no-alcohol versions. Canned Whiskey + Soda, Gin + Tonic, and Rum + Cola (along with an UnGin + Tonic and UnRum + Cola) are made using the distillery’s own spirits and fairly complex mix of spices and other natural flavors. You can drink them straight from the can or bottle, but we recommend pouring them over ice into a highball glass (or plastic cup at the beach). Not only does it add to the overall experience, you’ll end up savoring your drink over a longer time. Add bitters and a creative garnish to really bring that canned cocktail to life!

8 Highball Recipes

Mr Process

Daniel Lee, bartender at Big Bar, LA

1 oz Singani 63

1 oz London dry gin

.5 oz Cointreau

1.5 oz lychee shrub

.5 oz lemon juice

Absinthe rinse

4 oz kombu water (seaweed-infused water)

Rinse a highball glass with a small amount of absinthe and discard. Fill with cube ice. In a cocktail shaker combine all other ingredients with ice, shake and strain into the highball glass. Garnish with lychee fruit.

Jukebox Highball

JukeBox Highball The Danforth photo credit Nicole Wolff

Tyson Buhler, The Danforth, Portland ME

1.5 oz Famous Grouse Blended Scotch

1 tsp Lazzaroni Maraschino

1 tsp Clear Creek Kirsch

4 oz toasted oat water

.75 oz vanilla syrup

2 oz lime soda

Combine all ingredients except soda in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a highball glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a large, fresh cherry. (NOTE: The Danforth uses a fancy lime acid and phosphate, batches large servings, and kegs the whole thing under pressure)

Martini Highball

Martini Highball photo courtesy Alex Jump

by Alex Jump (Hotaling & Co Cocktail Council)

1 oz Junipero Gin

1 oz Blanc (dry) Vermouth

Seltzer to Top

2 dashes orange bitters

In a mixing glass filled with ice, combine gin and vermouth. Stir well to chill, strain into a Highball glass filled with fresh ice. Top with seltzer and bitters, stir lightly to mix. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Tomatoes R Us (Zero Proof)

NA Tomatoes R US photo credit Nomad London

NoMad London

.5 oz agave nectar

.75 oz verjus

2 oz tomato water

2 oz club soda (to top)

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients except club soda. Shake well and strain into a highball glass filled with fresh cube ice. Top with club soda and stir lightly to blend.

Seeking boozy tomato-themed highballs? Check out Kelly Magyaric’s round-up, featuring a tomato Paloma and a “Clear Mary.”

Kombucha Chilcano

by Glendon Hartley (Service Bar, Washington D.C. / Hotaling and Co Cocktail Council)

Kombucha Chilcano photo credit Glendon Hartley

1 oz Barsol Pisco

2 oz citrus kombucha

2 oz ginger ale or ginger beer (read more about ginger beers for cocktails)

Dash Angostura Bitters

Lime wedge

In a Highball glass filled with fresh ice, combine kombucha, ginger ale and Pisco. Squeeze lime wedge and stir lightly to combine. Dash with bitters and garnish with lime and a straw.

His Highball

The Desmond, San Diego

His Highball Cocktail photo credit The Desmond

2 oz raspberry infused tequila

.5 oz fresh grapefruit juice

.5 oz fresh lime juice

Pamplemousse sparkling water to top

Dash Peychaud’s bitters

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine tequila and juices. Shake well and strain into a highball glass filled with fresh ice. Top with grapefruit sparkling water and stir lightly to mix. Garnish with fresh raspberries.

Shiso Gin & Tonic

From Japanese Art of the Cocktail By Masahiro Urushido

Art of Japanese Cocktail Toki Highball

1.5 oz London dry gin

.75 oz shiso quinine cordial*

.5 oz fresh lime juice

Soda water, chilled, to Top

Shiso leaf for garnish

Stack cube ice in a very chilled glass beer stein. Add gin, cordial and lime juice, stir. Top with soda water and stir lightly. Garnish with shiso leaf.

*for the cordial: In a medium bowl, muddle the zest of three limes and combine well with 1.5 cups granulated sugar. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Add 20 fresh shiso leaves, muddle, cover, and let stand for another 30 minutes. Add 1.5 cups of cold water, .75 oz quinine concentrate, and 1/4 tsp malic acid. Stir well until the sugar dissolves. Strain through a cheesecloth into a glass container (makes 2 cups). It can be refrigerated and used for up to a month.

Tony’s Festive Mule

By Tony Abou-Ganim

Tony’s Festive Mule

1.5 oz Tito’s Vodka (or your favorite vodka)

.5 oz spiced cranberry-orange syrup*

.5 oz fresh lime juice

4 oz Q Ginger Beer

Mint sprig for garnish

In a shaker, add vodka, lime juice and simple syrup. Shake well and strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Top with chilled Q Ginger Beer and stir lightly to mix. Garnish with fresh mint sprig.

*For the simple syrup: Combine 1 cup sugar, 1 cup cranberry juice, the peel from 1 orange (with as little pith as possible), 2 cloves and 1 cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring well. Cool and strain into an empty bottle. Keeps, refrigerated, for one to two months.

This article originally appeared on Alcohol Professor and was syndicated by MediaFeed.