Hand-Selected Recipes and Stories Straight to Your Inbox

jack and coke

Ramona King

A grown-up twist on a classic Jack and Coke


It's high time for an ice cold, sparkly highball cocktail

Back in the '60s when I was growing up, at a certain hour my grandparents would pipe up with, "It's time for a highball!" and an evening of revelry commenced. Later, in the early '80s, I took to sipping a mix of Wild Turkey and ginger ale. It was much later that I learned I was drinking that classic of my grandparents' day, the highball. 

Tall, sparkling and flavored with your spirit of choice, the highball has been around for eons, well, in the United States at least since the early 1900s when we first saw it referred to by its name in the "Bartender's Manual" by Harry Johnson, although there have been references to a similar drink before that. 

We first saw it in England, however, when manufactured sparkling water came about in the 1760s. The simple definition of this also simple drink is your spirit of choice mixed with a much larger proportion of a carbonated liquid like tonic or soda. The classic highball does not have citrus like a Tom Collins does, but in the modern cocktail era, that "rule" has been stretched a bit and you'll find a squeeze of citrus juice and even a drop or three of bitters, infusions, tinctures and liqueurs added. 

highball at a barIt's served with ice in a tall glass, preferably a highball or Collins glass, which is tall, narrow and holds from 10 to 12 ounces. Chill the glass, fill with ice. Then, add your preferably also chilled spirit. I like to keep my white spirits like gin, white rum and vodka in the freezer, but if you know you're going to highball the night away, chill your whiskey, too, because this drink needs to be frosty. Add your also-chilled carbonated beverage. 

I go by expert David Wondrich's rule of thumb, "Less than twice the amount of hooch is too strong, more than three times too weak." No need to stir, thanks to gravity. Spirit, a larger amount of mixer, ice. Simple. 

Many drinks we enjoy fit into the definition and are, therefore, highballs. That gin and tonic? Highball. Vodka tonic? Same. Seven and Seven, rum and Coke (or Cuba Libre), both highballs. A Moscow mule is essentially a highball, as is a Dark and Stormy with ginger brew and rum. So is your Scotch or whiskey and soda. The Presbyterian with Scotch and ginger ale was popular in the Roaring '20s and now, in our new, Golden Age of the Cocktail, variations and enhancements abound. At The Wilder in Portsmouth, find the Dolla Dolla Bill with gin, cream soda and black pepper tincture or their Mule with ginger beer and whatever spirit you like. 

At Kemuri Tatsu-ya in Austin, Texas, the hip izakaya where my daughter, Avalon is a sous chef, Beverage Manager Michael Phillips came up with a highball made with their Kemuri scotch blend, Yuzu and fizz, and the Grapefruit Sour, which comes to the table with a glass of soda and barley shochu, a half a grapefruit and a juicer to add your own citrus. Any of its shochu selection can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks to Mizuwari style, simply mixed with water, a popular Japanese drink.

I've been experimenting with the highball the past year and came up with some interesting combinations. Now that we have all these natural sodas and sparkling water with natural flavors — black cherry, watermelon — and gadgets like the SodaStream for making our own soda, along with flavored or infused spirits galore, making that simple mixed drink becomes far more interesting with the same amount of effort. 
tom collinsI brought back some white birch beer from a trip to Pennsylvania recently. This was great with a highly botanical gin and a squirt of orange, and a light lime sparkling water with Green Chartreuse was wonderful. I've also discovered Escubac, a botanical spirit made in France and I use that instead of gin in my gin and tonic. 

Anyone who reads my stories knows I like my Aquavit, the Scandinavian spirit with flavors of caraway and dill, and recently used celery soda (Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray) to make a highball. If you can't find Cel-Ray, you can make your own celery soda by heating celery in sugar water to make a simple syrup and using a soda-making device to make the soda.

Fentiman's makes a great Dandelion and Burdock soda made from, yes, fermented dandelion and burdock. It makes other botanical sodas like ginger beer, wild English elderflower and a great cherry cola. If you can find its Valencian orange tonic water, try that, too. I also like to add fruit and herbs of the season into whatever highball I'm making. Mint, basil, rosemary and dill are good herbs to use. Muddle it with a fruit, such as peach, blueberries or strawberries, then add your spirit and mixer to the glass of ice. 

Try a Paloma with tequila, lime and grapefruit soda. Do experiment with liqueurs, bitters and all those crazy spirits out there now and create your own refreshing combinations no matter what the season. Just remember — no White Russians after Labor Day (thanks for that line, Megan Brady!). 

Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Austin, Texas. She can be reached by e-mail at rforrest@gatehousemedia.com.

Author image

Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Austin, Texas. She can be reached by e-mail at rforrest@gatehousemedia.com.