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How to Choose the Best Whiskey for a Highball (And Other Highball Mysteries)

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Top down view of a whiskey and ginger ale highball

You’d think for a cocktail with just two ingredients, choosing the best whiskey for a highball wouldn’t be that difficult. On the contrary, with so few ingredients, everything about the preparation of the highball, from the temperature of the ingredients, the type of glass to the whiskey you pour in the drink matters. 

But, the cocktail is also one of the most forgiving cocktails. For me, it’s an ode to fall, with fluctuating temperatures and varieties of whiskey and mixers to add to the cocktail. It’s fast and easy, and one to sip around fire pits and campfires as the seasons change. 

Here’s some information on the highball cocktail in general, including how to choose the best whiskey for a highball. 

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What is a Highball?

A highball is any cocktail with two ingredients that includes a small amount of a base spirit topped with a carbonated non-alcoholic mixer. They’re generally served in a tall, slender, ice-filled glass called a highball glass. Unlike a tall drink, something over about 12 ounces, the highball has a slightly smaller volume, but is still served in tall-ish glass over ice. 

Sometimes it will be served over ice cubes, but now, it’s also popular for a highball to be served over a single ice spear that fits in the glass.

While traditional highballs include only the spirit and the carbonated mixer, today, highballs can also include a small amount of fruit juice. I personally love a highball with a little extra splash of fruit juice and a tiny bit of flavored simple that ties in with flavors found in the whiskey. 

What Whiskey is Best for a Highball?

Choosing the best whiskey for your highball can feel like an identity crisis. Your choice doesn’t just include what brand of whiskey to choose, but also which type of whiskey. From Japanese whiskey, bourbon, rye, Scotch or Irish whisky, the choices feel endless when you consider the possibilities.

I’m going to answer this question with my favorite answer, “It depends.” Here are some items to consider when you are selecting a whiskey for your highball.

1. Consider Your Flavor Preferences

I always suggest you build cocktails to your own flavor preferences. If you have a favorite style of whiskey, start with that type of whiskey first. Generally, I look to a proof around 85 to 95 for a great highball, but I do love the stronger flavors of bourbon. If you prefer Scotch and Irish whiskey, look to 80-90 proof whiskies for your highball build.

Any category of whiskey can be used to build a successful highball. Pick a category of whiskey you love and start there.

2. Think About the Flavors You Want to Highlight

Sometimes I want a slightly smoky, silky highball. On those days I might prefer a smoky blended Scotch. Other days I might want that lovely grainy malt from Irish whiskey – especially if I’m sipping earlier in the day or with brunch. If I prefer to bring out dried fruit flavors I might look to whiskey that’s been aged in a secondary cask.

3. Make Your First Build with Soda Water

To get the truest sense of how the whiskey will play with soda water, you might build a small sip with just a splash of each to see how it tastes. If you want to add secondary flavors, consider adding ginger ale, a flavored seltzer or mineral water.

4. Choose a Quality Whiskey that’s Not Too Expensive

I always want whiskey drinkers to fully enjoy every pour, but I also prefer to save the really expensive whiskies for a neat or rocks pour – or to share with friends. I don’t advocate saving whiskey you hate for cocktails. You’ll end up mixing cocktails you won’t love.

I build highballs with value whiskies. I select whiskies I enjoy, daily drinkers that I love to savor, but ones I find readily available near me.

5. Assertive Whiskies Can Thrive in a Highball

If you have whiskies in your collection that seem to be assertive or aggressive and don’t always meld well in cocktails, pairing them in a high volume cocktail with chilled ingredients and lots of dilution can actually bring out underlying flavors and sweetness from the whiskey. Those overbearing flavors can be lengthened and drawn out in the cocktail, and your palate many uncover other flavor possibilities. 

You’ve likely had a highball without knowing it.  A gin and tonic, rum and coke, vodka tonic, whiskey and ginger, scotch and soda, 7 and 7, Dark and Stormy, Tom Collins, Paloma, rickey, and more are all highballs or descendants of the original combination.

When the primary ingredients are a spirit and a carbonated mixer you’re likely drinking a highball – even if a bit of citrus and simple are added. 

What’s the Best Kind of Whiskey for a Highball?

So many Japanese whiskies flourish in highballs, I love to lean on Japanese whiskey for a great classic highball with soda water. However, if I’m working with ginger ale, I lean toward Irish whiskey or Scotch.

Japanese Whisky Options for Highballs

If you prefer to go the artisan route and want to make something fancy, I suggest using a Japanese whiskey like Toki Suntory or Nikka Coffee Grain whiskey. Both are known as a balanced pour, and Toki, especially, is known in Japan as a great highball base.

American Whiskey Options for Highballs

For days when I want something with more punch and aggressive flavors, I head to an American whiskey. I select a high rye mash bill American rye like New Riff Bottled in Bond Rye, or Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Straight Rye for a highball with a bit more spice and pepper to it. If I prefer a slightly sweeter highball, I’ll select a lower rye mash bill rye whiskey (like Rittenhouse rye or Old Forester Rye) or a high rye bourbon like Four Roses Small Batch or Old Grand Dad.

Irish Whiskey Options for Highballs

I love a great Bushmill’s expression for a great highball – and the Bushmill’s Black Bush whiskey is also a very affordable option. Tullamore D.E.W always makes a great highball, especially with a slightly salty club soda. If you have Slane Irish Whiskey near you, take a moment to create a highball with a 3:1 ratio. I have a fondness for Slane with a high quality ginger beer.

Scotch Whisky Options for Highballs 

Johnnie Walker Black remains a solid choice for a great Scotch highball, but I admit that I also love the smokier options such as a Bowmore for a whiskey highball. The smoke flavors light up with the texture and dilution of the highball cocktail, so don’t choose a smoke bomb like Ardbeg, but something with a balanced smokiness is perfect.

Best Cheap Whiskey for Highball

While we’ve covered how to choose the best whiskey for a highball, I love the surprise of a budget whiskey in a highball. I’ve had the following highballs with budget whiskies and thoroughly enjoyed them.

But there’s more to a highball than just choosing a whisky. 

How Do you Order a Whiskey Highball?

If you prefer a two-ingredient highball, with unflavored carbonated soda, your order is simple – you order a highball. If you have a preference for a brand of whiskey to use, you might order a “Johnnie Walker Highball” or a “Rare Breed Highball.” In these cases, you’ll be ordering your highball with carbonated soda water.

No additional flavor is added with club soda, but if you prefer a flavored carbonate – like ginger ale, a cola, a seltzer, or any other carbonated mixer – you can order that with the highball. 

That means you might order a 7 and 7 if you prefer Seagram’s Seven Crown and 7 Up, a rum and coke, or a ginger ale highball if you prefer to add flavor to your highball with the mixer. It’s a simple matter of preference and one that aims to tie the flavors of the whiskey to the mixers and ingredients.

How to Make a Whiskey Highball?

With so few ingredients, both the quality of the ingredients you’re using and the temperature and dilution of all the elements (including the glass) matter with a highball. 

It’s an easy cocktail to make. Pour your whiskey of choice into the bottom of a chilled highball glass with ice, top with soda to your desired ratio, and serve. Because there are only two ingredients it can be built in the glass so you won’t even need a mixing glass. It’s preferred to use either an ice spear or ice cubes. Cracked ice, nugget ice, or crushed ice are not ideal. 

The garnish is quick if you choose to add one. Generally, a lemon twist adds just a hint of citrus oil to the aromas of the drink. 

Use a high-end soda – one designed for use in bars. Fever-Tree, Q Mixers and Regatta Craft Mixers are all favorites of the bar community.

Besides choosing the whiskey and the type of soda you’ll use, the choice of glassware is paramount. The mouth of the glass should be narrow to slow the release of carbonation at the surface of the drink. 

The interior of the glass is important. In the Cocktail Codex, Death and Company writes that the ideal highball glass should be well-chilled, very smooth inside with no ridges or bumps to keep the mixer well-carbonated as long as possible. Any imperfections on the glass or ice draw the carbonation out of solution in the soda. It turns the soda flat faster.

Thus, making a perfect whiskey highball means keeping the spirit, glass, and any mixers well-chilled before building the cocktail in the glass. Keeping everything at a low temperature prevents the carbonation from bubbling up and out of the cocktail, giving it a lovely texture as you sip. 

What Ratio Do I Use for a Highball?

The ratio for a whiskey highball usually falls between 3:1 and 4:1. The exact ratio depends on the proof of the spirit, the flavors in the whiskey/spirit, and the strength of flavor in the carbonated mixer.  

If you prefer a high proof or cask-strength whiskey, you may opt for a ratio closer to 4:1 to soften the flavors and proof of the whiskey. But, if you choose to make your highball with a whiskey closer to 80 proof, I would recommend a lower ratio of soda/mixer to whiskey.

When you truly have no idea what ratio to use, start with 2:1, and if the whiskey is too strong or overbalanced in the drink, add soda in ½ oz increments until it gets to your preferred flavor level.

Do I Stir a Whiskey Highball?

For a purist, no. The carbonation within the drink will effectively mix the spirit with the carbonated mixer. But if have more than just whiskey in my cocktail, like simple syrup or fruit juice, I will use a bar spoon to pull upward from the bottom of the glass to the top once or twice. 

But no more than that.

Each time you stir or disturb the surface of the highball you’re releasing the CO2 from solution in the drink, turning the mixer flat. If you simply let the highball sit for a few moments, the carbonation blends the flavors of the soda and whiskey together, stirring the cocktail with bubbles as they rise to the surface. 

But for a Japanese Highball You Do Stir

However, the Japanese Highball has been elevated to an art form. There is a very specific way to craft a highball in Japan. Given that any hard edge or ridge in the glass will pull the carbonation out of the drink, ice cubes are stirred in the glass to round out the edges before adding whisky. The water is then discarded.

Add the whiskey, stir for 13 rotations, and add soda to the glass, either tilting it the glass to pour it in at an angle or running it down the grooves of a bar spoon to add it gently to the glass. 

Lift up with a spoon just a bit to combine the soda and the whiskey.

What Are Examples of Highball Drinks?

You’ve likely had a highball without knowing it.  A gin and tonic, rum and coke, vodka tonic, whiskey and ginger, scotch and soda, 7 and 7, Dark and Stormy, Tom Collins, Paloma, rickey, and more are all highballs or descendants of the original combination.

When the primary ingredients are a spirit and a carbonated mixer you’re likely drinking a highball – even if a bit of citrus and simple are added.

How to Garnish a Whiskey Highball

As with all things highball-related – you must choose a garnish to connect with the whiskey but doesn’t overpower it. Many people enjoy a lemon twist or peel added to a highball, but some mixologists prefer a lighter touch.

For some, a slice of apple or a small mint sprig connects with flavors in the whiskey without overwhelming them. I choose a garnish that fits with the mixer. If I’m using ginger ale, I might add a small bit of candied ginger, or coin of orange peel. When using something stronger I might add a more vibrant fruit note to connect to the aroma of the whiskey.

Other Cocktails You Might Enjoy

If you love a highball, try some of these variations, and don’t forget that many spirit and soda combinations are classics built the classic highball:

Recommended Bar Tools

You don’t need every slick, beautiful bar tool out there, but there are several I’ll recommend. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. However, that does not affect the cost of the items below.) My favorite pieces usually come from the Cocktail Kingdom section of Amazon:

You may already have these bar essentials, but just in case:

By on October 1st, 2021
Picture of Heather Wibbels, Cocktail Contessa, pouring a cocktail

About Heather Wibbels

Heather Wibbels is a whiskey and cocktail author (Executive Bourbon Steward, no less) with a passion for cocktails. She loves researching and designing cocktails, drinking cocktails, and teaching cocktails. Mostly whiskey cocktails, given her Kentucky location.

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