September is a very strange month. While it’s still technically summer until the 22nd, it feels like fall is already here. That’s likely because kids are back in school, sweaters are starting to be taken out of storage, flip-flops are being put away until the spring, and everything from candles to cappuccinos seem to be doused in pumpkin spice. But even though the world seems to want us to move on from summer ’23, we’re just not ready to say goodbye to seemingly endless days in the sun (even though the days are quickly getting shorter). That’s why we’re going to sip on a few summery, whiskey-based cocktails before we finally wave goodbye to this epic summer. Specifically, a whiskey highball.
For those unaware, a whiskey highball is simply a tall drink (a mixed drink that’s served in a tall glass as opposed to a short, rocks-style glass) that consists of ice, your favorite whiskey (usually Scotch or Japanese whisky, but any whiskey will do), and a mixer like soda water, seltzer, or ginger ale (also a lime wedge if you’re into that sort of thing). It’s a great drink for the end of summer because it has a light, effervescent mixer as well as the rich, malty, warming whiskey. This is why we believe the whiskey highball is the best gateway cocktail between summer and fall.
And while there’s a good chance you’ll make your end-of-the-summer whiskey highball with bourbon, you should know that this drink’s genesis can actually be traced to the other side of the world. Specifically, in the whisky-loving country of Japan. Japanese bartenders have been crafting whisky highballs since the 1920s. Yes, you read that right. And while the drink fell out of popularity in the middle part of the 20th century, it returned in full force in the last few decades.
“While there’s a good chance you’ll make your end-of-the-summer whiskey highball with bourbon, you should know that this drink’s genesis can actually be traced to the other side of the world.”
But like with any popular cocktail, there are disputing histories. Some suggest that the US is actually the country in which this drink originated as far back as 1895 when an English actor strolled into a New York bar and requested what we’d now refer to as a Scotch highball. In yet another potential story, Tommy Dewar (who you know from the blended Scotch brand Dewar’s) claimed to have ordered a drink of Scotch, soda, lemon, and ice in 1892. While we may never know who really created this iconic drink, we don’t really worry about it. We’ll just mix it up and drink it as we enjoy the last evenings of the summer.
The Standard Whiskey Highball Recipe
The basic whiskey highball is one of the easiest, freshest, smoothest end-of-summer cocktails ever conceived. If you don’t want to add a slice of lime, all you need is your favorite whiskey and a mixer.
Simply add two ounces of Scotch whisky, bourbon, rye, Japanese whisky, or your favorite whiskey to an ice-filled highball glass (or a pint glass if that’s all you have on hand) and top with ginger ale, soda water, seltzer, or any other sparkling water (probably not tonic unless you want a funky-tasting whiskey highball). That means you’ll likely add between four and six ounces of your preferred mixer. Give it a gentle stir and take a sip of that deliciousness. Simple, elegant, and perfect.
- 2 oz Whiskey
- 4-6 oz Ginger Ale, Soda Water, of Seltzer
- Garnish with a slice of lime
Pick the Right Whiskey
Since a whiskey highball pretty much consists of two simple ingredients, the whiskey you choose is very important and can drastically impact the overall flavor of the drink (especially the flavor when paired with certain mixers). While whiskey highball purists will tell you that there are no better choices than Scotch whisky and Japanese whisky, we’re not here to tell you to keep the other types of whiskey on your home bar cart.
“Bourbon adds a sweet element, and rye adds a little spicy kick. We suggest saving the rye whiskey highballs for the unseasonably cold evenings to come.”
Even though the aforementioned whiskies are more traditional and offer flavors like vanilla, candied orange peels, and oak to your mixed drink, bourbon adds a sweet element, and rye adds a little spicy kick. We suggest saving the rye whiskey highballs for the unseasonably cold evenings to come.
Pick the Right Mixer
Once you pick your whiskey of choice, it’s time to pick the appropriate mixer to pair with it. If you’re asking our opinion (and you probably are if you’re reading this), we go with soda water regardless of which whiskey we choose. That’s because it’s the least flavorful of the options and allows the whiskey to shine. But nobody will fault you for having a bit of a sweet tooth and adding slightly spicy, sweet ginger ale. Seltzer is similar to soda water. Honestly, any sparkling water will do.
The Muddled History of the Whiskey Highball
While the history of the drink is disputed, the name has two potential sources. Either from a railroad term or from the fact that in the 1800s, a dram of whiskey was often referred to as a “ball” in England and Ireland. As we mentioned briefly above, some people believe the whiskey highball was first created in the United States in the late 1800s or early 1900s as it appeared in two different bartenders’ manuals in 1895 and 1900. John Dewer laid claim to its invention in 1892 and, of course, there’s the Japanese history of the drink which we’ll go into greater detail below.
The Japanese Whisky Highball
Others believe that the drink was actually created in the 1920s in Japan. This was when Shinijiro Torii, the creator of the now iconic Suntory brand decided to open a chain of whiskey-centric bars throughout Japan. They were called Torys and they specifically served whisky highballs made with his Japanese whisky. They were an instant hit and remained that way until the middle part of the 20th century only for enthusiasm to return as whisky once again gained in popularity.
A Drink to Bridge The Gap Between Summer and Fall
As we mentioned before, there are few cocktails better than the whiskey highball when it comes to transitioning from summer to fall. While this sweet, crisp, refreshing drink is well-suited for humid, hot, sunny summer days, we believe the mix of warming, sweet, rich whiskey and sparkling water is ideal for the late summer and early fall. The time of year when the weather can’t decide what season it is. The mornings and evenings are surprisingly cool, and the days are still fairly warm. That’s why we implore you to grab your favorite whiskey (or try a new one), buy some mixers, and whip up a few whiskey highballs tonight. Sit on a back porch, deck, or patio, grab a light sweater or jacket, and enjoy this perfect cocktail.
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