Whisky highballs and the art of simplicity

In its most essential form the whisky highball is simply a way to lengthen a dram, but over the past century brands and bartenders have turned this humble cocktail into an artform
By Felipe Schrieberg
The Birch Highball, created by award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana. Credit: AwAye Media
The Birch Highball, created by award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana. Credit: AwAye Media
It might seem strange that one of the most popular drinks enjoyed across many countries today is at its core unchanged from its 19th-century origins. The whisky highball is a simple concept: mix together one part whisky to two parts soda water in a glass filled with ice. It’s easy to drink, cool, and refreshing.

Various people throughout history – including whisky magnate Tommy Dewar – have claimed the invention of this libation, which became wildly popular with famous stage actors and subsequently the general public in the early 1900s. Online cocktails, spirits and liqueurs resource Difford’s Guide credits the first written record of the drink to an 1894 play, My Friend From India, when a character calls for a “high ball of whiskey”. The first recorded written recipe emerges in 1895, when bartender and author of The Mixicologist Chris Lawlor calls for using brandy or whiskey (another recipe from this book that is pretty much a whisky highball has the fabulous name The Splificator).

As for the name, drinks historian Gary ‘Gaz’ Regan claims it comes from the word used for the ball indicator in a steam train’s water tank. When it rose high enough to indicate that the train was fully powered and ready to go, the conductor would issue two short whistles and a long one – in the same way that two shots of liquor and a long pour of soda water is used to make the drink.

Nowadays, whisky highballs are a standard item in the menus of top cocktail bars – but this hasn’t always been the case across the drink’s 125-year history, its popularity waxing and waning in tandem with that of whisky. Now, however, in a shift away from previous purist attitudes, the whisky industry is eagerly embracing the humble highball.

To Marius Pop, bar manager at London’s stunning bar Aqua Shard, they are a gateway to introduce consumers to whisky as a category in general. “Whisky highballs are a great way to target guests that would normally not go for whisky at a bar,” he comments. “By mixing them with other liquors that complement the whisky and topping them up with a soda or another fizzy mixer to lower the strength, they become more attractive to a wider crowd with a different palate.”

Award-winning bartender and entrepreneur Ryan ‘Mr Lyan’ Chetiyawardana believes the highball’s flexibility across different drinking contexts makes it a winner.

“In my mind, the drink endures because it hits a perfect balance,” he says. “It’s easy to put together, but with plenty of nuance to it that it really shines in the hands of an expert. It’s customisable, it works for a number of occasions and settings, and it is delicious, even when made sloppily. Given the fact that the drink is dry and clean too, it’s a great choice both for a casual drink and alongside food.”

This current craze for highballs can be traced to a wildly successful marketing campaign originating in Japan in the early 2000s. The drink has long been a cultural staple there, and how highballs are created, distributed and consumed has gone through a steady evolution.

At the end of World War Two, the Yamazaki Distillery, owned by Suntory, emerged undamaged and was able to produce large quantities of affordable whisky; while it was not great quality, it was still better than the watered-down industrial alcohol that was available on the black market. The highball emerged as a way to make this whisky easier to drink, and its popularity increased with the opening of tens of thousands of “Torys Bars” across Japan from the 1950s. Japanese spirits writer and expert Liam McNulty (who writes a blog as ‘Whiskey Richard’) notes that this rise matched Japan’s rapid post-war growth: “The economic miracle enabled a considerable portion of the population to go out after work for drinks, and the whisky highball rapidly became a significant part of that scene.”

In the decades that followed, particularly the ‘80s and ‘90s, whisky fell out of favour around the world – but Suntory managed to turn the decline around in Japan through an innovative and ambitious marketing campaign that is still resonating today. The company found that young people considered whisky too strong, and preferred to start their night with beer. The highball was brought back – only this time, it was to be guzzled in a special highball mug equipped with a handle and poured from a special whisky highball service machine.

“Suntory focused on having one bar serving 300 highballs per day rather than 100 bars serving three highballs per day,” says McNulty. “This was paired with a TV commercial run featuring Koyuki, who outside of Japan is probably best known for her role in The Last Samurai. By the end of 2008, they had 15,000 locations serving the Kaku Highball, and by the end of 2009, it was 60,000 locations.”

Highballs quickly became an important mainstay of Japanese ‘izakayas’ (informal bar venues that could be considered roughly analogous to pubs in the UK or tapas bars in Spain), and shipments of cases increased from 80,000 a year to 800,000 as a result.

Beyond the izakayas, highballs were also adopted as a high-end drink in Japanese cocktail bars. As McNulty observes, “The sky’s the limit when it comes to bartenders’ highball variations and techniques.” The high-end highball trend has now spread to the West, where bartenders are putting their own twists on the classic. All these factors suggest that the highball is here to stay.

This is where we pass the highball baton on to you. We’ve asked a few world-class bartenders to share highball recipes that can be tried at home; some are easier than others, but all of them are delicious.

The New Fashioned cocktail from Distill + Fill. Credit: AwAye Media

New Fashioned

Created by Jenny Griffiths, director at Distill + Fill

Jenny says: “This one for me is the perfect gateway drink into both the highball, and arguably whisky as a category. If it’s a warm, sunny day then throw your shades on and put it in a long-stemmed copa (if you’re that way inclined!); if it’s the colder months, up the whisky to 50ml and curl up with your favourite book.”

  • 35ml Scotch whisky (Jenny recommends Compass Box Artist’s Blend)

  • 150ml Fever-Tree Clementine Tonic

Pop the Scotch and some ice cubes into a chilled highball glass, top with the tonic and give it a stir. Garnish with a thick orange slice.

The Summertime in Kentucky cocktail, from Distill + Fill. Credit: AwAye Media

Summertime in Kentucky

Created by Jenny Griffiths, director at Distill + Fill

Jenny says: “This is my absolute guilty-pleasure highball, born out of lockdown #1. Our household had way too many spirits and nowhere near enough mixers, so to stave off the urge to turn to corner-shop lager, I stocked up on a silly amount of flavoured sparkling water and turned to the highball. This one works with absolutely ANY flavoured water, but for me, peach and bourbon are the best flavour pairing.”

  • 40ml American whiskey (Jenny recommends Buffalo Trace)

  • 150ml peach and passionfruit-flavoured sparkling water

  • 3 dashes absinthe

Add all ingredients to a highball glass with cubed ice and stir briefly. Garnish with a slice of lemon, or fresh peach.

The Smoked Coconut Highball from Ryan Chetiyawardana. Credit: AwAye Media

Smoked Coconut Highball

Created by Ryan Chetiyawardana, award-winning bartender

Ryan says: “This was inspired by tasting through whiskies with various mixers with dear pal Dave Broom for his Whisky Manual book. We both looked at each other at Diageo HQ when the combination of Johnnie Black and coconut water popped up, and this is my little twist on it.”

  • 45ml Johnnie Walker Black Label, ideally from the freezer

  • 45ml coconut water, very cold

  • 1 drop Angostura bitters

  • 90ml soda water, very cold and very fresh

Pour the ingredients over ice in a highball glass and garnish with a sprig of mint.

The Birch Highball from Ryan Chetiyawardana. Credit: AwAye Media

Birch Highball

Created by Ryan Chetiyawardana, award-winning bartender

Ryan says: “I wanted something that celebrated Irish whiskey, and something that felt summery, complex and bright when simply served long. This has all the hallmarks I look for in a great cocktail – it’s simple, complex, adult and dry, and picks out the subtleties of the base spirit. This pulls everything from white flower and peach notes from the whiskey, alongside greener brightness from the botanicals to be reminiscent of a great glass of Champagne.”

  • 50ml Fierfield Birch

  • 120ml soda water, very cold

Pour the ingredients over ice in a highball glass and garnish with a sprig of (lemon) thyme.

The Overseas cocktail, from Aqua Shard. Credit: AwAye Media


Created by Marius Pop, bar manager at Aqua Shard

Marius says: “This is an almost classic whisky highball using elements across the seven seas. Here, the Scotch whisky is aromatised with seaweed so it pairs perfectly with ripe coconut notes topped up with a touch of smoke. The result contains plenty of umami and fresh notes working together.”

  • 30ml Johnnie Walker Black Label infused with seaweed*

  • 10ml Copper Dog

  • 15ml Kleos Mastiha

  • 5ml Mahiki Coconut Rum

  • 1 barspoon Supasawa cocktail mixer

  • Smoky ginger ale (such as Fever-Tree Smoky Ginger Ale)

Add the ingredients to a highball glass filled with ice cubes and top with the smoky ginger ale. Garnish with a burnt lemon wedge on the top of the glass.

*Seaweed-infused Johnnie Walker
Add an A6-sized seaweed sheet to a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. Leave for an hour, then fine strain.

The On The Shore cocktail, from Aqua Shard. Credit: AwAye Media

On The Shore

Created by Marius Pop, bar manager at Aqua Shard

Marius says: “This bubbly, fruity, and fragrant cocktail is inspired by and named after the location of its star ingredient. Distilled and aged on the shores of the Chita village in Japan, I think this whisky pairs beautifully with pineapple and homemade chamomile cordial.”

  • 40ml The Chita Japanese Whisky

  • 30ml chamomile cordial*

  • 10ml pineapple water**

  • 3 drops Angostura bitters

  • Soda water

Stir together the whisky, cordial, pineapple water, and bitters in a mixing glass before straining into a highball glass filled with ice cubes and topping up with soda water. Garnish with a lemon wheel in the glass.

*Chamomile cordial
  • 250ml chamomile tea
  • 250ml agave syrup
  • 1 barspoon citric acid
    Stir together all the ingredients until dissolved.

    **Pineapple water
  • 500ml pineapple juice
  • 1 barspoon agar-agar
    Boil the mixture, let it cool, then strain.