Ever since folks have been mixing two parts this with one part that, catchy names—Corpse Reviver, Between the Sheets—have played a key role in establishing a drink’s allure. Chicago’s Jess Lambert calls her rum and chai-spiced cereal milk combo “Adulting is Hard.” Boston’s Ezra Star named her mezcal and cognac-driven “1910” for the year of the Mexican Revolution.
But there was a time when “highball” said it all.
Essentially whiskey and soda over ice in a tall glass, the highball may not be terribly inventive, but it sure fills the bill when you aren’t up to slaving over the bar, or simply want a good belt. It certainly kept folks refreshed in film noir, where every crummy hotel room seemed to come equipped with a bottle and glasses atop a dresser. Not to mention a fresh bucket of ice.
Naturally, the origin of the drink isn’t easy to pin down. The name may refer to an old railroad signal—a ball hoisted on a pole that told the engineer it was OK to proceed at a good speed down the line. Makes sense, when you consider how little time it takes to throw a little whiskey, water, and ice in a glass. “Don’t try and make decent cocktails out of cheap, briefly aged liquors,” urged food and spirits writer Charles H. Baker, Jr. in the 1940s. “Stick to highballs… .”
Some say the drink was concocted—or at least named—by legendary barkeep Patrick Gavin Duffy, at Manhattan’s Ashland House in the late 19th century. Like fizz, sling, shrub, flip, and rickey, highball evolved to become a generic, rather than a specific term. Duffy’s own recipe book, The Official Mixer’s Manual, lists 13 versions. Whether spun of rum or rye, they are all fashioned the same way: “To one Cube of Ice, add 1 Drink of the Liquor desired, fill up with Carbonated Water or Ginger Ale.” Duffy generously also allowed for a lemon peel garnish, which is essentially how you’ll find the highball served in Japan, where a version made with one of the nation’s lighter whiskies is perhaps the most common bar order.
While it’s doubtful you’ll hear anyone these days say, “Hey, let’s grab a couple of highballs,” plenty of the drinks we enjoy—gin and tonic, scotch and soda—are just that. When served properly, these arrive gently poured, in a tall glass. A highball glass, not a Collins glass. What’s the difference? Two ounces. The slightly larger Collins glass (1o to 14 ounces) is meant to accommodate drinks that have more than one mixer and go heavier on the ice. And when you’re having a true highball—booze, water, ice and nothing more—you won’t miss those two ounces.