We’re celebrating all things boozy and Japanese on Master of Malt at the moment. This is why we’re making a cocktail that particularly suits a blended Japanese whisky like Nikka Days. It’s the Highball!

The Highball is a very broad church. It simply refers to a cocktail made from a spirit diluted with some kind of fizzy liquid. So a G&T is a kind of Highball, as is a Horse’s Neck and a Cuba Libre. But when most people think of a Highball, it tends to be a mixture of whisky, ice, and soda.

What is a Highball?

The word originated in America in the late 19th century during the golden age of cocktails. Sadly, like everything else from this period, its origins are murky. Perhaps because of all the cocktails that people were drinking at the time. Apparently, the word ‘ball’ used to mean a slug of whisky in the glass and ‘high’ because the glass is tall. Or it might have something to do with steam engines – apparently ‘highballing’ means the locomotive was at full steam.

Until recently, the word had become rather archaic, like a Rickey or a Cobbler. Having a Highball before lunch belonged to a generation who came of age before the Second World War. My grandmother had a whisky and soda every day at 12 noon, and she lived to be 94.

But now Highballs are back with trendy bars around the world having lists of different ones. The revival came from Japan where they know a thing or two about taking other people’s inventions and making them just a bit better. Japanese bars elevated this simple mixture of ice, water, and whisky to an art form. In some, the whisky and soda were pre-mixed, and came out of a tap. Not sure my grandmother would approve.

Nikka Days Highball 2 credit photo Joann Pai (1)

A Highball can be as simple as this

Bartenders love Highballs

The reason bartenders love Highballs is their sheer versatility. You can start with a simple mixture of whisky and soda water, and then customise it. Try adding a citrus twist, and a dash of fruit bitters. From there you can experiment with syrups, vermouth, and all manner of things. In 2020, Johnnie Walker released a series of bottled Highballs in conjunction with the Indian restaurant Brigadiers in London. They contained all kinds of exciting ingredients like oolong tea, Amontillado sherry, and mango, the most exotic of all the fruits. 

But if you’re making a classic Highball, the most important ingredient is the whisky. My grandmother wouldn’t touch anything except Famous Grouse. Woe betide you if you reached for the J&B or, worse still, a single malt. But actually, some malts can be great mixed with soda water. I’m particularly partial to Talisker 10 Year Old, especially with orange peel, soda, and orange bitters. The things to avoid are very old whiskies with lots of wood and sherry, but then you’re hardly going to use your 25 year old Glenfarclas to make a Highball.

As you’d expect, the Japanese are pretty good at producing Highball-friendly blends. For this week’s cocktail, I’m using Nikka Days to make a Highball. This was one of the products in the Nikka range that were reclassified in 2021 as it doesn’t conform to the new Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association regulations. So it seems more than likely that it contains imported whisky. What we do know is that it’s light, fruity, creamy, and delicious. In other words, a perfect Highball blend.

We’re accentuating its citrus side with a dash of Angostura Orange Bitters, or anything citrussy would work like a dash of triple sec, some orange shrub, or just give it a squeeze of grapefruit, lemon or orange, and drop the piece in. Nothing is more refreshing on a warm day.

How to make a Highball

50ml Nikka Days
100ml soda water
Dash of Angostura Orange Bitters

Whisky and bitters to a tall glass. Give it a good stir and then fills with ice. Add soda, stir again and garnish with a slice of lemon.