This week on Master of Malt, we’re celebrating all things Highball-shaped, that most versatile of cocktails. In particular, we’re making a special version with Nikka Days Japanese whisky called the Hokkaido 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 an citrus twist, and a dash of fruit bitters. From there you can experiment with syrups, vermouth and all manner of things. Last year, Johnnie Walker released a series of bottled Highballs in conjunction with 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 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 Hokkaido Highball. It’s named after the island where Nikka’s founder Masataka Taketsuru built his first distillery, Yoichi. However, this was one of the products in the Nikka range that was reclassified earlier this year 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 citrussy side with Something & Nothing Yuzu Seltzer but if you want to keep things simple, just use soda water and give it a squeeze of grapefruit, lemon or orange, and drop the piece in. Nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer’s day.

How to make a Hokkaido Highball

50ml Nikka Days
100ml Something & Nothing Yuzu Seltzer

Pour whisky into a tall glass filled with large ice cubes. Top up with seltzer. Stir, and garnish with a slice of lemon.

Join us for our Highball Champions live tasting on the 12 August at 7pm (BST) with special guests from Nikka Days, Brenne, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, and Mijenta Tequila. Click here to join us on YouTube on the day.