Railroad lingo and whiskey champagne, need we say more?
Want to impress next time you’re out with friends, especially if you’re in Japan? Order your spirit, Haibo-ru-style. This popular style of drink, also known as a Highball, simply means two parts soda water mixed with one part spirit. It stems from Japanese shochu (a grain-based distilled spirit) drinking traditions, but today, it’s typically a whiskey or Scotch-based drink made with soda water served in a tall glass.
This simple yet brilliantly refreshing tipple has been a go-to in Japan since the 1920s and probably the 19th century stateside when carbonate water and soda fountains became the rage. However, the drink didn’t come into its own in Japan until the 50s and 60s when a chain of bars opened called Torys, founded by Suntory Whiskey’s owner Shinjiro Torii, that featured Whisky Highballs. Today, the drink is so prevalent in Japanese culture you can pick up canned Highballs at convenience stores. However, it wasn’t invented there.
Rumors swirl about the original creator, but all evidence points to the United States as the birthplace. In print, it first appeared as the Splificator in The Mixicologistby Chris Lawlor in 1895 and then again in the 1900 version of Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual. Three decades later, in 1895, bartender Patrick Gavin Duffy wrote to The New York Times claiming he served the first Scotch Highball at New York’s Ashland House for English actor E.J. Ratcliffe. Whether or not he deserves credit for the OG Highball, Duffy was an iconic trendsetter in the world of bartending with his 1934 book, Original Mixer Book.
Adding to the tale, around the same time, the infamous wanderer Tommy Dewar while in a New York bar with friends, ordered a glass of Dewar’s Scotch served high with soda, ice, and lemon.
At least the name Highball, however, is much easier to confirm its origin. It’s a railroad term referring to the ball inside a steam train’s water tank. When it was floating at the right level to give the train enough steam power, the conductor would give a signal: two short and one long whistle to signify the crew. And that’s pretty much the formula for a good Highball cocktail.
But, with high-tech Toki Highball machines—created by Suntory Toki—popping up in trendy bars and restaurants across the country since 2017, no need to worry about nailing the perfect proportions. These machines have been touted to deliver a drink so silky-smooth and well-balanced, it’s described as “whiskey champagne.”
And as almost every cocktail category continues to level up in quality and creativity, so has the Highball. As a quintessential thirst quencher in summer months, mixologists are churning out delicious renditions, such as David Mor’s FT101 made with Wild Turkey bourbon, sherry, osmanthus petal syrup, orange ginger ale for Cindy’s Rooftop in Chicago and Lucinda Sterling’s Top Hat made with Benriach Curiositas, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, black pepper simple syrup, basil leaves, soda water for Middle Branch in New York City.
Yep, the Highball trend has left the station and barrelling full-steam ahead to a bar near you, be it stateside or beyond. Give one a try with this simple recipe.
- 2 oz. Dewar’s White Label Whisky
- 6 oz. soda, or ginger ale
Preparation: Fill a Highball glass with ice. Pour whiskey into the glass. Top with soda water.