In Food + Drink

“Simple And Refreshing”: The Cocktail Classic Set To Be Everywhere This Summer

Cocktails trends often come and go like fashion. One season the Aperol spritz is in, the next it’s out like skinny jeans and ombré hair. Seemingly bucking the trend, however, is the whisky highball – a simple and refreshing cocktail with surprising complexity.

One part whisky, two parts mixer, garnished with a lemon wedge and served over ice in a highball glass; the whisky highball is as simple as it is delicious. Unlike some cocktails, whisky remains the star of the show, with other ingredients used to complement its flavour.

The whisky culture of Japan is often cited as the driving force behind the current highball trend, particularly in eclectic bar scene of Tokyo. The narrow, neon sign-filled streets of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai precinct is a great place to discover this rich culture in person.

Yet, the origins of this classic drink actually lie a continent away in merry old England.

Image: Miguel Maldonado / Unsplash

Its origins

Back in the late 19th Century, at a time when carbonated water was becoming more readily available, the English upper class discovered the delight of mixing brandy and soda water. This experimentation soon spread to scotch, and the classic scotch and soda was born.

A highball glass was allegedly added to the mix by the Americans in the 1890s, although this is still somewhat disputed. Regardless of who is ultimately responsible for the whisky highball is its current form, it’s fair to say managed the impossible and improved on perfection.

Image: Maybe Sammy

Sydney hospitality star Stefano Catino, co-owner of Maybe Sammy in Sydney’s The Rocks, recently voted number 43 globally in The World’s 50 Best Bars 2019, is a big fan of the highball renaissance.

Why the resurgence? 

“It’s a classic,” says Catino. “Like anything in fashion, trends always come back around, and they were popular the first time around for good reason.”

His award-winning venue, which he fondly describes as ‘a hotel bar minus the hotel’, was inspired by the Golden Age of the 1950s, a time when the Rat Pack and Hollywood glamour reigned supreme. As you can imagine, the cocktail menu is a similar vintage too.

Flip through the menu and you’ll see odes to some of the most iconic cocktails of all time, including their own tropical spin on the whisky highball – the ‘Johnnie & Flamingo’.

whisky highball

Image: Pixabay

Made with a mix of Johnnie Walker Black Label, citric acid, Peychaud’s Bitter, coconut syrup and house-made tropical soda, served in a highball glass with a flamingo straw and a kaffir lime leaf. It’s a fresh twist on the classic highball, yet still allows the whisky to shine.

“To me, whisky is the king of the spirits, the one with most history that always has a story to tell,” Catino says. “What’s wonderful about it is the diversity of flavours, depending on how the spirit has been crafted.”

“At Maybe Sammy, we take our job seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. As bartenders it’s our responsibility to use the flavours in a way which showcase the spirit in a way that’s accessible and fun. We wanted to break the misconceptions around whisky being best served neat or being an inaccessible taste profile – so we made it tropical.”

A twist on a classic

Encouraging people to see whisky in a new light is a goal also shared by Lord Byron Distillery’s head bartender and cocktail instructor Billie-Jean Bray.

“Whisky is just so much fun,” says Bray, an enthusiastic whisky fan and recent top eight finalist in Australian Bartender Magazine’s award for Bartender of the Year 2019.

“People often don’t see that side of it, but once you start learning about it and how the flavour profiles change throughout the world, it’s incredible. The variance of flavours can go from fresh and fruity to savoury and salty, light-bodied and easy to strong and full flavoured.”

whisky highball

Image: Med Yassin Ghaoui / Pexels

Bray believes the highball is a light-hearted and refreshing way to enjoy whisky, as well as a perfect introduction to the classic spirit.

“We’ve come a long way in the last 10 years, people are more educated about food and drink, and the idea of a drink being gender-exclusive is fading. We’re dawning on the idea that whisky can be enjoyed in many ways, not just as a nightcap while sitting on a leather chesterfield smoking a cigar.

“I also think the general public is making the conscious effort to reduce sugar in their diets, with the awareness we have now about what we’re putting in our bodies.”

Whether you’re looking for a refreshing new summer cocktail staple or perhaps just seeking a new way to enjoy an old favourite, the whisky highball is a trend worth raising a glass to.

Venues with whisky highballs worth trying

Boilermaker House

209-211 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

Try the ‘House Highball’: Chivas Regal scotch, H&H Madeira, orgeat, lemon, soda

Scout (The Dolphin Hotel)

412 Crown St, Surry Hills, Sydney

Try the ‘Papaya Don’t Preach’: Johnnie Walker Black Label with tea tree distillate, pluot soda and papaya


28 Vardon Ave, Adelaide

Try the ‘Thyme on the Side’: Speyside Scotch, lemon, thyme, apricot, soda

Kid Kyoto

17-19 Bridge Street, Sydney

Try the ‘High Ball & Dry’: Whisky, honey-ginger syrup, yuzu bitters, soda

Savile Row Fortitude Valley

667 Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

Try the ‘Worlds Collide’: Balvenie Sweet Toast of American Oak, Eau de Vie de Cidre, lemon sea salt, and toasted coconut soda

(Lead image: Adam Jaime / Unsplash) 

Published 04 November, 2019