Measure & Stir

A Craft Cocktail Blog for the Home Bartender that Focuses on Original Creations Drawn from Culinary Inspiration.

05. Highballs

This is part of a series on Mixology Basics.

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Highball
Fill a tall, thin glass with ice, and then gently pour 3-4 oz of carbonated liquid down the side.
In your shaker, mix
1.5 oz of a base spirit
.75 oz of a souring agent
.75 oz of a sweetener
Shake, and double-strain over your glass full of ice and soda. Pour another small splash of soda on top.

Notice that the preparation instructions for a highball are a bit more complicated. If you want to judge the technical chops of a bar, the easiest way is to order a highball. Carbonation is not difficult to handle, but many bars get it wrong. Agitating a carbonated liquid knocks all the gas out of it, leaving a flat drink.

A bar that serves a good Tom Collins probably serves a good everything. If the barmaster paid attention to that detail and enforces good technique among his staff, that says good things about the bar.

  • Carbonation is achieved by suspending a gas, C02 or N02, in liquid under pressure.
  • The gas does not want to stay in the liquid, it wants to leave and make the drink flat.
  • To keep the gas in suspension until it reaches the lips of your guest or customer:
    • Do not allow any fine particulate in the drink. Particles of anything provide surfaces for gas bubbles to form and then disperse. Pulp destroys carbonation.
    • Similarly, use big, smooth pieces of ice. Tiny pieces of ice or ice with lots of ridges will rapidly disperse your carbonation.
    • Colder liquids retain gas better than warm ones. Store your sodas in the fridge if they aren’t coming from a soda gun.
    • Serve your carbonated drinks over ice to keep them colder, longer. Fill the glass to the brim with ice. Using less ice will dilute the drink more rapidly than using a lot of ice.
    • Motion such as shaking or stirring will quickly knock the gas out of your drink. Gently pour the carbonated element into your drink first, so that when you pour the rest of the drink over it, it will mix with a minimum of stirring.
    • Use a glass that is tall and narrow. The wider the mouth of the glass, the more surface area you are exposing to the air, the more quickly your C02 will escape. Champagne flutes and highballs are narrow and tall for a reason.
  • Carbon dioxide reacts with water when you mix it, producing some carbonic acid. This will make carbonated drinks taste dry and slightly tart, which is why they require a bit more sugar than a standard sour.
  • Don’t drown your highball with soda just so the glass looks full.
    • It is tempting to use a large glass tumbler when making a high ball drink (they are easily available), and doubly tempting to fill the glass to the brim. In most cases, especially if you have done the former, the latter will ruin your drink.

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Classic Highballs

Tom Collins
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz lemon juice
.75 oz simple syrup
3-4 oz of soda water

The Tom Collins is the true original of highball drinks. It is delicious, refreshing, and surprisingly complex given its deceptively simple composition.

Paloma
1.5 oz tequila (I prefer reposad0)
.5 oz lime juice
4 oz grapefruit soda (I prefer Jarritos)

Admittedly, highballs are the place where craft (as opposed to crass) mixed drinks almost intersect. Drinks of the form “spirit and soda” are the perennial favorite of the spring break crowd, but with a little retooling, they can easily rise above their plebeian milieu. (Did you know that snobbery is an aesthetic choice?)

The addition of fresh lime juice to these types of drinks can bring balance to the sickeningly sweet commercial sodas that are their hallmark. The sourness of fresh lime cuts through the whole sugary edifice quite nicely.

If you are looking for the cadillac of palomas, please see under section six below, Etc, subheading oleo saccharum.

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Mojito
1.5 oz light rum
.75 oz lime juice
.75 oz simple syrup
6 sprigs of mint
3-4 oz of soda water

The photo above, despite its technical merits, is a perfect example of how not to make a Mojito. Let us count the ways it went wrong: the glass is too big and has too wide of a mouth; the ice is too small and does not fill the glass, and the herbs have been crushed to a pulp. Does that drink look fizzy to you? It is for shame.

Treat the herbs in a mojito gently. Muddle them lightly, or not at all. Layer mint leaves (leaves only! Do like my man Snoop says, “no stems, no seeds, no sticks, just that real sticky icky icky) Ahem. Layer mint leaves between and around the ice in your glass.

Put a few extra sprigs in your shaker let the motion of the ice do the work. If you over-work your mint, you’ll get chlorophyll, and your Mojito will taste vegetal. We’re not making pesto, we only want menthol. Let one more fresh sprig hang out on top, so that when you raise the glass to your lips, so that the perfume can greet your olfactory.

Old Cuban
1.5 oz dark rum
.75 oz lime juice
.75 oz simple syrup
2 dash angostura bitters
6 sprigs of mint
champagne or prosecco (instead of soda)

The Old Cuban is a grown up Mojito. I have nothing else to say about it, I simply offer it as an interesting variation. You might find you like a bit more sugar in this one, as the champagne can make it very dry.

Americano
1.5 oz sweet vermouth
.75 oz campari
soda water
garnish with an orange slice

The Americano cocktail, as you will notice, has more in common with an aromatic cocktail than a sour. In fact, you can highballify just about any sour or aromatic cocktail with little modification. The extra dilution and acid will often necessitate a bit more sugar, and that is a good thing.

Vermouth, Campari, and soda may sound a bit boring, but together they make a marvelous aperitif. It tastes voluptuous, enticing — like dancing with a woman who is keeping a secret from you.

Fizzy Alaska
1 oz gin
1 oz yellow Chartreuse
3-4 oz of soda water
garnish with an orange peel

To drive home the point that you can highballify anything, we return to our Alaska cocktail. Above, we were only able to use a scant quarter ounce of yellow chartreuse. The soda water will give the yellow chartreuse room to breathe, and we can rejigger the Alaska to be much more liqueur-forward.

French 75
1 oz gin
.5 oz simple syrup
.5 oz lemon juice
3 oz champagne
serve in a champagne flute
garnish with a lemon peel

Is the French 75 really a highball? It has all the hallmarks of one. Granted, it is served in a flute, rather than a highball glass, but in its composition and style, it has more in common with a Tom Collins than anything else. If it walks like a duck…

Fernet and Coke
1.5 oz Fernet Branca
.75 oz lime juice
3-4 oz Coca Cola
garnish with a lime wedge

I would be remiss if I did not include (and heartily endorse!) this classic. Fernet and Coke is practically the national drink of Argentina, although they omit the lime. I find Coca Cola to be too sweet without the mitigating influence of sour citrus.

Of course, you have probably had some variant of Jack and Coke or Rum and Coke, and this is the same concept, clearly. The above, made with rum instead of Fernet, is called a Cuba Libré. In fact the above formula works with any base spirit: bourbon, rye, tequila, gin; fernet is my favorite, but as long as you tame the Coke with ample lime, it goes well with anything.