The high life

Whisky highballs are increasingly popular, and no wonder, finds Inka Larissa, as the simple mix of Scotch and soda is a great way to showcase various flavour profiles and discover the complexity of the spirit. Cask-strength and higher strength whiskies work well in cocktails, as they add texture and bring different notes from the whisky to the forefront, contributing significantly to the body of the drink

When it comes to the history of the highball, there are many stories, and it is hard to say with certainty where it was invented.

One of the most common stories takes place in 1894 and is about an English actor EJ Ratcliffe, whose favourite hangout was The Adams House in Boston. It was there that he asked the barman for a Scotch and soda, or the Scotch highball, as he called it. To his disappointment, the bar didn’t stock any Scotch at the time, but after months of hunting down some cases, the barman finally managed to find some. The bottles didn’t last long, as the highball became a hit.

In 1895, the drink appeared in a book called The Mixologist under the name of ‘Splificator’. If we go even further back in time, it’s likely that Scotch and soda evolved from brandy and soda in the early 1800s. Brandy and soda was a popular drink in England then, and it only makes sense for someone to try a similar serve with Scotch whisky. This would explain the highball’s journey to America via people like Ratcliffe.


Over the years, the highball faded away and remained on the backbench until 2008. Suntory wanted to strengthen the Japanese whisky scene and launched a successful marketing campaign for their canned Kakubin whisky and soda, known as Kaku Highball. The idea was to use a quality soda water that paired well with the whisky.

A bar in Tokyo known as Marugin is to thank for the revival of this long drink. They were the first in Japan to really start serving the highball, and even today, most people go there for that reason.

Thanks to the Japanese influence, the highball has become popular around the world. In the UK, we often like to use Scotch, but many bars are also using American whiskey and Japanese malts.

The whisky can be a blend or a single malt – it all comes down to the complexity of the flavour profile.


In Japan, less is more when it comes to highballs, but in the UK, we are more than happy to jazz up our serves with a touch of flavoured syrup, liqueur or unique soda water. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. After all, highball is all about allowing the whisky to shine. The key is to complement it.

You might not think so, but there are significant differences between soda waters, and I would always encourage you to choose one with a low salt level, long-lasting fizziness and a clean, crisp taste.

Add a touch of fruitiness through syrups such as roasted pineapple, peach or lychee, add floral notes through elderflower or lavender, or bring those herbal notes to the forefront with various garnish options.

By creating a tea-based syrup you can play with flavours such as Earl Grey, mixed berries or mint. The citrus and bergamot from Earl Grey tea pairs well with floral flavour profiles and the subtle smokiness of some single malts.

A quicker upgrade to your highball can be made using flavoured soda water. Look for sodas with delicate flavours and long-lasting fizziness. Avoid overly sweet ones as you want to keep the highball dry and refreshing.

To help you embark on the journey of exotic highballs, we have created three simple, yet fun, recipes for you to try. Serve these recipes at home or head over to the SMWS Glasgow Members’ Room this month to sample them with friends.

Whisky, after all, is best served in good company.

Pink Highball with Sweet, Fruity & Mellow

For this serve, look for a whisky with strong, ripe red-berry notes and fresh fruitiness, and a subtle cask influence, such as second-fill ex-bourbon. The cherry syrup adds a touch of sweetness, and it looks stunning if added last. However, it can easily be skipped completely if you prefer your highball on the dry side.

  • 40ml SMWS whisky
  • 25ml rosé vermouth Soda water
  • 3 maraschino cherries
  • 2 barspoons of syrup from the cherry jar (optional)

Simply build the drink over ice and garnish with the cherries and the syrup.

Thai Highball with Oily & Coastal

This highball is created with a homemade lemongrass cordial, which matches well with savoury whiskies. Look for an Oily & Coastal whisky that provides those lovely umami notes.

  • 40ml SMWS whisky
  • 20ml lemongrass cordial
  • Soda water
  • Kaffir lime leaf for garnish

Simply build the drink over ice and garnish with a dried kaffir lime leaf.

To make the cordial you’ll need:

  • 750ml water
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 6–8 stalks of lemongrass
  • 6 kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 lemons
  • 70g fresh ginger
  • ¾ tsp citric acid

White Peach & Jasmine Highball with Young & Spritely

Many younger whiskies work well in highballs due to their light, fresh and vibrant tasting notes. To complement the lovely flavour profile of this soda water, choose a whisky from the Young & Spritely category. Exotic fruity sweetness goes well and perhaps a whisky that’s been aged in second-fill oloroso sherry casks.

  • 40ml SMWS whisky
  • London Essence White Peach & Jasmine Soda
  • Citrus peel for garnish

Simply build the drink over ice and garnish with an orange or pink grapefruit peel.