The highball is a cocktail for the lazy if there ever was one: throw some ice in a glass, add a few fingers of whiskey, then top with club soda. Add a lemon or lime wedge if you feel fancy.
Of course, the Japanese are far more fastidious in their preparation of the drink, opting for a pre-chilled glass, hand-carved ice (yes, really), and/or a ritualistic number of stirs. In the often-monastic world of Japanese bartending, the care and concern lavished on every aspect of the drink elevates the highball into something of an art form.
Maybe one day I'll drop some coin to have a Japanese bartender hand-carve me a superior version of the drink, but let me tell you this: I devote nowhere near that level of love to my shitty highballs. I'm happy with my cloudy freezer ice. As for stirring, I do it until the glass is cold.
That being said, even these ham-fisted attempts at making the drink at my home bar come out pretty well, and for the rest of this article I'm going to try to sell you on why highballs are tasty and let you know what whiskies I think work the best in them.
1. It's not exactly a whiskey soda.
Typically, when we think "whiskey soda" here, we rarely imagine good things. Typically, I imagine a grungy dive bar. A bartender missing an eye or a few fingers puts a glass down on the counter, adds a handful of ice, and in goes Jack Daniels or Dewar's White Label until the ice is covered. Then, out comes the soda gun, and blurrrrp.
What you end up with is a really stiff cocktail typically made with some bottom-shelf fodder hardly anyone enjoys drinking. The bartender's thumb on the soda button for a half second doesn't exactly change the core qualities of whatever crap-grade whiskey goes into the glass. At least, that's what I imagine when I think "whiskey soda."
The highball, by design, is usually about one part whiskey to three parts club soda. True, it's not a stiff drink, but it's not designed to be.
2. Why it works
Now that I've picked up a taste for highballs, I can say they have a lot of things going for them. First, they're refreshing. I was just talking to my dad the other night about gravitating away from whiskies when the weather here in LA starts to get up into the high 90s. Sometimes, we want to have our booze mixed in with a big glass full of icy-cold liquid. No need to throw the baby out with the bath water: highballs can make whiskey a summer drink.
Second, they're surprisingly flavorful given the ABV. When given the space and volume to work its magic, the club soda tends to agitate and amplify the whiskey. Even through the dilution, the aroma comes through just as easily as it does when the spirit is consumed straight, and there's something about the soda water that literally throws the whiskey around the taste buds. You might be surprised by what a highball preparation can do to allow you to tease out additional flavors and aromas from a familiar bottle.
Additionally, highballs are incredibly versatile. You can drink them alongside food, since they have a fairly equivalent ABV to beer. In Japan, the highball is usually a staple of bars, and as such tends to go well with most "whatever, don't give a shit" bar foods like sliders, hot wings, or teriyaki meat skewers. If you'd have a lager, pilsner, or pale ale with what you're eating, a highball would probably work as well.
3. What Whiskies work
There's some debate here, but I find that light whiskies are the way to go in a highball. Anything too peat or sherry-forward will knock the drink out of whack. I haven't messed around with Bourbon highballs, but I'd suspect that it might be a little too corn and oak heavy for my tastes.
I can tell you that the cheaper Japanese whiskies do very well in a highball, especially since many were formulated for just such a purpose. Suntory's Toki is a great choice, as is Nikka's Coffey Grain and the bizarre Togouchi Blended Whisky. I bet the Akashi White Oak would be a good match as well. If you want light, sweet, and refreshing, any of those would be my pick, but the list is far from inclusive.
That said, a lot of scotches and ryes will work well, too. I really appreciated the grain and malt that came forward when I added a heap of soda to some Johnnie Walker Triple Grain American Oak, and Glengoyne 10 was a great match for club soda as well. I've you've got a competent blended scotch or a 10 to 12-year single malt on the shelf, a highball could be a fun experiment. If the official tasting notes mention "apples" or "orchard fruit," I bet things will turn out all right.
4. A small warning
The odd thing about the whisky highball is that it's polarizing on both ends. Dyed-in-the-wool scotch drinkers are accustomed to think that adding water to bring a spirit much below 35% ABV totally drowns it. If you want to taste the full flavor of your whisky straight-up, full-force, max power, then the highball may be a hard sell on paper.
I also want to mention that for novice drinkers, don't expect the reduced ABV to make whisky too much more palatable. I remember buying a bottle of Bowmore when I was about 22. I added a copious amount of water to my first-ever whisky pours, hoping for it to mellow out. Oh, the folly of youth! Even under a thick blanket of soda water, the essential flavors of whatever whisky you use as a base will definitely come through.
I think the lower ABV and the fizzy concoction also complicates things, as it sends your brain a message somewhere on the order of, "Hey: this looks like a soda, so drink it like a soda." The taste of whiskey is best appreciated when it has some time and room to spread out. If you're trying to ease someone into appreciating a good scotch, I think it's easier to take it slow and easy with little sips. For anyone likely to guzzle a highball like they just ran a marathon, the finish is going to kick them hard and suddenly.
All that said, I didn't think I'd like highballs, and now I do. While it has helped a few "just okay" bottles on the shelf find a new lease on life, it's done a lot to help me find additional nuance in a lot of spirits I already liked. Sometimes the best cocktails are indeed the simplest.