This article is part of a cocktail history series, sponsored by Johnnie Walker. Discover more about classic Scotch cocktails here!
There’s just something so alluring about the classic Scotch & Soda. Sure, it’s one of the simplest drinks to make, but there’s real magic in the way the aromas and flavors of a malty, smoky Scotch are unlocked in the presence of carbonated water.
The Scotch & Soda belongs to the highball family of cocktails. Even though the highball recipe is nothing more than spirit (traditionally, whisky) combined with soda water, garnished with a lemon peel, there’s an art to achieving the proper balance. This is why so many bartenders around the world have put highballs on their menus in the last few years: to craft an ideal highball is a real point of pride.
The beauty of the highball formula is that it avails itself to some tinkering. By switching in a flavored soda or infusing the drink with fruit, spice, teas, or even just adding an unexpected garnish — it’s easy to create great variations on the highball with relative ease.
A lemon highball is a sunny place to start. For the lightest lift, make a standard Scotch & Soda (fill a highball glass with ice, add 1½ ounces Scotch, top up with 4½ ounces soda water), and squeeze a lemon wedge overtop. Or to further amplify the citrus notes, swap in Fever Tree’s sparkling lemon tonic water instead of soda, making the drink more of a bright, citrus-forward aperitif. It won’t be too sweet — the bitterness of the tonic balances quite well with Johnnie Walker Black Label’s woody notes.
Another way to experiment is by adding unique sweeteners. You could try a touch of honey to give your highball a little more viscosity. A bar spoon of agave could add a tinge of southwestern flavor. Maple syrup recalls New England while adding a further richness you simply can’t get from spirit and soda — this pairs unexpectedly well with a squeeze of lime.
Don’t limit yourself to only experimenting with citrus. A watermelon highball shows the surprising versatility of Black Label when paired with the juiciness of fresh watermelon. Here, split the soda base with fresh-pressed watermelon juice, then garnish the drink with a watermelon wedge. Here, the smokiness of Black Label becomes more apparent, with the fruit leaving a clean, fresh finish.
Other fruits and fruit juices will also work wonders in adapting your standard highball. Try everything from apples to berries to blood oranges. For more tropical builds opt for guava nectar or coconut water. Or, for something slightly more involved, make a tea syrup.
More Advanced Variations
Steep a bag of Earl Grey in ½ cup hot water for 5 minutes, remove bag and add ½ cup cane sugar; stir to dissolve. (Any herbal tea, chamomile, say, will also work splendidly.) Add 1/2 ounce of the cooled syrup to the basic highball recipe and it will suddenly have a Mediterranean feel thanks to the bergamot and lemon notes in the tea.
Of course, if the current situation has robbed many of us of a fun summer of sipping highballs and eating cheese in bustling bars, many cocktail enthusiasts are now improving their cocktail games at home. For the timid burgeoning bartender, one of the easiest ways to experiment is by using ingredients that you naturally keep in your pantry and integrate them into your drink-making.
Swapping in ginger ale instead of soda water is obviously an easy and much beloved variation, so much so that it has its own name, whether that’s a Johnnie and Ginger, Whisky Buck, or a Mamie Taylor. It’s no wonder ginger appears in so many of these highball variations, whether as a garnish or in ginger ale, as the spiciness of the root matched with the rich smokiness of Scotch has long been a beloved combination. In this case, both Black Label and Red Label will work perfectly.
You can take it a step further by also adding just 1/8 of a teaspoon of matcha tea, that gorgeous green powder that many people won’t start their days without anymore. The vegetal notes of matcha wonderfully complement the herbal notes of ginger, while likewise revealing underlying flavors of vanilla and tropical fruit in Black Label. An even more elevated version of this matcha highball injects some much needed acidity. Opt for pineapple or lemon juice along with ½ ounce of honey syrup (1:1 honey:water), then top the drink off with a slice of candied ginger. Suddenly, you have an extraordinarily complex highball that goes from spicy to bright to sweet and then finishes smoky.
If you prefer a more warming spice direction, adding a chai cordial is a good move. As with the Earl Grey syrup, you’ll steep tea bags in hot water and combine with the same amount of cane sugar, but, in this case, add a pinch of salt and some lime zest. This chai addition gives the highball a rich spiciness that coalesces so nicely with the ginger ale.
Whatever direction you take your highball in, remember that balance is key, a harmony of varied tastes playing together unassumingly. And being a long drink, you’ll have plenty of time to sit with it, think about it, enjoy it, and let it take your mind off things. And maybe that’s why it’s so great.
This article is sponsored Johnnie Walker. Keep walking.