The History of the Highball Soda Cocktail

This article is part of a cocktail history series, sponsored by Johnnie Walker. Discover more about classic Scotch cocktails here!

Often, it’s the seemingly simple things in life that offer the most satisfaction: the unquestioned beauty of a sunset; the deliciousness of a perfectly prepared steak seasoned only with a sprinkle of salt; the refreshing glory of a Highball, a drink whose relatively straightforward nature (spirit, soda, ice) belies its staying power and ubiquity.

The Highball is all about elegant effervescence. A totem to refreshment that offers a platform for whisky to shine. A blended Scotch in particular works wonders in the drink, thanks to the complexity and well-rounded flavors of the whisky. A Highball made with Johnnie Walker delivers a swirl of fruits and floral notes, weaving together a touch of vanilla and even a wisp of smoke, all light on its toes.

There are several competing claims as to the provenance of the Highball. The Adams House in Boston apparently made one in an editorial appearing in The New York Times, with its account then pilloried in the Oct. 25, 1927 edition of the same paper with a letter sent in from one Patrick J. Duffy, the former head barkeeper of a Manhattan establishment known as the Ashland House.

In 1894, Duffy opened his own cafe, and states that in the spring of that year, English actor E.J. Ratcliffe was a fixture at the bar. According to Duffy, Ratcliffe asked for a Scotch and soda, to which the barman admitted he carried no Scotch. After several months, Duffy tracked down a handful of cases from his supplier, at which point, he writes, “In a week I sold little but Scotch highballs, as [Ratcliffe] called the new drink, which consisted of Scotch, a lump of ice and a bottle of club soda.” And so the Highball proper was born, with much of the credit belonging to Ratcliffe.

In 1895, the “High Ball” further makes an appearance in “The Mixicologist,” a drinks guide from Chris Lawlor of the Burnet House in Cincinnati, as a cousin of the splendidly ordained, and strikingly similar concoction known as the Splificator. By 1900, the “Highball” is featured in “Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual,” a work now deemed one of bartending’s most essential early tomes.

If we backtrack a bit further, to the early 1800s, the Highball’s predecessor can be found in the form of the brandy and soda, which, according to the historical mining of cocktail expert and writer David Wondrich, was popular in England at the time. With proximity to Scotland’s burgeoning whisky industry — many of today’s most noteworthy Scotch whisky distilleries were founded in a burst of activity spanning the 1810s and 1820s, including Cardhu, the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker, which was founded in 1824 — only a small step was needed to meander from brandy and soda to Scotch and soda. The latter drink was assuredly enjoyed throughout the isle of Britain before eventually hopping across the pond, along with the Scotch whisky with which it’s made, thanks to thirsty proponents such as Ratcliffe. According to Wondrich’s seminal “Imbibe!,” “By 1900, the Scotch Highball was the most fashionable drink in America.”

The precise origin of the drink’s name is also clouded. While “Scotch and soda” works ably enough as a calling card, leave it to the aforementioned and enterprising barmen to give the libation a much needed jolt. The “Highball,” well, that’s a name that had wings. That’s a name that flies.

In “The Joy of Mixology,” Gary Regan ties the drink’s name to a railroad term, wherein the conductor would know the train could move ahead after a ball indicator showed enough water in the tank, i.e., there was a “highball.” The conductor would then issue two short whistles and one long, which, for “Gaz,” tracked nicely with the two shots of whisky and a long pour of soda atop it in the drink. Another story has that a man wanted to have a “ball” in a bar – a euphemism not only for a good time but also an English expression for a glass of whisky – and after being served in short, rocks-style glasses, said that wouldn’t do, he needed a high glass to have a “high ball.”

Indeed, the drink is held in such high esteem that it has its own signature vessel — the Highball glass — tall and narrow, and holding between 8 and 12 ounces. Any elongated glass will do the trick in a pinch, though, including a Collins glass.
Over the century that followed, the drink ebbed and flowed in popularity. But it has perhaps never enjoyed a more prominent place at the bar, at least since its fantastically fashionable prime circa the turn of the 20th century, than it has right now. The drink is particularly well rooted in Japan, where from yakitori bars to karaoke dens, and even vending machines stocked with canned versions, the Highball is ubiquitous in the country’s drinking culture.

One key to its newly regained success is its drinkability. As far as cocktails go, the Highball packs a soft punch, with more mixer than booze, typically anywhere from a 2-to-1 to 4-to-1 ratio, spirit to soda. The fizzier the better, and all the better still if you have some shimmery, slender, and clear ice cubes to drop in there. Best of all, of course, is to use a Scotch whisky, such as Johnnie Walker, which has roots as deep as the drink itself.

A pour of Scotch on the rocks with a generous splash of soda atop it, the Highball proves the point that sometimes the most pared-down ideas are also the most revelatory and long-lasting. Cold, crisp, and refreshing, pleasantly bubbly and with all of your favorite blended Scotch whisky’s standout flavors shining through, the Highball has stood the test of time for great reason.


  • 1.5 ounces Johnnie Walker Black Label
  • 4.5 ounceas Soda Water
  • Lemon Wedge


  1. Pack a Highball glass with ice.
  2. Pour in Johnnie Walker Black Label.
  3. Fill to the top with soda water.
  4. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

This article is sponsored Johnnie Walker. Keep walking.