Cuba-LibreHavana, Cuba (1900)
Townhouse Bar & Grill, Emeryville, CA (1995)

This spin on the Cuba Libre is one that can open the minds of your friends who don’t drink cocktails – except for Rum & Coke or Jack & Coke.

Coca-Cola was invented in the 1880s by John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Georgia. His product, originally called “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca,” was marketed as a patent medicine, a cure-all for various popular ailments including constipation, morphine addiction, impotence, and “extreme mental exertion.” Pretty sure its mix of Bordeaux wine, sugar, caffeine, and cocaine would put some pep in anyone’s step! Georgia enacted Prohibition laws in 1886 (trendsetters, way ahead of the national ban in 1920), so in order to keep his popular product moving, Pemberton reformulated his tonic to remove the wine, and it became even more popular.

But Coca-Cola seemed to be missing its booze, and eventually it found a natural companion in Caribbean rum. The original Cuba Libre goes back to just after the 1898 Spanish-American War in Cuba. U.S. soldiers stuck around and brought Coca-Cola with them, adding it to the typical rum and lime in an easy blend: a shot of rum, a squeeze of lime, top it off with Coke and toast with the battle cry of the day: “Free Cuba!” The Cuba Libre / Rum & Coke may be the most popular highball of all time, even inspiring a hit song in the 1940s (originally by Lord Invader, then covered by The Andrews Sisters). By this time, of course, the cocaine content in Coca-Cola had been nixed, just leaving the twin turbos of sugar and caffeine. And beginning in the ’80s, even sugar was booted in favor of the cheaper high-fructose corn syrup. Coke is still made with cane sugar in certain international markets like Mexico – read the ingredients list and look for “The Real Thing.”

Flash forward to the ’90s: Paul Harrington is working the bar at Townhouse up in Emeryville. He gets with two people from Wired magazine to launch a cocktail section on their web site (an incomplete archive by Robert Hess is here for the curious) that helps spur the current cocktail renaissance. His tweak to this tired old drink, suggested by a Venezuelan customer: Add a hit of gin and Angostura, cut back on the Coke – suddenly the high-school drink is all growed up. If you only know the standard version, you might be surprised by the magic that gin & Angostura work on the flavor: rounding down the sweetness and boosting the earthy spiciness.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Spirits: Light rum (recommended: Havana Club 3, Caña Brava, Cruzan), London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Coca-Cola (if you can find imported Mexican Coke, your drink will be even better)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Angostura bitters, Lime wedge

HOW TO

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

1 1/2 oz light rum
1/2
oz London Dry gin
3/4
oz lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into a Collins glass filled about two-thirds of the way up with cracked ice. Top with:

3 oz Coca-Cola

Stir lightly to blend and garnish with a lime wedge. Optionally, serve with a straw.

negroniFlorence, Italy (1919)

A classic cocktail with a surprising number of devotees, the Negroni is distinguished by its use of Campari, the bitter-orange aperitif that is – to put it kindly – an acquired taste. But I’ll say this: once you do acquire the taste, there’s no going back.

The Negroni is a great appetite stimulant – perfect before a big dinner. It works equally well on the rocks (in spring and summer) or up (in fall and winter). You’ll want a good, sharp, juniper-forward gin here – one that won’t get beaten down by the other two bullies in the drink.

The drink has an interesting origin story: Italian-born Count Camillo Negroni had spent time in America as a cowboy and in London as a bon vivant. On his return to Florence in 1919, he asked the bartender at the Caffè Casoni for a stronger take on the popular Americano cocktail, swapping gin for soda water, and serving it up (or on the rocks). It caught on locally, and his namesake cocktail became a hit internationally. Anthony Bourdain is on record as a fan; Gaz Regan is famous (infamous?) for his “finger-stirred Negroni.”

There’s something magical about a well-made Negroni: it’s like a reset button for your day, signaling the start of a great night when anything is possible.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass (or Old Fashioned glass)
Spirits: London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray) or Plymouth gin
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Carpano Antica, Noilly Prat, Dolin), Campari
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange twist

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass (or Old Fashioned glass) in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a mixing glass about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

1 oz gin
1 oz Italian vermouth
1 oz Campari

Stir well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. As an alternative, this drink may be served in an Old Fashioned glass over rocks.

Pinch an orange twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Garnish with the twist laid across the surface of the drink.

highballEngland, early 19th century

The mission here with “Home Bar Basics (and Not-So-Basics)” is to make the sometimes-intimidating world of cocktails accessible to all interested. But as much as we cocktail nerds love our Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, even those relatively simple drinks are complex and fussy compared to the family of drinks known as “Highballs” – a shot of booze with a non-alcoholic fizzy mixer served tall over ice, nothing more. I’ll be a purist here and say that adding anything else – even just a squeeze of juice – takes it out of Highball territory: the simple Rum & Coke becomes a Cuba Libre if you add lime juice (and a bit of gin and Angostura, as in the fancy version in my book). One addition makes good sense, though – a pinch of oils from a citrus zest garnish adds brightness and dimension to the mix.

But listen: simple doesn’t mean dumb. Highballs, like any other drink, are done well when one pays attention to the details: measure your pours, use high-quality ingredients, and employ good ice. A common mistake home bartenders make is eyeballing proportions that will fill whatever glass is on hand (“what is it… 50/50? oh well, down the hatch”). The standard Highball mix is a two ounces of booze with three ounces of mixer – like the previously-detailed Pimm’s Cup. Ideally, you’ll have dedicated Highball glasses around 10 ounces in capacity (shorter & wider than a Collins glass – but one of those will do in a pinch). Resist the urge to fill a bigger glass: either add more ice or just live with the glass not being full!

The name “Highball” came from the Irish, who call for their drink of choice as a “ball o’ malt” – so, simply a tall serving of whiskey (“boll” is Flemish for “glass” – the Dutch brought the term to England along with their genever, then to Ireland). Far as we can tell, the original Highball was the Scotch & Soda, mixed by people in the UK as soon as they could get their hands on the carbonated water first manufactured by J.J. Schweppe in Geneva and London. From there, it spread to Ireland, then Boston & New York. With the popularity of sodas like Coca-Cola, ginger beer, and 7-up in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Highball in all its forms became even more varied and accessible – and still reigns as the king of mixed drinks. A survey I read recently listed the top ten most popular cocktails in the US: seven out of ten were Highballs.

If you’re big on carbonated drinks, look into buying an iSi Soda Siphon for a steady supply of seltzer or homemade soda straight from the fridge.

GIN & TONIC

THE KIT

Hardware: Barspoon, Jigger, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Highball or Collins glass
Spirit: London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray)
Mixer: Tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree Tonic Water or mix your own with Small Hands Yeoman Tonic Syrup)
Garnish: Lemon twist

HOW TO

Pinch a lemon twist into a Highball or Collins glass to express its oils, then reserve the twist. Fill the glass with cracked ice, then add:

2 oz London Dry gin
3
 oz tonic water

Stir well to blend and chill, then pinch the twist again over the top of the drink and garnish. Optionally, serve with a straw.


VODKA & SODA

THE KIT

Hardware: Barspoon, Jigger, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Highball or Collins glass
Spirit: vodka (recommended: Absolut)
Mixer: seltzer (recommended: Fever-Tree Soda Water or carbonate your own)
Garnish: Two lemon twists

HOW TO

Pinch two lemon twists into a Highball or Collins glass to completely express their oils, then reserve one twist. Fill the glass with cracked ice, then add:

2 oz vodka
3
 oz seltzer

Stir well to blend and chill, then pinch the reserved twist again over the top of the drink and garnish. Optionally, serve with a straw.


RUM & COKE

THE KIT

Hardware: Barspoon, Jigger, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Highball or Collins glass
Spirit: Dark Jamaican rum (recommended: Coruba)
Mixer: Coca-Cola (if you can find imported Mexican Coke, your drink will be even better)
Garnish: Lime twist (try to get the most peel you can from the lime in one single piece)

HOW TO

Pinch a lime twist into a Highball or Collins glass to express its oils, then reserve the twist. Fill the glass with cracked ice, then add:

2 oz dark Jamaican rum
3 oz Coca-Cola

Stir well to blend and chill, then pinch the reserved twist again over the top of the drink and garnish. Optionally, serve with a straw.


SCOTCH & SODA

THE KIT

Hardware: Barspoon, Jigger, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Highball or Collins glass
Spirit: Scotch whisky (recommended: The Famous Grouse)
Mixer: seltzer (recommended: Fever-Tree Soda Water)
Garnish: Lemon twist

HOW TO

Pinch a lemon twist into a Highball or Collins glass to express its oils, then reserve the twist. Fill the glass with cracked ice, then add:

2 oz Scotch whisky
3
 oz seltzer

Stir well to blend and chill, then pinch the twist again over the top of the drink and garnish. Optionally, serve with a straw.


WHISKEY & GINGER

THE KIT

Hardware: Barspoon, Jigger, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Highball or Collins glass
Spirit: Irish whiskey (recommended: Jameson)
Mixer: Ginger Beer (recommended: Barritt’s or Reed’s)
Garnish: Lemon twist

HOW TO

Pinch a lemon twist into a Highball or Collins glass to express its oils, then reserve the twist. Fill the glass with cracked ice, then add:

2 oz Irish whiskey
3
 oz ginger beer

Stir well to blend and chill, then pinch the twist again over the top of the drink and garnish. Optionally, serve with a straw.


JACK & COKE

THE KIT

Hardware: Barspoon, Jigger, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Highball or Collins glass
Spirit: Tennessee whiskey (recommended: George Dickel)
Mixer: Coca-Cola (if you can find imported Mexican Coke, your drink will be even better)
Garnish: Lemon twist

HOW TO

Pinch a lemon twist into a Highball or Collins glass to express its oils, then reserve the twist. Fill the glass with cracked ice, then add:

2 oz Tennessee whiskey
3
 oz Coca-Cola

Stir well to blend and chill, then pinch the twist again over the top of the drink and garnish. Optionally, serve with a straw.