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.

planters_punchCaribbean, generally (1700s)
Jamaica (1878)

Truth is, I’ve been remiss. Planter’s Punch certainly qualifies as a “basic drink,” one of perhaps a handful of core templates that inspire countless variations. You have the “cocktailOld Fashioned (template: spirit, sugar, bitters, rock ice), the “aromaticMartini (template: 2:1 spirit / aromatized wine, served up), the “sourDaiquiri (template: 2:1:1 spirit / citrus / sweet, up), the… um… “CollinsTom Collins (template: 2:1:1 spirit / citrus / sweet with dilution & bubbles, served tall), and the punch – simply a large-format Collins with the addition of spice. Some other oddball drinks are out there, either part of a smaller family or black sheep out on their own: drinks like Egg Nog, Irish Coffee, Ramos Gin Fizz. The world of cocktails is chaotic and resists tidy taxonomy. But some rules do apply, whether these drinks like it or not.

So, as a punch, this came to British and Dutch sailors by way of the Caribbean – and from there to the world. Punch was all the rage in Colonial America and held dominance at the local watering hole until the mid-1800s, when the pace of life quickened and people just couldn’t take the time to spend hours imbibing socially. I can’t imagine what they would think of today’s world, poor souls. Drinks became reduced down to individual portions, and the Planter’s Punch in particular was a popular novelty for tourists visiting Jamaica’s Hotel Titchfield and Myrtle Bank Hotel. Myers’s Rum even rebranded their labels as the Planter’s Punch rum in the 1930s. You may have heard different versions of this rhyming recipe for punch: “one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak, and a touch of spice to make it nice.” The sour is typically lime, the sweet is almost always just simple syrup (but a bit of grenadine is not uncommon), the strong is our old buddy rum, and the weak is dilution – from shaking with ice, from serving over ice, and from seltzer. The spice is simply Angostura bitters, potent with Caribbean spices like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.

Now, were we to strictly follow that singsong rhyme, this drink would come out unbalanced. That 1-2-3-4-5 thing works in a punch bowl, where moderate dilution is welcome. Punch (in that format) is meant to be sipped communally over a long conversation. This is more of a solitary sipper – better suited to a lazy afternoon in the hammock. Side note: progressing from its popularity as a tropical refresher, Planter’s Punch became the inspiration for many successful tall tiki drinks beginning with Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie. When dimensionalized into a tiki drink, the strong component can change from one rum to four rums. The sweet can be a mix of multiple syrups and tropical flavors. Spice is often integrated into the syrups, like the ginger kick in falernum or the allspice in pimento dram. Try this simple, direct version – then give the tiki approach a go and see what you come up with!

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Spirits: Dark Jamaican rum (recommended: Coruba)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Simple syrup, Seltzer (or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino))
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime wheel

HOW TO

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

2 oz dark Jamaican rum
1 oz lime juice
3/4
 oz simple syrup
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:

1 1/2 oz seltzer

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

zombieDon the Beachcomber (1934)

Southern California’s longest-running contribution to the world’s cocktail culture is the deliciously goofball world of tiki. The brainchild of world traveler and bootlegger Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach), tiki was a melange of the authentic and the completely fabricated. South Seas cultural artifacts mixed with Carribean rum mixed with Chinese cooking, this faux-tropical getaway world captured the imagination of Hollywood in the 1930s and took off from there like hot lava. Tiki dominated cocktail culture in the ’50s and ’60s, then faded as late-’60s culture labeled it “square,” something their parents enjoyed.

Don the Beachcomber’s original 1934 Zombie was created (in all likelihood) as a collaboration with his four Filipino bartenders, who worked hidden away in the back kitchen, out of sight of the front-room bar (to keep the mystery and protect his secrets). One of those bartenders, Ray Buhen, went on to open Tiki Ti in Hollywood in 1961; the place is still there today, run by his son and grandson. In an interview, Ray called out Donn Beach’s authorship claim: “He’d say anything. He said he invented the Zombie, but he didn’t. Or hardly any of his drinks.” Donn’s recipes were jotted down in notebooks passed from one bartender to the other, transcribed in code in case they fell into enemy hands. You’d just have to know what “Don’s Mix” or “Markeza” or “Golden Stack” was to make the drink correctly. He changed the recipe several times over the years; not sure why, because this version’s the best. Potent and dangerously delicious, Don the Beachcomber enforced a strict two-per-customer rule on this drink. Breaking this rule has risks: in 1936, Howard Hughes struck and killed a pedestrian while driving home drunk after one too many Zombies at Don the Beachcomber’s.

The Zombie, with its ten-ingredient list, is a perfect example of a drink that is best (and maybe safest) made at home. Try to get one of these at a busy bar and you’re more likely to get a “pick something else” response. And if you do get a Zombie, it probably won’t be this one. This original 1934 recipe was finally decoded in 2005 by Beachbum Berry after years of research and experimentation.

You’ll need three syrups for this: grenadine, cinnamon syrup, and Falernum – a spiced rum syrup from Barbados (recipes for cinnamon syrup and falernum below, grenadine recipe is linked). Always best to make them yourself at home… but a great alternative is BG Reynolds‘ fantastic line of tiki syrups from Portland, Oregon.

If you’re going through all the fun to make this fantastic drink, why not serve it in a vintage tiki mug? Great finds can be had at thrift stores occasionally, or check online at Etsy‘s vintage shops.

THE KIT

Hardware: Electric blender, Jigger, Medicine dropper, Straws (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Tiki mug or double Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Gold rum (recommended: Appleton, Mount Gay, Cruzan), Dark rum (recommended: Coruba, Myers’s), 151 demerara rum (recommended: Lemon Hart)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Falernum, Cinnamon syrup, Grenadine, Pernod or Herbsaint
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Grapefruit juice (white, if you can get it), Angostura bitters, Fresh spearmint

HOW TO

In an electric blender, add:

1 1/2 oz gold rum
1 1/2 oz dark rum
1 oz 151 demerara rum
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
1/2 oz Falernum
1/4 oz cinnamon syrup
1/4 oz grenadine
6 drops Pernod or Herbsaint
1 dash Angostura bitters
6 oz cracked ice

Flash blend five seconds to quickly mix – meaning just turn the blender on, then off again. Pour unstrained into a tiki mug or Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the rim of the tiki mug or glass to release its aromatic oils. Optionally, serve with two straws cut to size.

CINNAMON SYRUP

In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 3 cinnamon sticks, crushed lightly. Add 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water, then simmer 10 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cool & steep 20 minutes, then double-strain into an airtight container to remove particles. Keep refrigerated.

FALERNUM

In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 50 cloves, 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries, and 1 whole nutmeg (crushed, not ground). Combine in an airtight container and add 8 oz 151 demerara rum, the peeled zest from 8 limes (being careful to not include any of the bitter white pith), and 1/2 cup grated fresh ginger. Infuse for 24 hours, then double-strain the infused rum to remove ingredients and small particles. Make a rich simple syrup of 2 cups sugar and 1 cup water and let cool. In an airtight container, combine the infused rum, the rich simple syrup, and 10 drops almond extract. Stir to combine. Let rest two weeks, refrigerated, for the ginger to mellow. Keep refrigerated. (recipe adapted from Kaiser Penguin.)