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.

Tom-Collins1London (1875-ish)

Order a Tom Collins in most bars and you’re likely to get back something that tastes like Gatorade. Make it at home, take about thirty more seconds than the restaurants do, and you’ll taste a complete 180° on this tall, refreshing quaff. Serve it on a hot afternoon and you’ll get the picture pretty quick.

This is a great one for people who say they don’t like gin – especially when made with the original Old Tom style of gin versus London Dry. Couldn’t be smoother.

Story goes the traditional garnish on the East Coast is an orange wheel with a maraschino cherry; West Coast gets a lime wheel and maraschino cherry. Midwesterners, I say split the difference and use a lemon.

The Collins, as a family, is essentially a sour with dilution by way of fizz. Add a spice element and you’d have a punch. The history of the Tom Collins is a little hard to pin down – there are stories of a bar prank (“hey, man, Tom Collins was just in here talking shit about you – he just left for the bar up the street”), hazy evidence linking it to a bartender named Collins… but the obvious answer to at least part of the name is its use of Old Tom gin. Old Tom was the gin in the 19th century, coming after Genever (aka “Holland gin” but not really a gin) and before the London Dry style that took hold around 1900. It’s a lightly-sweetened gin with less emphasis on juniper than London Dry, more on the other botanicals – citrusy and floral.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Spirits: Old Tom gin (recommended: Hayman’s)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Simple syrup, Seltzer (or tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree) or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino))
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lemon juice, Lime wheel (or orange or lemon), Cherry (recommended: Filthy amarena, Luxardo maraschino)

HOW TO

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

2 oz Old Tom gin
1 oz lemon juice
3/4
oz  simple syrup

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 oz seltzer

Stir lightly to blend and garnish with a lime (or orange or lemon) wheel and cherry pierced on a cocktail pick. Optionally, serve with a straw.

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.