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.

irishcoffeeFoynes, Ireland (1942)

There’s few things more satisfying and comforting than a well-made Irish Coffee. The cool cream blends with the hot coffee as you take that first sip, backed up by the mellow nip of Irish whiskey and sweet rich sugar. Perfect for a rainy afternoon pick-me-up or for a turbo-charged dessert.

To make this really special, you’ll want to pay attention to the details, starting with the whiskey. Irish whiskey is mellow, the softer predecessor to wild country Scotch whisky. I prefer Redbreast in this – it’s an old-style whiskey made in pot stills that give spirits more body and funk than column stills (those make for cleaner, crisper spirits). That extra bit of character stands up well when mixed with bold coffee.

For the coffee, go for the best you can produce at home. Use a medium roast (darker if you prefer) and grind your beans fresh. Use a French Press or a pour-over kit to make the coffee (drip coffee makers generally don’t get the water hot enough to extract the best flavor). Make it on the strong side since you’ll be diluting it with whiskey. For the sugar, go with demerara or turbinado sugar – that extra bit of molasses softens and unifies the coffee and whiskey where white sugar would be cutting and sharp. If you don’t have the right sugar on hand, mix half white sugar and half brown sugar – that’ll get you close enough. And for the whipped cream: sorry to say, but you gotta whip it fresh. Premade and presweetened whipped cream isn’t the right texture, won’t float on top, and has sweetness that will nuke your beautiful drink.

This is an example where specific glassware makes a difference: Many places use a larger handled 8.5-ounce glass that encourages a bit too much coffee in the mix. To do this drink proper, buy a set of the 6-ounce Libbey “Georgian” glasses they used in the original (made during World War II at a coastal seaplane port) and at The Buena Vista in San Francisco (where they make up to 2,000 Irish Coffees a day).

THE KIT

Hardware: Jigger, Plastic Measuring Cup, Teaspoon measure, Kettle, French Press (or pour-over kit), Standing mixer (or whisk), Barspoon
Glassware: 6-ounce Irish Coffee glass
Spirit: Irish whiskey (recommended: Redbreast, Jameson, Tullamore DEW)
Mixer: Coffee
Accents & Garnishes: Demerara sugar, Freshly-whipped heavy cream

HOW TO

Boil enough water to prepare your coffee, plus a bit extra. When boiled, fill your Irish Coffee glass with boiling water to preheat, then prepare your coffee. While the coffee is brewing, in a standing mixer (or by hand using a whisk), whip 1/4 cup of heavy cream to thicken. Stop before you get to soft peaks – the cream should be thick but still pourable. When the coffee is ready, pour out the boiling water that was added to the Irish Coffee glass.

In the glass, combine:
2 teaspoons demerara sugar
1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey
scant 1/2 cup coffee

Stir well to mix and dissolve sugar, then slowly ladle the cold whipped cream over the top to float – just enough to fill the glass, no more. Distribute and level the whipped cream with the back of a barspoon.

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Wallick Hotel, New York City (1913)

As Jerry Thomas captured a moment in time with his 1862 book “How to Mix Drinks (or The Bon Vivant’s Companion),” so did Hugo Ensslin with his “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” published in 1917 – the last cocktail guide available before Prohibition. Think of them as bookends when taken together. Ensslin was head bartender at the Wallick Hotel in New York City (since demolished, now the site of NASDAQ MarketSite). There, he created countless classics including his most famous, the Aviation. His book featured the products that were new and trendy at the time: Bacardi rum, grenadine, Cointreau, applejack… one has to wonder how much more the American craft of the cocktail would have flourished if it weren’t for Prohibition!

This drink’s name is a goof on Chauncey Olcott’s 1913 hit “My Wild Irish Rose” (he’s the same guy who co-wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”) and uses Irish whiskey as its base spirit. Ireland was the first country to make whiskey, possibly as early as the 1100s – that’s a long time to get it right. The famously smooth Irish whiskey was big-time popular in the US around the turn of the 20th century – to keep up with demand, there were hundreds of distilleries and over 400 brands produced in Ireland. Then came Prohibition, two World Wars, the Irish Civil War, and the Great Depression… leaving Ireland with only two operating distilleries. Today, there are still just four.

Try this one with Redbreast 12 – a pot-still Irish whiskey reminiscent of the style popular when Ensslin wrote his book. And, of course, ridiculously-easy, no-excuse-not-to, homemade grenadineSláinte!

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Irish whiskey (recommended: Redbreast 12)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Grenadine
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime wheel, Maraschino cherry

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.

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

2 oz Irish whiskey
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz grenadine

Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with a lime wheel and maraschino cherry.