Why the old school whisky highball is the perfect cocktail for summer

Summer is nearly upon us, and all signs point to spritzes and highballs being the dominant cocktails of the season.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The Aperol Spritz –  a mix of the Italian bitter aperitif with prosecco and soda – has been going gangbusters in Australia for some time now.

But the broader trend towards lower alcohol cocktails has undoubtedly gathered momentum during 2019, with small artisan producers such as Unico Zelo now on board.

Citrusy fresh

The Adelaide Hills company has released Unico Mando, a liqueur made from waste stream mandarins, specifically with the spritz occasion in mind.

"The spritz is trending all over the world, and in Australia, it makes so much sense," says Unico Zelo co-founder Laura Carter.

"Eighty per cent of our population lives by the coast, and we have warm temperatures for the majority of the year, so spritzes are just a really nice, joyful drink to be consuming in summer."

A tradition to maintain

A highball, meanwhile, is simply the age old combination of a spirit and soda in a tall glass, served on ice.

"I don't think a highball was ever really out of vogue," says Diageo whisky ambassador Katie Nagar.

"A gin and tonic is one of the most enduring classic highball serves that was created in the 1800s and is still relevant today.


"Now, I think we're seeing people starting to get back into whisky highballs."

Choose your mixer wisely

Fever-Tree Australia general manager Andy Gaunt says whisky highballs began their comeback in Japan, where mugs of Suntory Kakubin Whisky and soda are ubiquitous in izakaya-style bars.

"'Brand Japan' has become quite cool within the drinks industry for the last few years, and with the Rugby World Cup this year and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we'll just see that highball trend continuing to spread around the globe," he says.

Fever-Tree has recently released new Spiced Orange Ginger Ale and Smoky Ginger Ale flavours, specifically designed to complement the flavours inherent in dark spirits.

"We're seeing more spirit companies use the word highball to describe a spirit mixed with ginger ale," says Gaunt.

"Even in Japan, we're seeing ginger highballs on menus quite frequently, which is effectively a highball mixed with ginger ale."

Easy to drink, easy to make

He says spritzes and highballs are appealing to increasingly health conscious drinkers who want a refreshing and sessionable drink they can easily replicate at home.

"In a good tall glass that's filled with lots of ice, you're probably able to get 30ml of spirits to 150 or 160ml of mixer," he says.

"That's a good ratio from a flavour point of view for most people who aren't big, heavy spirit drinkers. It's also a drink that's slightly lower in ABV."

Diageo meanwhile has launched a new campaign championing the Johnnie Walker highball at five leading cocktail bars in Sydney (Scout, Maybe Sammy and Icebergs) and Melbourne (Bar Margaux and Capitano).

Each venue has created an original Johnnie Walker highball that you will be unlikely to attempt at home; given the inclusion of exotic ingredients such as tea tree distillate, bergamot syrup and apple brandy liqueur.

Make it your own

But Nagar says the campaign will have the dual purpose of encouraging consumers to try their hand at less ambitious versions of the highball, a drink that can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

"I think unfortunately that Scotch whisky has really suffered from this idea of rigidity – people were told that you could only drink it neat or maybe with a drop of water," she says.

"Or, if you were doing a highball, it had to be soda water. But that's not true at all, there's so many different styles of Scotch and so many different flavours in terms of the mixers or modifiers that you're bringing in that it can be much more than that," she says.

James Atkinson is creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast and a previous editor of Australian Brews News and drinks industry publication TheShout. A Certified Cicerone® and 2017 winner of the Australian International Beer Awards media prize, James regularly contributes to other publications including Halliday, Good Food, QantasLink Spirit and more.