Making the Highball Hot Again

Image courtesy of GreenRiver in Chicago.

There hasn’t been much reason during the 15-plus-year return of the classic cocktail for ambitious and creative bartenders to pay much attention to the simple highball. After all, highball-type drinks like Jack, Bacardi or Captain Morgan and Coke, gin or vodka and tonic, even Vodka Sodas, have continued to carry a major portion of bar and restaurant spirits consumption. This has held true whether served at a chain restaurant or high volume, craft-inclined bar. The thinking has seemed to be, “Why change what works?” That attitude, however, is changing. Here and there, more operations are taking the time to turn what had become a fast and sloppily made drink into something attractive and interesting.

Take GreenRiver in Chicago, where Julia Momose has assembled, in addition to a comprehensive cocktail menu, a section devoted to highballs. The drinks adhere to the basic construct – spirit and (generally) a sparkling mixer, although technically juices count, as well as a garnish – but not in any traditional manner. There’s Zubrowka Vodka with an aloe liqueur and burdock bitters topped with club soda; Powers Signature Release single pot still Irish whiskey, two types of bitters, and ginger ale; Rhum Clément Select Barrel with Fernet Branca and Mexican cane sugar cola; Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac with allspice and cubeb pepper lemonade; barley-based shochu with Amontillado sherry, Zucca, and cassis with club soda; and La Caravedo by Pisco Portón with Gran Classico Bitter, apricot, and lemon with club soda. These drinks build on a number of trends: quenchable and flavorful beverages, manageable alcohol levels that allow a few drinks at one sitting, and bringing the Cocktail Revolution-level of creativity to every sort of beverage served.

While Momose doesn’t make highballs with Japanese whisky, there’s a connection to its growing popularity in the US and the accompanying favored style of drinking that spirit in Japan. That is to say, as a high-quality highball built using specific service styles meant to enhance the cocktails. Interestingly, while Momose uses Irish whiskey, there’s no Scotch or bourbon currently included on the highball list, leaving her future options to create her riffs on the two cocktails that fueled this country in the mid-century: Scotch and soda, and bourbon and water. There are a flock of Scotch nerds who sneer and stand appalled at any mixing of their favorite drams, but it’s unlikely any of them ever made Scotch whisky for a living, since almost everyone in that business inevitably reminds you to drink their product any way you like. And many of the world’s best known brands, including Johnnie Walker Red, were created specifically to be enjoyed with soda, Diageo’s head of whisky outreach Dr. Nick Morgan told me recently. As for the Cognac snobs, in the region of its production, VS is most often consumed with orange juice or soda by most locals.

The level of attention Momose at GreenRiver pays to her highballs isn’t always replicable, but surely any bar or restaurant wouldn’t be hard pressed to create a few signature highballs, especially given the proliferation of small and adult soda suppliers, juice blenders, and the vast array of artisanal beverages on the market. Like the Spanish way with G&Ts, in which many fruits, herbs, spices and mixers are swapped in and out in a constant profusion of personal styles, American bartenders ought to take a look at a way to upgrade the old standbys that pay the rent.

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