Learning how to make the best Scotch and soda might sound unnecessary. After all, it’s just a combination of Scottish whisky, sparkling water and ice. In a glass. Mixing up a Scotch and soda should be as easy as falling off the proverbial log.
However, it turns out there are a number of considerations that go into making the ideal version of this drink, also known as the Scotch highball.
The History of the Scotch and Soda
Its precise origins are murky, but the combination of Scotch and soda was making the rounds in both Britain and the U.S. in the late 1800s. Cincinnati barman C.F. Lawlor includes a whiskey and soda drink called the Splificator in his pioneering 1895 book The Mixicologist, plus a “High Ball” cocktail that features brandy or whiskey and seltzer over ice.
More proof linking the Scotch and Soda to this era is a 1927 letter written by bartender and author Patrick Gavin Duffy, which was published in the New York Times. In it, Duffy states that he rarely served Scotch whisky at his café until a British actor, E.J. Ratcliffe, started asking for it. When Duffy got his hands on some Usher’s whisky, he started making Ratcliffe a drink with Scotch, club soda and a lump of ice around 1894. Word spread, and soon Duffy writes he was serving little else besides these Scotch highballs.
Cocktail historian David Wondrich, author of the cocktail guide Imbibe, shares that over time, the Scotch and soda was eclipsed by fancier drinks. That jibes with the experience of Alfie Spears, a former bar manager and single malt brand ambassador for Bacardi’s Scotch portfolio, which includes Aberfeldy and Craigellachie.
“Seven years ago I had one regular who would order a Scotch and soda, you didn’t get that order very often,” he says. “The whisky highball is very resurgent—and we owe some of that to our Japanese counterparts.”
Japan, of course, is famous today for its exceptional whiskies, and the whisky highball became a national favorite beginning in the 1950s. By the 1980s, Japanese bars were slinging the drink via high-tech highball machines, which infuse whiskey with carbonated water. In recent years, these gadgets began appearing stateside, which, combined with a reignited interest in the drink at cocktail bars nationwide, heralded the drink’s renewed popularity.
How Do You Elevate a Scotch and Soda?
The recipe for a Scotch and soda is basic enough, but making an elevated version worthy of being called a highball requires some advance preparation, says Josh McEachern, a Highland Park Whisky brand ambassador based in Dallas. Here’s how to do it:
Start with ice. The best Scotch and soda is super chilled, which allows you to enjoy the sensation of the bubbles and the complex flavor of the Scotch. Small ice cubes and crushed ice melt too quickly, so opt for large-format ice cubes or ice spears at least one-inch wide that chill the drink thoroughly while melting slowly. And while you’re at it, chill some 10-ounce highball glasses, so the glass doesn’t heat up your drink.
Choose your Scotch. Scotch whisky shows different flavor notes depending on where and how it was made. The barley used to make single-malt Scotch is roasted over peat moss, giving the final spirit a smoky character. If you like intense smokiness, choose a single malt Scotch from Islay (pronounced eye-luh), such as Ardbeg. For more subtle smoke mixed with herbal notes, choose a whisky from Orkney, like Highland Park 12-Year.
If you’re more into spirits with roasted fruits and intensity, choose a Speyside Scotch like Craigellachie. And if you’re a bourbon fan who’s just flirting with Scotch, pick a smooth style with caramel notes like Aberfeldy or Glenfiddich 14-year aged in a bourbon cask. A blended Scotch, which includes some malted Scotch along with Scotch distilled from grains, is also a fine choice for a mixed drink, since blends tend to be more affordable than single-malts.
Add some bubbles. Quality matters here, too. For the ideal Scotch and soda, you want a sparkling water that doesn’t have other flavors, so McEachern prefers seltzer. “Seltzer is nice because it’s more neutral than sparkling mineral water or club soda,” he says. “Seltzer will bring out the pure flavors in your Scotch.”
Don’t forget the garnish. Garnishes are also key, as they can help bring out different notes in the spirit, says Spears. For a classic Scotch and soda, he recommends a lemon wedge or twist. Scotches with more robust flavors, meanwhile, are complemented by an orange twist or a wedge of pink grapefruit.
“You can really be as creative as you want,” Spears says. “You can play with different citrus fruits like orange or grapefruit to see what you think the drink needs. Everyone’s palate is unique.”
How to Make a Classic Scotch and Soda
In a chilled highball glass (8 to 12-ounces), add the Scotch. Fill the glass with ice. Top with the club soda and garnish with the lemon twist.
What Are Some Good Scotch and Soda Variations?
It seems like every Scotch expert we spoke to had their own favorite riff on the Scotch and soda cocktail. Lizzie Cotterell, a brand ambassador for Bruichladdich, a smoky single-malt Scotch from Islay, loves the combination of single malt with Lagunitas hop water, a non-alcoholic sparkling soda flavored with fragrant hops. She first tried the drink at Wildhawk, a notable cocktail bar in San Francisco’s Mission District.
A classic Scotch-and-soda variation is the Mamie Taylor, named for an opera singer and actress Mamie Taylor in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The story goes that she tried to order a claret lemonade at an upstate New York outing, but the bartender didn’t know how to make it. So he concocted this Scotch and soda riff, the progenitor of the Moscow Mule, instead.
You can also riff on Scotch & Soda is by choosing another sparkling mixer, such as ginger ale, ginger beer or tart lemon soda, says Spears. His go-to Scotch highball is a Scotch and tonic.
What Does Scotch and Soda Taste Like?
The taste of your Scotch and soda depends on the ingredients you choose. If you make you drink with a fruity and robust Scotch, you may notice notes of bitter orange, apricot or pear. If you choose one of the smokier Scottish whiskies, you’ll definitely taste the effects of smoky peat along with citrus and a subtle sweetness. Other Scotches can have a more iodine-forward or medicinal note. That’s part of the beauty of the Scotch highball: Its simplicity allows Scotch to shine.
How Many Calories Are in Scotch and Soda?
The amount of calories in a Scotch and soda drink depends on how much whisky you use. Most Scotch and soda drinks contain two ounces of Scotch and 4 ounces of soda water or seltzer. Plain old seltzer water has 0 calories, while Scotch packs 80 calories per 35ml (1.2 ounces) according to Flaviar. That means that a standard Scotch and soda clocks in at roughly 133 calories. Of course, if you sub in more caloric ingredients like tonic or ginger ale, expect that figure to rise.
What Is the Best Way to Drink a Scotch and Soda?
The best way to drink a Scotch and soda is slowly. This isn’t isn’t the cocktail to order if you’re looking to get there in a hurry. You’ve got martinis, Manhattans, tequila shots, and Long Island Iced Teas for that.
Like other highballs, which have a higher percentage of mixer than spirit, the idea is to enjoy the flavors in the drink. As you sip your ice-cold Scotch and soda, notice the layers of malty, smoky, fruity and vanilla flavors, and the gentle prickle of the bubbles on your tongue. Life is good.
Published: November 1, 2022