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What Is a Highball? Depends Who You Ask

If you’re looking for a simple cocktail that’s fast, easy-to-make and doesn’t need too many ingredients, a highball is the perfect choice. A classic highball is made with whiskey, but the drink can be made with any type of spirit.  

“It’s one of the broadest categories of mixed drinks,” says Anthony Caporale, director of spirits education at the Institute of Culinary Education

Here, we talk with bar experts about everything you need to know about making and enjoying a highball.

What Is a Highball?  

A highball is a classic drink made from an ounce or two of any type of spirit, topped with a carbonated nonalcoholic beverage like sparkling water, tonic or a soft drink, and served over ice, according to Caporale. The drink is usually served in a tall glass, also known as a highball glass. 

But with that said, if you were to query a large group of bartenders on how one defines a highball, “it would be hard to find two people to give you the same answer,” says Will Wyatt, owner of Mister Paradise in New York City. “The idea is that it’s just anything that’s a spirit with something carbonated on top of it.”

While highballs are typically made with a fizzy mixer, says Caporale there’s a subcategory known as a “juicer,” which is a spirit base mixed with juice.  

Where Did Highballs Originate?  

The origins of a highball aren’t entirely clear, but they likely date back to at least the late 19th century.  

Caporale suggests that highballs—or at least drinks called “highballs”—possibly first emerged during the early days of the railroad. Before radios, railroads installed signal poles along the tracks with balls that could be raised to the top when the path ahead was clear. According to Merriam Webster, the term highball also refers to a “railroad signal for a train to proceed at full speed.”  

“To me, this sums up highballs—they’re quick to make, and since they contain more mixer than spirit, they’re easy to enjoy,” says Caporale.  

Wyatt, however, suggests that drinks that would today be classified as highballs might date back to as early as the 1780s, soon after Schweppes debuted its carbonated water. People quickly started adding booze to it, creating a drink that looked suspiciously like a highball  

What Drinks Are Considered Highballs?  

Highballs are a broad cocktail category that can encompass many different drinks, says Marshall Minaya, beverage director at Valerie and Madame George in New York City. 

There’s some debate about what drinks fall into the category. But, technically, cocktails, like a gin and tonic, rum and coke, vodka soda, whiskey ginger and a 7 and 7 could all be considered a highball.  

How to Make a Highball 

Highballs usually feature 1.5 to 2 ounces of spirits topped with a nonalcoholic (usually carbonated) mixer, says Minaya. They’re served in a full glass of ice.  

“The whole idea of having a highball is drinking the alcohol lengthened,” says Wyatt. So, highballs are typically light drinks with a low alcohol-by-volume (abv)

Here are some different ways to make a highball, according to bar experts.  

Scotch Highball 

Scotch and Soda

Also known as a Scotch and soda, a Scotch highball is a classic highball. It’s made with Scotch whisky and club soda.  

Amaro Highballs  

Photo by Tom Arena

Liqueurs can be used in highballs in place of harder spirits. Amari, a category of Italian herbal bitter liqueurs, make especially good ones. An amaro highball can be made with Montenegro Amaro, Amaro Averna or others. Another option is a Campari and soda, which Wyatt says is one of his favorites.  

Ranch Water 

Highball with Ranch Water surrounded by limes
Courtesy of Getty Images

This Texas classic is made with just three ingredients: tequila, sparkling water and lime. The ranch water cocktail is essentially a tequila highball.  


Paloma cocktail
Paloma cocktail / Photo by Meg Baggott, styling by Dylan Garret

The Paloma has all the features of a highball: tequila and grapefruit soda (or grapefruit juice and sparkling water). It’s often garnished with a lime wedge and served in a salted-rim glass.  

Buck Cocktails  

Buck-style cocktails, which are drinks made withginger ale or ginger beer, citrus and any number of base spirits, are Minaya’s favorite type of highball to make for visitors to his bar, he says. These drinks include a Moscow Mule or ginger whiskey.  


What Is a Highball Glass? 

A highball glass is a tall slender glass that’s often used to serve a highball drink. The glasses usually hold 8 to 12 ounces. You can also opt to use a Collins glass, which look similar to its highball counterparts, but are slightly taller and sometimes frosted at the top.  

What’s In a Highball? 

Highballs are traditionally made with 1.5 to 2 ounces of spirits, like whiskey, gin, vodka or a liqueur. They’re topped with a carbonated beverage, like ginger beer, seltzer or other soda. The drink is served over a full glass of ice. 

How Strong Is a Highball?  

Since they consist of mostly nonalcoholic mixers and lots of ice, highballs tend to be low in alcohol. The exact abv depends on the type of spirit used, though. A 1.5-ounce shot of most hard liquors contains about 40% abv.