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spirits

Gin Cuba Libre. 

Is the highball a forgiving, splash-it-and-done, perfect-for-lazy-summer-evenings sort of drink?

Or is it a fussy, elegant, high-precision, every-detail-matters sort of drink?

The answer is yes.

At dive bars and beach-house decks and backyard parties all over America, we’re well into the season of the highball—a category of tipple that, at its most basic, is just a couple of ounces of booze mixed with a pour of nonalcoholic bubbly mixer. They’re simple, two-ingredient drinks made for sipping over time, over ice, out on your stoop, chatting with passing neighbors as the drink sweats a puddle on the step.

The highball family is a large one, and you’ve certainly met some of its members, whose reputations have risen and fallen over the decades. The gin and tonic, the vodka-soda, the rum and Coke, the Scotch and soda—all siblings. When they get out the family photo albums, they point out their far-flung family members: the Dark & Stormy (rum, ginger beer, lime), the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, soda), the Paloma (tequila, grapefruit soda, lime), the Cuba Libré (rum, cola, lime) and other kin.

They may wonder aloud whether Grandpa Seven and Seven (Seagram’s Seven whiskey and 7Up) is still alive, but they’ll all try not to talk about their embarrassing youngest brother, Vodka Red Bull, who has been in and out of jail for years because he just parties so hard.

I like many members of the family, and appreciate their ease of assembly for socializing. But this side of the Pacific, highballs are frequently viewed as such a respite from fussiness, they scarcely get a moment’s thought. They’re treated as concoctions people can splash over ice without fuss or even measurement.

These days, I tend to drink less and less, so I believe more and more that anything worth drinking is worth drinking well. So I try to balance highballs’ unbuttoned appeal with a commitment to give them better than the “Whatevs!” approach they often get.

A signal of this loosey-goosey attitude, I think, can be seen in the peals of laughter (or snarky online trolling) I’ve gotten whenever I’ve run a recipe for a gin and tonic.

Go ahead. Get it out of your system. I’ve heard them all at this point. Heck, I’ll do it for you: “I hope you’ll be providing a 10-step recipe for how to make a rum and Coke next!” “Please also explain how to boil water.” “You’re literally SAYING THE RECIPE in the name of the drink!”

There. Feel better? I do.

I shan’t dwell long on these comments, many of which come from online trolls. For trolls, there is really only one correct recipe: Smile politely, make an obscene gesture at the screen, then go on with your life.

But for those who simply have sincere questions, I will refer you to the other side of highballs. Across the Pacific, top Japanese bartenders—who are known for their precision, elegance and carefully refined techniques—treat the whisky-soda (the proto-highball) with the greatest precision and craft. They often carve or crack ice by hand and fit it to the glass, chill the whisky and mixer in advance, and carefully consider the proportions, so that each iteration of the drink has the right amount of bubble and displays the flavors and aromas of the specific whisky correctly. They pour the soda in just such a way (down the size of the glass), stir the drink a precise number of times. Sometimes they add a garnish or express citrus over the drink—but only if it suits the particular notes of the whisky.

I witnessed the making of a real Japanese highball only once, at a bar in Kyoto (we were on a group tour that didn’t prioritize cocktail-seeking). Watching the bartender make the drink, I was reminded of days earlier, when we had climbed up a forested hillside in the mist to visit a Buddhist temple, where the resident monk had led us in a tea ceremony. The bartender’s small, graceful movements reminded me of how the monk had handled the matcha tea.

I would argue for bringing a touch more of this precision into home highballing. Generally speaking, the template for a highball is 2 ounces of spirit and 3 to 5 ounces of bubbly mixer, but in that 3 to 5 ounces, there’s a lot of room to screw up. And while it’s true that you probably don’t need a precise 10-step process to make most highballs (unless you’re trying to get a job at a cocktail bar in Japan), you still need to be mindful of how your ingredients taste and how they interact.

For example: Using the same tequila, there is a noticeable difference between a Paloma made with the same proportions of grapefruit soda and spirit depending on whether the soda is the Mexican Jarritos Toronja (sweet, tangy and faintly saline) or San Pellegrino’s Pompelmo (bittersweet, strong grapefruit aroma) or Q Grapefruit (bright, bitter, extremely tart). I would definitely want to add lime juice to drinks made with the first two; the Q is so acid-bright that you may not find lime necessary; I usually add a little salt to a Paloma, but might not if I were using Jarritos.

Moreover, in a two-ingredient drink, there’s nowhere for a bad component to hide, whether it’s the spirit or the mixer. You may have turned up your nose at cloying Cuba Librés for years, only to find yourself surprised at how much better the drink is when made with an interesting cola like Boylan’s, Q or Fentiman’s. Or how a Dark & Stormy grows on you when you find a ginger beer with real zip, or make it with a new smoky ginger ale instead.

Here are a few combinations to try:

- A Paloma with Q Grapefruit soda and a Tajín rim.

- A Dark & Stormy with Gosling’s rum and Fever-Tree Smoky Ginger Ale.

- A G & T with Sipsmith Lemon Drizzle gin (or Malfy Gin Con Limone) and elderflower tonic water, garnished with a sprig of thyme.

- A modified Pimm’s Cup with Pimm’s No. 1 and cucumber soda, sliced ginger and lemons for garnish.

- A reverse Campari soda (gin, top with a bitter Italian soda, Stappj or Sanbitter), garnish with an orange wheel.

I know: It’s summer, and you want to relax, and your friends are hollering for you to just slosh that rum and Coke in their party cups and get out to the beach. But they don’t have to know that you made an effort to figure out the combinations and proportions that would take their basic highball higher. Just hand it off with a “Whatevs!” Throw a little sand in it, if it’ll make you feel more beachy. It’ll still be better than a Vodka Red Bull.

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