The whiskey highball has evolved. While the classic drink still can come as straightforward as spirit plus effervescent mixer, many takes now skew more complex, with elevated ingredients, unexpected flavors and new presentations. From playing with subtle twists on the basic combination of whiskey and soda water to introducing elaborate techniques popularized by Japan’s bartenders, bar pros today see the whiskey highball as fertile ground for experimentation.
Which is why, here, Punch has challenged Bartender in Residence participants to reinterpret the drink in ways that express their unique points of view. Each team worked with the same base spirit (Jim Beam Black) and the highball template to create a new look at the American Whiskey Highball.
On one hand, twins Emilio and Miguel Salehi, bartenders who work in tandem, drew on their Southern ties to create a delicately floral tea-infused highball that reflects their refined simplicity. On the other, C. Parker Luthman brought a user-friendly culinary approach, spicing up a highball with a nuanced white pepper syrup.
“Whiskey highballs are really simple cocktails, making them the perfect canvas for experimenting with other flavors and ingredients,” explains Emilio Salehi, who most recently, worked with a San Francisco cocktail bar noted for emphasizing local and seasonal ingredients in its drinks and small plates.
In creating their Black Thorn Highball, the Salehis drew inspiration from Southern sweet tea. “Growing up in the South, I wanted to incorporate some kind of black tea element as a nod to all the sweet tea that folks consume down there, often with a shot of bourbon,” Emilio explains. Specifically, the pair opted for a tea with notes of rose petal, “for a floral counterpoint,” brewed deliberately strong so the flavors would stand up when diluted with soda water. The name of the drink—the Black Thorn—references the thorns on a rose stem and the core spirit, Jim Beam Black, an “extra-aged” bourbon that spends twice as long in oak barrels as the original Jim Beam.
“Jim Beam Black is a big, big whiskey, which gave me a strong center point,” Emilio says. “The extra oak really gives you a lot of room to incorporate other flavors without overtaking the vanilla and spice [of the whiskey].”
To accent the whiskey, the brothers added small amounts of Bigallet China-China Amer, a bitter orange liqueur, and Gran Classico, which adds a grapefruitlike tone. Those bitter citrus notes draw out the dark caramelized orange notes in the Jim Beam Black, he explains. Plus, “bitter orange is always a no-brainer with black tea and whiskey.”
By comparison, the Cherry Highball created by Parker Luthman, a former head bartender at a Providence, Rhode Island, craft cocktail bar, frames the bourbon with a half-ounce of cherry liqueur and a piquant white pepper syrup.
“I really wanted to focus on the pronounced notes of char in the Jim Beam Black bourbon,” Luthman explains. Centering the whiskey and its warming oak and caramel notes as “the star of the recipe,” it was an easy decision to simply lengthen the drink with soda water. Next, “I chose to use a cherry liqueur to add some supportive fruit flavor, and white pepper adds a savory spice note that keeps things exciting.”
Luthman is known for quirky riffs on classic cocktails, and his approach can skew culinary; when working with whiskey, he often draws on the classic ingredient pairings used in pastry. He also tries “to incorporate one savory ingredient in all of my recipes to create something new, yet still approachable.” Here, that savory element is zingy white pepper, steeped into simple syrup, and it makes all the difference.
“The white pepper syrup adds a touch of body, a clean and lighter spice note and a satisfying edge in the finish of this cocktail,” Luthman says.
Although these special touches add nuanced color to the blank canvas of the cocktail, don’t lose sight of its two key components, the bartender cautions. While the whiskey may be the “star,” the soda water deserves a little TLC, too. Luthman emphasizes the importance of preserving its effervescence—a process that, interestingly, begins with the noncarbonated ingredients.
“Combining and chilling the still ingredients in the glass first will help ensure that your highball stays carbonated longer as you enjoy it, as the soda water will not release all of its carbonation as quickly when poured over the other ingredients due to a variance in temperatures,” Luthman explains.
Then, Luthman pours the soda gently down the side of the glass, avoiding the ice as much as possible. Instead of a vigorous stir, the bar spoon is “pulled” up and down in the glass, just a couple of times, to lightly mix the drink without overagitation, which would release some of the bubbles in the soda water.
The final result: a gently spiced, super crisp whiskey highball.
“In my opinion,” Luthman concludes, “the main focus of any highball recipe should be the perfect balance between the base spirit and the mixer, since those two ingredients usually make up most of the recipe.”