The Fascinating History of the Highball Cocktail

July 26, 2022 by Anna-Bet Stemmet

The Highball cocktail is perhaps best known as a lighter and more refreshing way to enjoy your whisky. But where does this time-honored mixed drink come from?  

There are several theories about the origins of the classic Highball cocktail but the cocktail we know and love today was invented in the UK and gained popularity in the US, before eventually being perfected in Japan. 

FUN FACT: In the days of steam locomotives, the system ran a ball up the duct when the boiler reached a high level. It is said the men then took a break to drink whisky, hence the name ‘highball’. 

How Highball cocktails originated in jolly old England

The history of Highball begins in England with the invention of soda, one of its key components. Rumor has it that one day in October 1887, an American actor by the name of EJ Ratcliffe entered the establishment of Patrick Gavin Duffy, a famous bartender, and asked him for a “scotch & soda”. This is the first version of highball.  

The drink then became popular throughout the country. A few years later, Duffy recounted in his book The Official Mixer’s Guide that he was the one who introduced the famous cocktail to America in 1885. 

The Highball cocktail becomes a popular drink in the United States

During prohibition in the United States, sales of scotch exploded on the black market and the Highball cocktail was widely consumed in clandestine bars (Gatsby the Magnificent refers to it). Ice, another main element of the cocktail, also became more readily available and in vogue in 1880. 

After the liquor ban was lifted, whiskey and soda was established as a refined drink. The highball trend would continue until the 1980s, before scotch was replaced by vodka as the spirit of choice. It was its reintroduction in Japan as an after-work drink that relaunched the trend. 

Highball cocktails rule the roost in Japan

In the Land of the Rising Sun, the classic Highball cocktail is very popular to this day. More so, it is an integral part of Japanese culture. A simple glass with ice, whiskey, sparkling water, and that’s it! Less expensive than beer, the cocktail was served to Japanese employees in the 1950s. But, little by little, the trend was running out of steam. 

In 2008, a local scotch brand launched a campaign and returned the drink to the front of the counter, causing a new boom in the popularity of the Highball! It is now seen as a symbol of authenticity for young Japanese people because their grandparents consumed it.  

Make a Highball cocktail at home

If you are just starting out in the world of cocktail making, the Highball cocktail is a great option since it’s so quick and easy to assemble. Simply build 2 ounces of scotch and 4 – 6 ounces of club soda on ice in a tall glass and add a slice of citrus fruit like lemon or lime if you’re feeling fancy. You can also opt for ginger ale as a mixer if you prefer something a little sweeter. Cheers! 


A highball is a mixed alcoholic drink composed of an alcoholic base spirit and a larger proportion of a non-alcoholic mixer, often a carbonated beverage. Popular versions include scotch and soda, and gin and tonic.

Highball glasses are used to serve tall drinks like a Mojito, Tom Collins and the popular Dark 'n Stormy.

Yes, a G&T qualifies as a Highball cocktail. Served on ice, with a squeeze of lemon or lime, this highball drink is as refreshing to drink as it is easy to pour.


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