What is a Highball? Mixing good drinks  Boilerman Style!

What is a Highball? Mixing good drinks Boilerman Style!

The perfect glass with the perfect ice – the Boilerman Bar trademark.

article by Denis Turco, Drinks Director Boilerman Bars

"What is a Highball?" - This question has been asked many times by guests when I was tending the bar…and I bet they still ask it; “What about this strange drink served in this small glass?”

As bar hosts, we always try to narrate what we are serving in an interesting way, yet sometimes people look at us with scepticism. If your definition of a beautiful cocktail is that it has to look like a frozen Strawberry Daiquiri or a Swimming Pool (don’t get me wrong, I love those cocktails) served in a Hurricane glass with an umbrella and some flames for show… well, you will be disappointed with the simplicity and precision of the Highball. The Highball looks small and does not have any flashy garnish. I personally always describe Highballs as their own cocktail category, usually 1 part booze and 3 parts soda, served in a tall glass with lots of ice. It’s not a very sexy description, but when you serve over 100 guests per night, it's hard to describe in detail what these drinks are all about. But today is my chance! I’m excited to take the time to explain what it means for us to serve you a Highball Boilerman Bar style.

As always with history, there are plenty of points of views about what makes a Highball a Highball. After plenty of research and hard work, we have figured out the most important features of the Highball and how to make this cocktail as delicious and enjoyable as possible.

Boilerman Style Highball glass with two ice balls
Pouring into a Boilerman Highball Glass

History of the Highball

We could spend hours telling you our vision of the Highball and how we have perfected it over the years – with the help of a chemist, an emperor, train drivers, bartenders, our favourite guests and even golf players. The Highball tale spreads over 250 years and has a rich history which took a lot of love and time to fully understand. So, let’s start from the beginning.

Joseph Priestley was a Unitarian Minister, teacher, author, natural philosopher and – in his spare time – chemist. He ‘discovered’ one of the most important elements for humankind: oxygen. You may ask, what has this got to do with a bar full of people who just want to have a delicious drink and a good time? Well, with Priestley’s discovery, he also invented the worldwide-acclaimed concoction Carbonate h2O, more commonly known as … Soda Water. Because of this invention, Priestley reshaped the way people were drinking, and its impact is still shaping us today. Over the next hundred years, carbonating beverages became more and more industrialised. You could have a bubbly champagne feeling with almost every spirit. In particular, the English gentry loved it. Cognac was the go-to spirit for British society and they began to top their brandy with soda water. At this point, they were almost drinking a Brandy Highball. However, thanks to Napoleon, war between France and England began to rage over Europe. No more French brandy and cognac supply to England. The English would then find a more ‘patriotic’ solution and switch cognac for Scotch Whisky. With this, the Highball’s predecessor of the Scotch and Soda was born. So, do we have it now? Well, it is not quite a highball yet. We’re still missing a couple of little things. Some time, and plenty of Scotch and Sodas later, the author C.F. Lawlor wrote the following in his 1895 book, ‘The Mixologist’:

“One piece of ice; let the customer help himself to whiskey, and fill up with Apollinaris water”

The English had found a way to have the perfect Scotch and Soda by simply adding ice into the glass. Ice plays such an important part in the making of the Highball. By the late 19th century, it was very common in England to have a Scotch and Soda served in a highball glass, especially in golf club bars. People were having a ‘ball’.  

So, what about the name? Where does the word Highball come from?

In the late 1800s, prior to the time of electricity and radio calling, punctuality was not a strength in the railway industry. Train drivers had no way of knowing if they were on time or running late, so the stations came up with a simple and smart way for communicating to the drivers the timing and if the railway was clear or not. On the side of the track there was a ball mounted on a pole. If the signal was a Highball, the train was running late and had to go faster – the Boilerman had to fill the locomotive tender with charcoal to increase the speed. If the Lowball was in sight, the speed was good. The word Highball became slang over the years. It became common for people to use it when you needed to go faster. I guess it was more polite to say ‘Highball!’ than ‘move your a#$!’. 

We speculate that over the years, the ‘go faster’ synonym eventually was adopted by the bar industry because the small and crisp drink was made and consumed in a short amount of time. The drinks began to be served in the iconic Highball glass. 

What is actually in a Highball cocktail?

So, we now have the carbonated filler, the spirit, the name, the story, a bartender and a glass. Basically, all we need for opening a Highball bar. We have learnt that a Highball is called so because of the iconic glass it is served in. The glass has to be Collins style – long but not so large that the bubbles are lost from the drink, full of ice, a ratio of 1 part spirit to 3 parts soda, and sometimes just a touch of fresh citrus juice. 

The Highball - Boilerman Style

So, what makes this drink so special in the hands of a Boilerman Bartender? Well, sometimes we like to make the simple things more complex.

Our perfect serve of spirits is 3-4cl. So if you start with a 3-4cl of spirit, 8-9 cl of soda is. This brings us to having a Highball of 120 cl. Once the Highball glass is filled with ice, we have the perfect 120cl serve we are looking for. Just big enough to enjoy, and small enough to want to order another one. 

We use two perfectly round Hoshizaki ice balls to fill the Highball glass. Funnily enough, the founder of the Hoshizaki Company, Mr. Shigetoshi Sakamoto, created his spheric ice machine because he wanted to have ice balls to the shape and size of…a golf ball. Once we began using Hoshizaki’s spherical ice, we realised the ice was lasting longer, meaning our guests had the opportunity to enjoy their ice cold drink for longer. The Highballs were tasting better too, so we took this matter even further. How do you make an ice ball even colder? We decided to double freeze the ice ball overnight, giving them an average temperature of -20°C. How can you make a Highball taste even better, and stay colder for even longer? Double freeze the glass as well. Once both the Hoshizaki ice and the glassware are frozen at the same temperature, we begin to construct the Highball with 2 ice spheres. It looks just like the 1800s train signal right in our own modern glasses. The perfect glass with the perfect ice – the Boilerman Bar trademark. We decided the last component to make a truly authentic Highball was high speed. What kind of Boilerman would we be without it? We prepare enough trays filled with 40 frozen highball glasses each evening so they are ready to go. Just as the Boilermen of the 1800s worked tirelessly to get passengers to where they were going, our bar staff maximise the quality and speed of the classic Highball for our guests. Ordering a Highball is a one-way ticket to somewhere fresh, beautiful and crisp.

In Patrick Duffy’s 1949 book ‘Handbook for Hosts’, he calls the Highball the “high priest of tall drinks”. Cheers to that.

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