Kindred spirits in the world of highballs


As the oppressive summer heat sets in, I find myself turning increasingly to the highball family of cocktails — cold, refreshing, simply produced and just as easily replenished. Highballs make for cheap internal air-conditioning. I’m particularly smitten with two sublime 19th-century-era classic highballs: the Tom Collins and the Rickey.

A highball is a category of cocktail, the most fundamental features of which are (1) a base distilled spirit to which is added a larger proportion of one or more non-alcoholic liquids, one of which is fizzy, (2) chilled with plenty of ice and (3) served in a clear, clean, tall, straight-sided, narrow-mouthed glass — so that the soda stays fizzy from first sip to last.

Why exactly it is called a highball is not entirely clear, but the most popular plausible theory is that it was named for 19th-century American railroad signals — when the ball was raised high on the signal post, the train would pass through without stopping. The high ball meant you were going fast to wherever you were headed. Highball cocktails are similarly made very fast and so just as easily replenished.

This calls to mind an astute comment by the great H.L. Mencken. Mencken wrote in his tome “The American Language” that, “in the department of conviviality the imaginativeness of Americans was shown both in the invention and in the naming” of cocktails.

“The English, in naming their drinks,” he notes by way of contrast, “commonly display a far more limited imagination. Seeking a name, for example, for a mixture of whiskey and soda-water, the best they could achieve was whiskey-and-soda. The Americans, introduced to the same drink, at once gave it the far more original name of high-ball.”

As it happens, the Tom Collins and the Rickey are kindred spirits. The essential elements of both highball drinks are a based distilled spirit — traditionally gin — mixed with fresh citrus juice, soda water and ice. The Collins is lemon based and includes sugar; the Rickey is lime based and is traditionally sugar free.

The Tom Collins has been around since at least the 1840s, likely earlier, but the first known published recipe is from 1876. Here is my preferred version:

Tom Collins

2 ounces gin
½ ounce lemon juice (roughly the juice of half a lemon; NO ready-made sour or Collins mixes please!)
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Ice cubes
Soda water (chilled)

Into a highball or Collins glass — these terms are interchangeable — add 4 or 5 ice cubes, the gin, juice and sugar, stir well to dissolve the sugar and top off with the soda. In a pinch, substitute simple syrup for sugar. Serve with a straw. Drain and repeat as required.

The Rickey — often known as the Gin Rickey simply to differentiate it from the vodka variation — is a similarly beguiling and refreshing cocktail, and just so happens to be Washington’s native cocktail. Invented in 1883 by bartender George Williamson at a bar called Shoemaker’s, located at 1331 E St. NW, where the JW Marriott now stands, the Rickey was named for Democratic lobbyist Col. Joe Rickey. Here’s my version:

1 ½ ounces of gin
½ ounce of lime juice (roughly the juice of half a lime)
Ice cubes
Soda water (chilled)

Same as above, except drop the used lime rind into the glass after squeezing out the juice, and there is no need to stir since there is no sugar. If drinking either while sitting, brace yourself before standing — you might just find yourself legless and wonderfully adrift on a wave of these simple yet sublime libations. L’chaim!

Send your wine and spirits questions to Joshua E. London at [email protected].

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