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Sep 20, 2022

Cocktails and Highballs: What’s the Difference?


Last update: Sep 27, 2022 -

2 min read


When you look at a cocktail menu, you might notice a separate section titled highballs. This poses the question, what’s the difference? Here’s the story behind the two drinks, and some classic examples of each.


What is a highball?

A highball is basically a simpler version of a cocktail, which contains a base spirit such as whiskey, and a single carbonated mixer such as soda water. The mixer makes up the larger proportion of the drink. They are usually served over ice, in a tall straight glass tumbler with a heavy base. Common examples of highballs are gin and tonic, and rum and coke.

The name highball is thought to have been derived from the 19th century railroads. There are a couple of theories as to exactly why this may be. The first idea is that the drinks were served in tall glasses in rail carriages, in the days of steam powered trains. In the engine car, a ball was used to indicate when the boiler pressure was raised, hence the term ‘highball.’

It did not initially refer to the drink, but to the signal given by the conductor, which consisted of two short blasts of the whistle, followed by a longer one. This reflected the two shots of liquor and longer pour of mixer in a highball drink.

Another theory is that the raised ball at a signal post indicated that the train was clear to pass the station without stopping. The name may have been adopted because of the association of the drink with train journeys.

Still another theory goes that the name derives from the Irish term for glass of whiskey, ball, possibly because it was served at golf clubs in a tall glass, hence the addition of high to the name. As you have probably guessed, there is no one definite answer as to when and where the highball was invented.


What is a cocktail?

A cocktail is a more complicated version of a highball, containing at least three ingredients including a distilled liquor, but usually more. Classic cocktails include the margarita, the martini, and the cosmopolitan. There are hundreds of different types, and expert bartenders love to create their own signature mixes.

The art of making a cocktail is much more skilled than a highball, because they many involve freshly pressed fruit juices, herbs, spices, or creams. Some types are shaken with ice to chill, dilute, and mix the drink, while others are stirred.

Unlike highballs, they are served in a variety of glasses, such as the martini glass, which has an inverted cone shaped bowl, with a tall thin stem. The wider glass helps to open up the spirit to the air, allowing the aroma of the drink to fully materialise.

Like highballs, there are many stories as to how the cocktail got its name. One of the most popular versions is that the strength of the drinks made people walk crookedly, or ‘cock their tails.’

If you are interested in finding out more about the art of bartending, please get touch today!


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