Drinks

The Highball

We look into the old bar books and trace the history of the highball. What is it, what distinguishes it and how has it changed over time? Its origins lie far away and go back to an immigration of Dutch people in the 14th century.

The Scotch High Ball by Paul Lowe in his 1904 book "Drinks As They Are Mixed".
The Scotch High Ball by Paul Lowe in his 1904 book “Drinks As They Are Mixed”.

First of all, let’s start with the summary of this article: A highball combines a base drink, which can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic, with a carbonated drink. In addition, colourings and flavourings can be added, for example liqueurs or bitters. The use of zests is also permitted. Citrus juices, however, do not belong into a highball.

The ratio between spirit and filler should be between 1:1 and 1:2 so that the filler does not dominate too much. The highball glass should hold between 200 and 250 ml; [8] We prefer the Libbey Chicago Highball glass, which holds 220 ml.

Where does the name come from?

The question of the origin of the name is exciting. What is a highball and what does it have to do with the drink? It is commonly said that the highball got its name from a 19th century railway signal. However, this is not the whole truth. The Irish and the Dutch also have something to say about it.

The name probably goes back to the Irish expression “a ball of malt”. In Ireland, this was usually understood to mean a glass of whiskey. [1] [2] This quantity is not to be confused with the boll, which was a measure of grain. One boll is equal to 6 bushels or 218.212 litres. [3] [4] However, boll is also used to refer to a seed pod. The word is used in Middle English and is attested as early as around the year 1400. It comes from Middle Dutch. [3] In Flemish, “bolleke” refers to a glass of beer (the suffix -eke is the diminutive of the word boll, which means “glass”).[5] There was an immigration of Dutch in the 14th and 15th centuries, and with them the “boll” probably came to England and later to Ireland,[5] [6] where it was then changed to “ball”. From there it came to America. Perhaps, however, the word was exported to the New World not only by the Irish but also by the Dutch; thus, an old Dutch was still spoken in Manhattan and the adjacent Hudson Valley until the 1940s. [5]

Against this background, it is not surprising that the expression “a ball of whiskey” has also been transferred to the corresponding glass. What we know as an old-fashioned glass also bears the designation “lowball glass”. [7]

But why the addition of “low”? Quite simple. Low is the opposite of high. So if you wanted to drink a whiskey without soda, you ordered a ball or lowball, i.e. a low glass; otherwise a highball or a high glass.

A highball signal of the "Baltimore and Ohio Railroad" for two adjacent tracks. Reproduced from "Les Chemins de Fer Amérique" by E. Lavoinne and E. Pontzen from the year 1880.
A highball signal of the “Baltimore and Ohio Railroad” for two adjacent tracks. Reproduced from “Les Chemins de Fer Amérique” by E. Lavoinne and E. Pontzen from the year 1880.

There are also opinions that the highball derives its name from the railway system. A “highball” was understood to mean both an express train and a train that is on schedule or the instruction for a train to proceed at full speed. These meanings are derived from the train signal of the same name. This highball signal was a ball attached to a pole next to the tracks. When the track was clear, the ball was raised to the top of the mast. Otherwise it was lowered. The term “highball” thus became synonymous with “clear ahead” or with moving at high speed. [5] [9] [10] [12] The name of the drink is supposed to derive from this, because the Highball can also be made at a high speed. The sometimes held opinion that the name refers to the speed at which one could get drunk is nonsensical – a shot rich in alcohol would be much more suitable for this. We have also read the opinion that the name comes from the fact that there is a piece of ice floating on top in the glass and thus resembles the raised signal, the highball, from the railway industry. A look at historical records, however, reveals that only rarely there is an explicit request for just one piece of ice. This theory should therefore be regarded as a legend.

What came before the Highball?

Filling up a spirit with a filler is not a novel invention that gave rise to the name “highball”. On the contrary, topping up with soda is an old tradition and the name “highball” was only used later for this group of drinks. As early as 1862, Jerry Thomas called it “Brandy and Soda”, which is nothing other than a “Brandy Highball”. In the following, we therefore want to mention highball recipes that were not yet called highball.

Historical recipes that are not called highball

It was not until 1885 that the term highball was first used. We have looked in the books published before that year for recipes that are the equivalent of a highball but are not called that. This is important for understanding what a highball is and how it developed.

1862 Jerry Thomas: The Bartenders’ Guide. Page 81. Brandy and Soda. (Sometimes called Stone Wall).

(Use large bar glass.)
1 wine-glass of Cognac brandy.
1 glass of fine ice.
Fill up with plain soda.

1882 Harry Johnson: New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual. Page 45. Stone Fence.

(Use a whiskey glass.)
1 wine glass full of whiskey;
2 or 3 lumps of broken ice;
fill up the glass with cider, stir up well with a spoon,
and serve.

1882 Harry Johnson: New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual. Page 51. Stone Wall.

( Use a large bar glass.)
One-quarter table-spoon of sugar;
3 or 4 lumps of ice;
1 wine glass of whiskey;
1 bottle of plain soda water;
stir up well with a spoon, remove the ice, and serve.
This is a very cooling drink, and most generally
called for in warm season.

1882 Harry Johnson: New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual. Page 61. Brandy & Soda.

(Use a large bar glass.)
3 or 4 lumps of broken ice;
1 wine glass of brandy;
1 bottle of plain soda water;
mix well with a spoon, but attention must be paid not
to let the mixture spread over the glass. This is a very
delicious rink in summer.

1882 Harry Johnson: New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual. Page 65. Brandy and Ginger Ale.

(Use a large bar glass.)
2 or 3 lumps of broken ice;
1 wine glass of brandy;.
1 bottle of good ginger ale;
mix well together, and particular attention must be
paid when pouring the ginger ale into the other mix-
tures, not to let the foam run over the glass, and it is
customary to ask the customer, what kind of ale he
desires, the imported or domestic; the imported being
the best to use, as it mixes better, and will give more
satisfaction than the other.

1883 Patsy McDonough: McDonough’s Bar-Keepers’ Guide. Page 42. Brandy and Soda.

Use small bar glass, one drink of Cognac; fill up with Plain Soda
direct from the cooler.

1883 Patsy McDonough: McDonough’s Bar-Keepers’ Guide. Page 42. Whiskey and Soda.

The same as No. 260 [Brandy and Soda], substituting Whiskey for Brandy.

1884 George Winter: How to Mix Drinks. Page 34. Stone Wall.

(Use large bar glass.)
One teaspoon of sugar;
Two small lumps of ice;
One wine glass of whiskey;
One bottle of plain soda water;
Mix well with a spoon, remove the ice, and serve.

Historical Highball Recipes

The first time a “High Ball” appears in print is in 1895, by both Chris F. Lawlor and Herbert W. Green. Below we give chronologically the highball recipes (i.e. those recipes that have the term highball in their name) up to the year 1904. In this year, liqueurs and wines are used in a highball for the first time. After that, the recipes offer nothing new that could deepen our understanding of the development of the highball. In addition, we can see that an imprecision about what a highball is also creeps in. The first highballs with citrus juice are listed – which, however, are not highballs in the strict sense, but Collinses.

1895 Chris F. Lawlor: The Mixicologist. Page 39. High Ball.

Put in thin ale-glass one lump of ice; fill with
syphon seltzer to within an inch of the top, then
float one half jigger brandy or whiskey.

1895 Herbert W. Green: Mixed Drinks. Page 23. High Ball.

Put in thin ale-glass two or three lumps of
ice, fill with syphon seltzer to within an inch of
the top, then float one-half jigger brandy or
whisky.

It is interesting that Herbert W. Green obviously understands only brandy or whisky with soda as a “High Ball”. On page 46 he mentions a “Brandy and Ginger Ale” and on page 47 a “Brandy and Soda”. For those interested, these recipes are also listed here:

1895 Herbert W. Green: Mixed Drinks. Page 46. Brandy and Ginger Ale.

Put in thin lemonade-glass one jigger brandy,
fill with imported ginger ale,—serve.

1895 Herbert W. Green: Mixed Drinks. Page 47. Brandy and Soda.

Put two or three lumps ice in thin lemonade-
glass, one jigger brandy, pour in one bottle of club
soda.

1895 R. C. Miller: The American Bar-Tender. Page 69. High Ball.

(Use champagne glass.)
Fill 3/4 full of seltzer.
Float whiskey on top.

1898 Joseph L. Haywood: Mixology. Page 10. High Ball.

Medium sized glass. A little lemon juice, a little cracked
ice, a good drink of whiskey; fill up with seltzer; stir slightly;
serve.
Brandy, Holland gin, Tom gin, or Scotch whiskey are used
also in making High Balls.

1900 Harry Johnson: The New and Improved Illustrated Bartenders’ Manual. Page 251. Highball.

(Use a medium size fizz glass.)
Mix as follows:
2 or 3 lumps of clear crystal ice;
1 wine glass of Scotch whiskey;
Fill up a glass with ice-cold syphon vichy; if cus-
tomer requires whiskey, gin, brandy or highball, you
must then use the liquor accordingly.

1900 James C. Maloney: The 20th Century Guide For Mixing Fancy Drinks. Page 32. High Ball.

Put in a high ball glass one piece of ice, then
place the bottle of liquor to the customer, allow-
ing him to help himself ; after pouring in the liquor
fill up the glass with seltzer or any water the cus-
tomer may desire.
This is sometimes called a Bradley Martin.

1900 William T. Boothby: Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender. #142-24. High Ball or Low Ball.

Whiskey and seltzer served in a long thin glass is known by both of the
above appellations. A Scotch High Ball is Scotch whiskey and seltzer, etc., etc.

1902 Anonymus: Fancy Drinks. Page 22. Brandy and Soda.

LARGE BAR GLASS. — 1/4 glass broken ice, one
wineglass brandy. Let customer fiil up with plain
soda. This is a fine summer drink and might be
called a “Brandy High Ball.”

1903 Tim Daly: Daly’s Bartender’s Encyclopedia. Page 44. High Ball.

Use a fizz glass.
1 or 2 small lumps of ice.
1 wine glass of Plymouth gin.
Fill the glass with ice cold syphon seltzer.
If customer requires whiskey or brandy,
mix in the same manner.
This, without doubt, is the blue ribbon
long drink in which an alcoholic fluid is a
factor.

1903 Tim Daly: Daly’s Bartender’s Encyclopedia. Page 99. Royal High Ball.

Use a high ball glass.
2 small lumps of ice.
1 wine glass of Royal Scotch whiskey.
Twist the rind of a lemon and fill the
glass with seltzer, and serve with a spoon.
Use nothing but Royal Scotch whiskey in
mixing this drink.

1904 Frank Newman: American-Bar. Page 107. White Label “Highball”.

Verre n° 10
Pour servir un “white Label” Highball, prendre le verre
n° 10, y mettre quelques morceaux de glace.
Déboucher une bouteille ou und demi-bouteille de soda
et passer le tout avec la bouteille de Dewar’s whisky
“white Label” au concommateur.

By 1904, Applegreen already had a whole category of “highballs”:

1904 John Applegreen: Applegreen’s Barkeeper’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks. Page 25. High Balls.

Whisky High Ball
Use a medium size thin glass, into which put
a small round piece of ice, and a small bar spoon.
Let your customer help himself with rye or
bourbon whisky, then fill the glass with siphon
seltzer, or apollinaris water , or use ginger ale if
customer prefers it.

If you take other spirits, you get a Scotch Whisky High Ball, Irish Whisky High Ball, Brandy High Ball, Apple Brandy High Ball, Tom Gin High Ball, Holland Gin High Ball, Plymouth Gin High Ball, Sloe Gin High Ball, Rum High Ball, Creme De Menthe High Ball, Combination High Ball (1/2 Ginger Ale, 1/2 Seltzer), Ginger Ale High Ball (Whisky High Ball with Ginger Ale instead of Seltzer).

Apparently, even back then, the ice was important for the highballs. Applegreen praises: „In my capacity as barmanager I have found the Blakeslee high ball machine very convenient and helpful to first-class service, producing perfect cubes.“

With Lowe liqueurs and wines also come into play:

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Page 39: High Ball.

Use small punch glass.
Ice, 1 lump.
Rye, Bourbon or Scotch whiskey (al-
low customer to pour).
Carbonated water; fill glass.
(Very popular drink.)

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Page 39: High Ball, Admiral Schley.

Use High Ball glass.
Ice, 1 piece.
Pineapple syrup, 1 teaspoonful.
Lemon juice, 1 teaspoonful.
Tokay or Sweet Catawba wine, 2-3
wineglass.
Irish whiskey, 2-3 wineglass.
Apollinaris or seltzer; fill glass full.
Serve.

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Page 39: High Ball, Bizzy Izzy.

Use High Ball glass.
Ice, 1 piece.
Pineapple syrup, 2 teaspoonfuls.
Lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoonful.
Sherry wine, 1/2 wineglass.
Rye whiskey, 1/2 wineglass.
Apollinaris or seltzer; fill up glass.
Stir gently and serve.

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Page 39: High Ball, Ginger Ale.

Use High Ball glass.
Ice, 1 lump.
Whiskey, Rye or Bourbon (allow cus
tomer to pour).
Ginger ale; fill up glass.

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Page 40: High Ball, Golf Links.

Use High Ball glass.
Ice, 1 lump.
Pineapple syrup, 1 t easpoonful.
Lemon juice, 1 teaspoonful.
Sweet Catawba wine, 1/2 wineglass.
Rye whiskey, 1/2 glass.
Medford rum, 1 dash.
Apollinaris or seltzer water ; fill up
glass. Stir gently and serve.

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Page 40: High Ball, King Edward.

Use High Ball glass.
Ice, 1 lump.
Pineapple syrup, 1 teaspoonful.
Lemon juice, 1 teaspoonful.
Tokay or Sweet Catawba wine, 1/2
wineglass.
Scotch whiskey, 1/2 wineglass.
Apollinaris or seltzer; fill up glass.
Serve.

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Page 41: High Ball, Marchioness.

Use high ball glass.
Ice, 1 lump.
Pineapple syrup, 1 teaspoonful.
Lemon juice, 1 teaspoonful.
Tokay or Sweet Catawba wine, 1/2
wineglass.
Cognac, 1/2 wineglass.
Apollinaris or seltzer; fill up glass.
Serve.

1904 Paul E. Lowe: Drinks As They Are Mixed. Seite 41: Page Ball, Uncle Sam.

Use high ball glass.
Ice, 1 lump.
Lemon juice, 1 teaspoonful.
Syrup, 1 teaspoonful.
Abricotine, 1/2 teaspoonful.
Dry Catawba, 1/2 wineglass.
Tokay wine, 1/2 wineglass.
Brandy, 1 pony.
Pineapple, 1 slice.
Seltzer or Apollinaris; fill up glass.
Serve.

Paul Lowe also shows how the distinctions to other drink categories are slowly becoming imprecise. He calls drinks with lemon juice high balls, although they actually belong to the group of Collinses: A Collins is based on a classic sour with the use of spirits, lemon juice, sugar syrup and soda water. [11]

The distinction from other drinks

We analysed this intermingling with other categories exemplarily in our article on the Bourbon Highball. There are numerous overlaps with the Horse’s Neck and the Mamie Taylor. To cut to the chase: It’s quite a mess. Anyone with a deeper interest may want to read through this analysis first.

At this point, however, we would like to continue our previous consideration of the highball. We had ended it with the year 1904, but it seems important to us, after feedback we have received, to go into more detail about what a highball actually is. For this purpose, we would first like to cite two further sources as examples, in which it is quite well defined what a highball is. These are Hugo Ensslin’s “Recipies for Mixed Drinks” from 1917 and David A. Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” from 1948.

Hugo Ensslin writes: „All the above highballs are made and served as follows: Use highball glass with cube of ice, add one drink of liquor desired, fill up with carbonated water or Ginger Ale. Serve with small bar spoon in glass and a piece of lemon peel if desired.“ [14]

David Embury writes: „In an effort to start a movement for the purpose of bringing some semblance of order out of chaos, however, let us define a Highball as any tall iced drink (6 ounces or more) consisting of a base liquid (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) in combination with a carbonated beverage and with or without auxiliary coloring and flavoring agents, but definitely without lemon or lime juice. If citrus juices are used the drink becomes a Buck or a Collins or a Rickey and is no longer a Highball. … The Bucks, the Rickeys, the Collinses, and the Fizzes all differ from the Highball in that they contain citrus juice, whereas the Highball does not. It is easier, however, to distinguish them from the Highball than it is to distinguish them from one another.“ [15] „As a matter of fact, you can also create many interesting variations of your other Highballs by adding a few dashes of either a liqueur or bitters.“ [15]

In connection with the Bourbon Highball, we had derived how a Bourbon Highball is prepared from our point of view:

Bourbon Highball = Bourbon combined with soda or ginger ale.

Horse’s Neck = Ginger ale with lemon spiral

Stiff Horse’s Neck = Horse’s Neck With a Kick = Horse’s Collar = Horse’s Hoof = Spirit and ginger ale with lemon spiral

Taylor = Buck = Spirit + ginger ale + citrus juice

At this point we have to generalise a little. The “Horse’s Neck” is not a highball, but the “Horse’s Neck with a Kick” is. So what we said about the bourbon highball does not apply to the highball per se. Generally speaking, a highball can certainly be made with zest and bitters. Only citrus juice may not be added, because then it is no longer a highball.

Summary

Our analysis of the bourbon highball, and also the analysis we have done in this paper, confirms the statements of Hugo Ensslin and David A. Embury.

A highball combines a base drink, which can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic, with a carbonated drink. In addition, colourings and flavourings can be added, for example liqueurs or bitters. The use of zests is also permitted. Citrus juices, however, do not belong in a highball.

 

Sources
  1. http://www.whiskymag.com/glossary/ball_of_malt.html: Whisky Glossary – Ball of Malt.
  2. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199916191.001.0001/acref-9780199916191-e-0346?rskey=w0qPaL&result=2: Ball of malt.
  3. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/boll: Boll.
  4. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushel#Britisches_Bushel: Bushel.
  5. http://www.whiskymag.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=1065: What is origin of term “highball”?
  6. https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/: England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550. Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages.
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_fashioned_glass: Old Fashioned glass.
  8. http://mixology.eu/bars/the-boilerman-bar-hamburg/: The Boilerman Bar, Hamburg. Der Löwe heizt ein! By Steffen, 28. September 2012.
  9. http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/73000553.pdf National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form – Highball Signal. 2. July 1973.
  10. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/highball: Highball.
  11. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collins_%28Cocktail%29: Collins (Cocktail).
  12. E. Lavoinne & E. Pontzen: Les chemis de fer en Amerique.Tome premier. Construction. Atlas. Paris, Dunod, 1880. Plate 39. Viewable at  archive.org or gallica.bnf.fr.
  13. http://mixology.eu/spirituosen/der-longdrink-ein-diskurs-des-missverstandenen-durstloschers/: Peter Eichhorn: Der Longdrink. Ein Diskurs des missverstandenen Durstlöschers. 16. September 2012.
  14. Hugo R. Ensslin: Recipes for Mixed Drinks. 2. Auflage, New York 1917. Page 44: Highballs.
  15. David A. Embury: The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. New York, Doubleday & Company, 1948. Seite 268: Highballs. Page 274: Bucks.

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About

Hi, I'm Armin and in my spare time I want to promote bar culture as a blogger, freelance journalist and Bildungstrinker (you want to know what the latter is? Then check out "About us"). My focus is on researching the history of mixed drinks. If I have ever left out a source you know of, and you think it should be considered, I look forward to hearing about it from you to learn something new. English is not my first language, but I hope that the translated texts are easy to understand. If there is any incomprehensibility, please let me know so that I can improve it.

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