Highball Cocktail

The Difference between a Highball and a Cocktail

By Timo Torner / Last updated on March 24, 2022 
On the menus of cocktail bars you can often see an extra category named Highballs. The list of ingredients, however, still reads like a cocktail. -Only not an overly complicated one. So what is the different between a Highball and a cocktail and where do you draw the line?

A Highball cocktail basically is a kind of long drink, consisting of a spirit base, lots of ice, and a filler. All served in a narrow and tall glass - the highball glass. While it's technically the same as the typical "vodka soda" you'd order at a club, a well-executed highball can be far better than that. The word "highball" already implies a certain quality level and that time and effort go into creating this drink. You really have to make an effort to create your whiskey highball, so don't just call it "whiskey soda". It's better than that.

When is a cocktail called a highball?

To put it short, a Highball is a kind of cocktail. This means that every Highball is technically a cocktail, but not every cocktail is a Highball. But why is it called Highball then?

While it's not one hundred percent clear where the name highball is coming from, there's evidence that it goes back to drinks served in tall glasses on old steam trains. The term highballing refers to a ball indicating boiler pressure when the train gets to full speed. I kind of like the thought of this and immediately feel like having a Scotch & Soda on one of the retro steam trains.

The mentioned Scotch & Soda is probably one of the most commonly known highball cocktails. But there are other famous highballs like the Gin& Tonic, Moscow Mule, and Vodka Cranberry. As all of them only contain a few ingredients, it's crucial to use quality products. Using cheap soda from the supermarket is not wrong, technically. But when putting together a highball, you want something more than that. I recommend a club soda or a Fevertree tonic. For Gin & Tonic, this is already common sense, but in my opinion, it should be for every highball cocktail.

The Highball glass

Highball cocktails even have their own type of glass. The highball glass is slim and tall, containing between 8 and 12oz. As the name implicates, it's higher than an old fashioned glass (lowball glass) and a bit wider than the super-slim collins glass. Many highball cocktails are served in this typical glass. However, some more popular highballs have their own signature cups or glasses. The copper mugs for Moscow Mules, for instance. And then there's even a variety of glass types for Gin & Tonic.

History of the Highball cocktail

Many people claim that they created and served the first highball cocktail. One of the most probable stories is that the highball was brought to Manhattan, New York by the English Actor E.J. Ratcliffe in the late 19th century. And almost all of the first highballs were whiskey highballs. Whiskey watered down with soda, plain water, or ginger ale, therefore, was the start of highball culture.

Japanese Highballs

The Highball cocktails are very popular in Japan. They are served as an alternative to beer during dinner. After office hours, many Japanese workers head to their favorite Izakaya to eat and have an alcoholic drink to mark the end of the working day. Izakayas are best described as a mix of a Tapas bar and a pub, offering small dishes and alcoholic drinks.

Japan has a long tradition not only of drinking but also in creating great whiskey. Due to a difference in their genes, many Japanese can't consume drinks with high alcohol percentages. That is why Japanese whiskeys usually are created to be mixed and not to be drunk pure or on ice. That's one reason why the haibōru (ハイボール), a Japanese whiskey highball, is so popular. The whiskey highballs are tasty, strong-flavored drinks with just the right amount of alcohol. If you would ask me, I'd choose a haibōru over a beer as my after-work drink at any time.

This trend in Japan led to many different highball recipes. Besides haibōru, chūhai (created with shōchū, a traditional Japanese Brandy) is also pretty famous. The highballs you buy in Izakayas are affordable and cost between $3 and $4.50. These low prices are undoubtedly responsible for the extremely high number of highballs consumed in Japan.

Besides the Izakayas, other bars in Japan also celebrate the simplicity of highballs. You can get them at prices from $5.50 to $9. In more sophisticated places, everything is thought through: from ice to glassware, from the whiskey to the filler. Every highball served is meant to be an experience. It is a form of art to showcase the quality ingredients and the aim for the best possible result. That is why they don't call their highball cocktail a "whiskey soda".


Today, the term lowball cocktail refers to cocktails served in a so-called lowball glass, also known as old fashioned glass or rocks glass. So, typically, that would be cocktails like whiskey sour, rum sour, and Negroni.

But, historically, the name lowball is related to the highball drinks. The difference between highball and lowball was the amount of filler added to a spirit. A highball contains way more filler than a lowball, which is supposed to be "spirit with a splash of filler". As this simple, watered-down drink is not that fashionable, it's no wonder that people tend to forget where the name originates.

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