Whisky Month: In search of the perfect Scotch Highball

The Mixolosopher joins forces with Cushiedoos Premium Scottish Tonic to revive a forgotten classic - the Scotch Highball.

Published 18th May 2018
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

The Highball was – and still is, in essence – a Scotch and Soda. Back when a ‘cocktail’ was just a subfamily of mixed drink, fizzy water was still a rare and new-fangled thing outside of Spa towns like Selters in Germany.

As it became more commercially available and the practice of drinking for health morphed into drinking for pleasure, bars and their patrons would cut straight spirit with a decent splash of effervescent soda water.

Scotch Highball
Picture: IM

The drying up of French brandy supplies by the late 1800s led to whisky being the spirit of choice. Nowadays everything from a Cuba Libre to a G&T could be considered a Highball but it all started with Scotch and, while it has maintained a fierce following in Japan, the Highball’s popularity in the West has never seen anything like the heady heights of a century ago.

With tentative whispers from those in the know of the Highball’s return to favour, however, The Scotsman decided to see how a range of Scotch whiskies might mix with Cushiedoos – a brand new premium Scottish mixer made with Deeside spring water, yellow gentian, wormwood and Scottish botanicals such as heather and silver birch. Much more subtle in taste than a typical tonic, Cushiedoos dispenses with the brusque, mouth-drying bitterness of quinine in favour of a balanced, delicate palate of citrus and herbal notes – perhaps not a million miles away from the health sodas first concocted by the likes of Johann Schweppe in the 19 th Century.

So we approached Usquabae in Edinburgh’s West End (who aren’t short of a Scotch or twenty) to help us with some experimentation – and the results were more than a little surprising. Six single malts were chosen for their differing character and each was mixed over ice in a fixed ratio of two parts chilled Cushiedoos to one part spirit, being careful not to disturb the fizz too much.

It quickly became apparent that fruity notes flourished with the addition of fizz and
sharpness; Auchentoshan American Oak’s tropical flavours shone through, its sweetness tempered by the bitter gentian. Cardhu 12’s unmistakeable green apple elegance was at once lifted and yet deepened, the mix taking on a Riesling-style flavour profile.

On the other hand AnCnoc 12’s malted toffee sweetness became somewhat subdued, an overwhelming – though not wholly unpleasant – taste of oak coming through, while Old Pulteney’s crisp, vibrant, briny character was stretched thin with an almost metallic tang emerging.

And the less said about the tyre fire in a glass that the otherwise sublime but challenging Laphroaig Quarter Cask resulted in, the better. Most surprising was the Glendronach 12 – itself quite a dry, spicy and sherried whisky. With the addition of the Cushiedoos it gained some subtle earthy notes but sang with bursts of hazelnut and marmalade.

Perhaps the most important conclusion to be taken from this experiment – beyond the rediscovery of a wonderful and long-forgotten way to enjoy whisky – is that Single Malt whisky’s enormous diversity of flavour and character make it potentially one of the most versatile spirits to play with – as the cocktail mixologists of the world have begun to realise.

With the world-wide passion for Scotch showing no signs of stopping, maybe now is the Highball’s time to dust off its sparkling shoes and step back in the spotlight.

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Iain Meldrum (aka Mixolosopher) has over a decade of experience at the top of the drinks industry as both a bartender and trainer. He is passionate about all things alcoholic - though in a responsible and philosophical way, of course.
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