While a Scotch & Soda may seem simple—it is just two ingredients—the classic cocktail is difficult to make right. Throwing ice into a glass, adding some scotch and topping with seltzer may produce a drinkable cocktail, but there are simple techniques that can ensure you have the best Scotch & Soda that you’ve ever had, with repeatable results. To understand how we were making our scotch-ity Highballs wrong and to learn how to make them the right way, we tapped two bartenders that have mastered the effervescent tipple: Carlos Ruiz of the Laundromat Speakeasy in Morristown, New Jersey and the brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker whisky, and Yoshi Sakamoto, the beverage manager of the En Japanese Brasserie in Manhattan, New York. Here, the two Highball experts give us insight into making the best Scotch & Soda.
The Perfect Measure Of Scotch
Depending on how much whisky is used at the base, the ratios in a Scotch & Soda can dramatically change the drink’s flavor. Unlike traditional cocktails, which generally use a straight two ounces for the base, Highballs with Scotch whisky can vary anywhere between one and two ounces. For most American bartenders, the deciding factor behind the measurement is based on personal preference. For Carlos Ruiz, it’s a happy medium between the standard measure for cocktails (two ounces) and the traditional amount used in a Japanese Highball (1.5 ounces). Like many Japanese bartenders, Yoshi Sakamoto believes that the perfect ratio for the Scotch & Soda is based on tradition rather than experimentation. He always uses 1.5 ounces of whisky and four to five ounces of soda—no matter what. He says that this measure of whisky “not only releases more of the flavors inherent in the spirit, it makes a Highball that’s smooth, light and refreshing.”
Not All Scotches Are Created Equal
The scotch you choose for your Highball has everything to do with the flavor of the drink, so the measurement of spirit will vary depending on the expression. Luiz generally only uses blended scotches for mixing, and his prefered scotch is Johnnie Walker’s Black Label. In his experience, he finds that a lot of American drinkers have a difficult time with Scotch whisky. So, to make the cocktail approachable for non-scotch drinkers, he finds it’s best to use something easy-drinking. Blended whisky, he says, has a “hint of smoke—but it’s not crazy or overwhelming. It marries everything together to create a really nice combination of flavors.” If you do choose to use a bold Islay scotch, he recommends dropping the measurements down to an ounce to an ounce and a half.
Sakamoto, conversely, swears by Japanese single malts. His favorite being Toki, Suntory's new blended whisky. “Japanese single malt whiskies were made for a Highball,” he says. “Something like an Islay or a Highlands scotch is just too peaty.” Japanese whiskies are meant to be diluted more than most other whiskies. “It allows flavors to be released that don’t exist when drinking the spirit neat or with ice,” he says.
Although ice may seem like a trivial component to a cocktail that’s already 75 percent water, it plays a crucial role in the Scotch & Soda’s overall flavor. Yes, the frozen cubes will chill your cocktail to a satisfyingly icy level, but they’ll also over-dilute your cocktail if not properly used or monitored. Luiz only uses large format ice cubes from his Kold-Draft machine at the bar. While he argues that you can use crescent ice for a Highball (if you have no other option), the drink is going to dilute a lot quicker. He says to either drink your cocktail faster or shell out the cash for a silicone ice mold that will produce larger ice cubes.
In a Japanese Highball, it’s traditional to hand-carve one long ice cube that’s the length of the Highball glass. While these giant, glass-sized ice blocks will melt more slowly than cubed or crescent ice, the Japanese stir the whisky with the ice to actually increase dilution and to chill the glass before they add soda water. “It’s the best way to showcase the flavors of a single malt and to create a balanced Highball,” says Sakamoto.
The Soda Water You Choose Is Important
You’d think that something as simple as carbonated water wouldn’t be that different from brand to brand. But with added ingredients like salt or saline solution, and varying sizes and intensity of bubbles, there’s a huge difference between each type of seltzer water. Across the board, both Luiz and Sakamoto prefered craft soda water to generic brands. Luiz’s favorite brand to use behind the bar is Fever Tree. “It has the perfect amount of bubbles in the glass,” he says, and he is strongly against using any soda that contains salt. ”As soon as you take a sip of the drink, you’re coughing,” he says.
It’s Called a Highball for a Reason
Unlike the Gin & Tonic—which benefits from the use of alternative glassware—the Scotch & Soda should only be made in a Highball glass. Structured similarly to a Champagne flute, a Highball allows the essence of the drink to travel upwards on the bubbles. “All the flavors in the drink are trapped in the glass, and then when you sip it, you just get a flavor-bomb in your face,” says Luiz.
Sakamoto agrees. “A Highball glass allows the drinker to enjoy the aroma of the whisky—and the garnish, he says.”
Usually holding about 10 ounces, the Highball glass allows for the perfect proportions of water to whisky to ice. “If you can find a rocks glass that is 10 ounces, you can use it,” Luiz allows.
The Right Way to Build the Drink
Depending on whether you’re making a Scotch & Soda or a Japanese-style Highball, there are different methods for building the perfect cocktail. For home bartenders, Luiz says that it’s best to put your Highball glass in the freezer for a few minutes while you’re readying the cocktail ingredients. After the glass chills for a few minutes, “add 1.75 ounces of scotch to the glass, add ice next (fill to the top of the glass), and then top it off with soda. Stir with a bar spoon to mix, and you’re done.”
With a Japanese Highball, you always stir the single malt with ice before adding soda water. First, add whisky to the Highball glass with cubed ice (or a long, glass-length cube) and stir to chill and dilute the spirit; this also helps cool the glass. Then top with soda, stir again and serve.
Choosing the Right Garnish
While you would think to leave your Scotch & Soda without a garnish, both bartenders argued otherwise. Luiz’s prefered garnish is a fat wedge of lemon, and depending on the single malt that he uses, Sakamoto opts for a fat swath of grapefruit zest or fresh mint (he also suggests shiso leaf, a Japanese herb in the mint family). “Most bartenders feel that the essence of the citrus is enough—but that extra bit of lemon juice makes the cocktail brighter and softens the scotch,” Luiz says. “It also makes the Highball even more accessible to Scotch & Sodas newbies.”
Seasonality also can determine how to garnish your Scotch & Soda. According to Luiz, he changes garnishes based on the weather or his mood. In the warmer months, he often opts for fresh mint, and in the fall and winter he likes a dusting of freshly grated cinnamon. “A lemon wedge works year round though,” he says. “That’s why it’s my go to.”
Ditch the Straw
Although straws are customers’ prefered accoutrements for a Scotch & Soda, both bartenders dislike them. “Every time you give a Scotch & Soda with a straw to a guest, they immediately grab it and use it to stir their cocktail,” Luiz says. “It might be habit—or that they think we haven’t mixed the drink yet—but it can over-dilute the drink. This is why I always stir the drink in front of them before I serve it—so they know that it’s ready to sip.”
Sakamoto couldn’t agree more. If a customer sips the drink through a straw, “they’re not getting their nose in the glass and the garnish, or the ice hitting the lips,” he says. “It’s a whole different experience.”