How 6 Different Whisky Styles Taste in a Highball

We tried rye, bourbon, two styles of Scotch, Japanese and Irish whiskies in a highball with the same club soda, ice and a lemon wheel. Here’s how they compared.

September 1, 2023 6:41 am
a whiskey highball next to Franklin & Sons club soda with a blue wall behind it
We're thirsty just looking at this
Franklin & Sons

A neat pour of whisky always has stories to tell about its character through various aromas and tasting notes. But that isn’t the final flavor chapter for certain whiskies. Rather than dilute, a simple whisky highball served with ice and carbonated water, maybe even a little citrus, can highlight some of the best traits in a whisky. A bit of cold, refreshing fizz might even draw out nuances that would otherwise go undetected in a neat serve by boosting the palate’s retronasal olfaction tasting receptors, playing off the carbonation and citric aromatics.  

Below is a study on how different styles of whisk(e)y taste when served with the exact same club soda, the same ice and a fresh wheel of lemon. Japanese, Scotch (both blended and single malt), rye, bourbon and Irish were compared (though, of course, there are so many other styles that could have been taste tested, worthy of further experimentation to be sure). All were served in a double rocks glass using Franklin & Sons club soda and ice made with Clearly Frozen 1.3-inch ice molds, which uses a directional freezing method for clear cubes (they also make rectangular molds for taller glasses, which some prefer for highball serves).  

Japanese Whisky 

The epicenter of highball culture is in Japan, where whisky and soda is elevated to high art. Here, whisky bars take the time to hand carve ice for each serve, and there is particular attention to the quality of the bubbles. The most famous Japanese highball whisky is Suntory Toki, and now bars around the world are outfitted with proprietary Toki highball machines that dispense measured amounts of whisky and soda — cold, not too gassy, accentuating the whisky’s toasted almond richness, black tea earthiness and stone fruitiness — that are beyond delicious. Here’s another suggestion in the $40 and under price point: Mars Shinshu Iwai 45. The bubbles bring out more of the roasty, nutty flavors of the whisky while the ice soothes some of the heat. Citrus complements the vanilla sweetness rather than adding too much tartness. 


Rye is typically considered a prime base for cocktails like Manhattans and Whiskey Sours, but its traditional flavor profile of spice, rich graininess and herbaceousness also make for a terrific highball. Sagamore Spirit is a Maryland rye made in the classic pre-Prohibition style that exemplifies these features. In a highball, it’s springy and zingy, and the slightly floral, green tea-like notes add a breezy, tropical vibe to the flavor profile with a touch of sweet spice. As for Canadian rye, these tend to be somewhat softer on the spice palate than American rye, with more caramel sweetness. But those “green” and grainy notes come out with a bit of fizz and a citrusy tang. Try highballs with Lot 40, Alberta Premium, J.P. Wiser’s Blended or Pendleton 1910. 


Some bourbon aficionados can be real purists. How dare you serve bourbon anyway but neat? Cool it with that mindset — literally, put it on ice! Your taste buds are missing out. The bourbon mash bill is predominantly made of corn, and those bubbles elevate its caramel and roasted nut notes right to the flavor receptors. With a classic Kentucky-style bourbon like Russell’s Reserve 10 Year, a subtle layer of bittersweet chocolate earthiness from the charred oak also comes through, and the lemon plays off the fruity baked apple facets of the whiskey. With so many different styles of bourbon from different states, including those with wheated and experimental grain mash bills, it’s worth exploring the effervescent possibilities. 

Highballs Are the Only Great Summer Whisky Cocktails
Apologies to the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan, which belong to the colder months

Blended Scotch

Scotch and soda — it’s hard to go wrong with this combo that can be made with just about any blended Scotch, both peated and unpeated styles (yes, even that one with the blue label if you have the means), served in the grungiest of dives to the most luxurious of whisky bars. However, in the interest of this exercise in style comparison, take Compass Box’s relatively new Orchard House, which is a blend that showcases the apple and stone fruit qualities from its individual blending components. Of all of the styles of whisky showcased here, this one as a highball is the lightest and juiciest tasting, but a twang of toastiness still comes through as the bubbles fan out on the tongue. 

Single Malt Scotch

As with bourbon, whisky purists decry the very idea of putting a distinguished age statement single malt whisky in a highball. But if you like fun and living a little, try Old Pulteney 12 Year neat, then taste it with soda and citrus. Crazy, right? The natural maritime brininess of its personality is underscored by the natural salinity of the Franklin & Sons club soda, and the lemon is the perfect accessory. The whole effect is like clarified, fizzy lemon ice cream (not sherbet or sorbet, sweeter) with a drizzle of salted caramel. 


My first experiences with Irish whiskey were always in highballs, and when I visit an Irish pub, I still alternate between ordering them with traditional Bushmills Black Bush or Power’s orange label. There are now lakes of new Irish whiskies, the majority of which are composed of multiple cask finishes. Adding to this trend is Triple Dog, a blended Irish whiskey that undergoes maturation in French oak, giving it a distinctly rich, autumnal flavor profile (it would be delightful in an Irish Coffee, for example). In a highball, however, the dominant flavors of burnt sugar and vanilla get a refreshing lift from the bubbles and lemon.


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