The lowdown on the highball

THE MAN IN the business suit with a skull and crossbones scarf started to look around anxiously. The gentrified tough guy leaned toward his guest, whispered something and then half rose from his seat before gesturing in my direction.

“Hello!” he said using the word not as a greeting but as a dodge, a way of getting attention.

Holding up his glass from across the room, he raised his eyebrows. Well, I was too far away to see the eyebrows raise, but when your job relies on interpreting body signals you have a sense about these things. Call it a hunch.

He looked at me, and I looked at him. I guess it dawned on him that I wasn’t going to walk all the way around the back of the bar, through the kitchen, around the hostess stand and then the 15 or 20 feet to his table until he was clearer about what he wanted.

He shuffled out of his seat and crossed over to the bar.

“I need a highball glass of water.”

I reached behind the bar, grabbed our highball glass — the glass we use for gin and tonics, rum and Coke, whiskey sodas and every other highball drink — filled it with water and handed it to him.

Highball is a classic term for a type of classic cocktail. Many drinks are subject to interpretation: gin versus vodka martinis, bitters or not in Manhattans, muddled fruit or not in old-fashioneds, the list goes on and on. Highball drinks, however, are remarkably consistent. A liquor and a carbonated beverage — no fruit juice, no sugar, no anything else. That’s it.

The story goes that bartender Patrick Gavin Duffy, author of the “Official Mixers Manual,” invented the term “highball” sometime in the 1890s. It is said that he garnered the term from an old railroad signal in which a raised ball on a long pole signaled the engineer to increase his speed.

Carbonation has long been known to increase the effects of alcoholic beverages. Carbon dioxide itself doesn’t increase the transfer of alcohol to the blood stream, but it increases the transfer of alcohol to the small intestine where the alcohol is then more rapidly absorbed. That is why eating often delays the effect of alcohol, because food slows down the transfer.

Duffy might have been on to something, because he was actually referring to the speed in which the cocktail could be prepared, not its deleterious effects. It must be noted that faster doesn’t always mean better. No less an authority than Trader Vic weighed in the subject by captioning the chapter about highballs in his “Bartender’s Guide”: “You’ll find more good stuff cruising around in this section … but don’t knock yourself out trying them. Just sell the stuff.”

One wonders what Vic meant by “good stuff.” Good for whom? Good for the house, I’m guessing.

An “ahem” brought me back to my glass wielder.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s your water.”

“I asked for a highball glass.”


is a highball glass.”

“No, it’s not.”

Time to approach this from a different angle.

“Which glass would you like?” I asked gesturing.

“A highball.”

Some people believe that if their message isn’t getting through, they should repeat the message. Others try to alter their communication.

“How about this one? Or this one?” I said, lining up our various glassware.

“Don’t you guys have a highball glass?”

I opened my mouth but decided to take my own advice.

“I guess we don’t,” I said, putting the highball glass and the others away.

“You know,” he said, “Hemingway would have hated this place.”

I smiled, partly because that’s what I do when confronted with adversity and partly because I know that of all the cocktails Hemingway wrote about, he wrote most often about the highball. Not the daiquiri or the mojito or the martini, but the highball. And since no meticulous instructions for its construction exist, it’s safe to assume that didn’t care about what kind of glass it came in. Then again, I bet he didn’t make a fuss over his water glass either. Call it a hunch.