Photo: Maskot (Getty Images)
Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer, and that’s a real bummer. But on the bright side, you probably get a day off from work. Plus, since it’s technically still summer, you can pair some tasty, summery cocktails with all the food you’re going to gorge on this weekend. If you’re like many of us, you don’t have time to shake up elaborate cocktails with 10 ingredients. You’ve got burgers to grill and yard games to play. Luckily, drinks for your summer send-off don’t have to be complicated as long as you have a couple of great ingredients.
Highballs: The Low-Maintenance and Versatile Cocktail
When it comes to refreshing end-of-summer cocktails, less equals more. Try your hand at a two-ingredient cocktail like a gin and tonic, screwdriver, Moscow mule, or a dark ‘n’ stormy and you’ll be pretty happy. But what cocktails do bartenders like to mix on Labor Day? Highballs.
What is a highball, you say? In the most basic terms, a highball is a mixed drink made with a spirit base and a carbonated mixer. The drink is built in a Collins glass with ice. One of the most popular varieties is the scotch and soda. Technically, the name is a term for a broad range of mixed drinks that are made with a spirit base and a non-alcoholic (usually carbonated) mixer. Other examples include rum and Coke and seven and seven. When most people think about highballs, it’s the soda water and whiskey version that usually comes to mind.
Like all mixed drinks, the history of the highball is a bit murky as there are multiple instances in which the drink may have been invented. One of the most common genesis theories is that the drink first appeared in Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual in 1900. Yet a bartender named Patrick Duffy claimed that the drink was actually invented in England and brought to America by an actor named E.J. Ratcliffe in 1894. All in all, it doesn’t really matter who invented this drink and when. All that matters is that it’s a refreshing, light, easy-drinking cocktail for a warm summer night.
Although it’s only recently returned to prominence in the U.S., the highball is (and has been) extremely popular in Japan. Instead of scotch and soda or bourbon and soda, they make it with Japanese whiskey.
Bartenders Share Their Favorite Highballs
Even though the drink is simple to make (and even easier to drink), it’s adaptable to the style of spirit and mixer you enjoy. That’s why it’s a great cocktail for bartenders to show their creativity. And since we aren’t very creative, we asked some of our favorite bartenders to offer up their highball variations to help make your Labor Day weekend the best yet.
“For an occasion like a long holiday weekend, I try to make sure drinks I serve at home are two things: low ABV so guests can casually sip throughout the day without the worry of getting really drunk and easy to make so we can all spend more time socializing and less time in the act of making drinks. Highballs can check both boxes. There are a number of bitter Italian liqueurs out there these days, but I like L’Aperitivo that Galliano came out with last year because it strikes the perfect balance of bitter and sweet. Mix it with a little Prosecco and top with soda or skip the Prosecco altogether for a two-ingredient, low-alcohol bitter Italian highball that will keep you refreshed and pulled together all weekend.” – Damiano Coren, Macao in New York City
“This summer we’ve been playing a lot with Passoa, which is one of those ‘Swiss Army Knife’ bottles that is going to be huge in the US. It’s a passion fruit liqueur that’s made in France, is wildly popular in Europe, and only just became available in the U.S. in 2017. I love it because it plays well with everything: soda and tonic, of course, but the rich passion fruit also blends with rum and whiskey flavors and is delicious with a light wit bier for a kind of tropical shandy or crisp rosé and a splash of orange juice for a refreshing sangria. It’s just so versatile.” – Nicki Peterkin, Pool and Grill in Tampa
“For me it’s all about the Paloma. One of the easiest ways to turn a simple highball drink like a Paloma from ‘meh’ to spectacular is to use quality ingredients from front to back. That means good spirits, crystal clear ice, and really high-quality mixers. Q is a line of mixers that I like for the high carbonation content and the relatively dry flavor profile that comes from being sweetened with organic agave nectar instead of sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Try a Paloma with 100% agave tequila like Herradura or El Jimador, top with Q Grapefruit, and squeeze a lime and you’re good to go for a long weekend.” – Claire Mallett, Union in Los Angeles
“If you’re looking to impress a lot of people with a drink for Labor Day parties, the Chilcano is a great option. Pisco is the national spirit of Peru, is a fun departure from the norm, and is delicious on its own or mixed. The Chilcano is a classic Peruvian cocktail featuring Pisco, fresh lime, spicy ginger ale, and a few dashes of bitters. It’s also easy to put a personal touch on by using different fruits or bitters to suit your tastes. Set up a Chilcano station with Pisco, lime wedges, ginger ale, a few different fresh berries, and one or two bitters and let your guests have fun mixing their own drink. Your guests will have a blast and you’ll be able to relax with them and enjoy your days off!” – Colin Williams, The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, North Carolina