Here are five things we learned about the drink of the moment – highballs! – at the World Whisky Weekender session with Johnnie Walker Master Blender Emma Walker
This article is based on an exclusive session of the World Whisky Weekender 2021. If you didn’t get a ticket at the time, you can still rent the full set of 27 sessions on-demand here.
As part of the World Whisky Weekender in June, Johnnie Walker Master Blender Emma Walker was joined by Brand Ambassador Ervin Tryowski, a.k.a. Scotch Boy, at the beautiful bar of the Glenkinchie distillery. The pair chat through the profiles and merits of three different Johnnie Walker bottles, delve into the history of blended Scotch and highballs, and try out a few delicious recipes, showing off the diversity of this historic drink. Here are five key takeaways from the highballs session.
1. Highballs are a great introduction to Scotch
The highball is a fantastic place to start your journey into the world of whisky and whisky flavours. Not only is it gentler on the palette to a new drinker than straight whisky, but it’s also customisable to your favourite flavour combinations. Although the highball in the most traditional sense is made with carbonated water, you can mix your whisky with ginger ale, flavoured soda, or pretty much any “fizzy pop” (World Whisky Weekender presenter Gerry McLaughlin likes his with Irn Bru). As Ervin points out, the highball is a very accessible drink, one that can be thrown together with your favourite mixers or whatever you’ve got in the house.
2. The whisky highball dates back to the 19th century
By the early 1800s, with the advent of bottled carbonated water, mixing brandy and soda had become very fashionable with the English gentry. But when the Napoleonic Wars began interrupting the supply of cognac in the early 19th century, the UK’s highball drinkers made the switch to Scotch whisky. The popularity of the drink, also known as Scotch and soda, snowballed in the 1830s when the carbonated water industry became heavily industrialised. The origin of the term ‘highball’ is much debated, although one story goes that it refers to a train conductor’s whistle blow – one short and two long – which resembles the drink’s structure of one part whisky, two parts mixer. (Source: Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology)
3. The original Johnnie Walker was designed to be mixed
The first commercial whisky – Old Highland Whisky – was created in 1867 by Alexander Walker, shortly before the iconic square bottle and slanted label were introduced. This eventually evolved into Johnnie Walker Red, White and Black, which were rebranded in 1909 after the company observed that customers referred to their bottles by the colour of their labels. Johnnie Walker Red was specifically designed to be mixed with soda water – the highball was a trending serve and the blenders of the day were focused on expanding their reach by creating whisky that could be enjoyed in different ways. They certainly got their wish – Johnnie Walker Red has remained the world’s most popular Scotch since 1945.
4. Cocktails are at the forefront of blenders’ minds
Since its origins, whisky blending has been all about finding the right combinations of flavours from what’s available – something greater than the sum of its parts. As Emma Walker describes in the session, the job of a blender sits in the past, present and future. They’re looking in the past, working with flavour profiles of whiskies that were laid down years ago. They’re looking to the future when selecting whiskies to be used in blends years down the line. But crucially, they’re working in the present too – thinking about how customers are drinking whisky today, what they enjoy and how they enjoy it. Nowadays, a big part of that is how drinkers enjoy whisky as part of a cocktail, and this, Emma says, is at the forefront of blenders’ minds.
5. There’s a highball for everyone
The combination of whisky and carbonated mixer may seem like a simple one but the truth is that the possibilities are endless. Depending on the flavour profiles of both elements, the resulting drink can sit anywhere on the spectrum between peaty, malty, woody, fruity, spicy and fresh. From the earthy, woodland-themed ‘Highball in the Mirror’ to the fruity and spicy ‘Hex Highball’, the recipes explored by Emma and Ervin in this session proved that highballs are nothing if not varied, and there’s something out there to suit everyone’s palette.
There’s still time to catch up on this and all the other sessions of the World Whisky Weekender 2021 – click here to find out how.