Sometimes, you want to go through the effort to whip up beautiful gourmet Jell-O shots or clarify your own old-school English Milk Punch. Other times, you want to pour liquor and something that’s not liquor into a glass with some ice, throw your feet up and take a long drink, all within 60 seconds.
One could argue the foundation for all cocktails lies in these simple two-ingredient drinks, which are called “highballs.” You probably know a few of them well: Gin and tonic, rum and Coke, whiskey and ginger ale, Scotch and soda, Seven and Sevens, et al.
You would be forgiven for thinking you can’t really screw a highball up, given it’s just a blend of booze and sweetness on ice. But as anyone who’s had to suffer through a cheap frat party knows, the devil is in the details — and it’s easy to end up with a sickly-sweet concoction that makes your head pound at first sip. The trick is to find combinations of alcohol and mixer that accentuate each other and remain refreshing, not cloying, after multiple sips.
This is easier said than done. I’ve made some terrible mistakes — Dr. Pepper and cachaça, stirred together in an evening of desperation, once made me gag out loud. But in the name of experimentation, I wandered over to my corner store to peruse the beverage aisle while also furiously scrolling on my phone, hoping to find some inspiration for picking out flavorful pairings.
Aside from the gin and tonic and the occasional vodka soda, I haven’t been a fan of highballs, believing that I can do much better with a few more ingredients and some time spent shaking or stirring. Given this, my faith didn’t rise much while I brainstormed in front of the corner store’s refrigerators, staring at soda and wondering which spirits would match.
Eventually, I settled on five options: Cream soda (in my case from Sprecher’s), Squirt, Cherry Coke, Diet Dr. Pepper and Peach Snapple. All of these seemed like fairly unconventional choices, each with potential to meld in delicious ways with the spirits I had at home. After several rounds of experimentation, I was surprised by the findings.
My least favorite was anything with Dr. Pepper, less so because I dislike Dr. Pepper and more so because it made every liquor other than whiskey taste either pukey or totally one-note. (To be fair, I hated the whiskey combo, too — just sticky-sweet, with no dimension). Bourbon and Cherry Coke, meanwhile, was a notable improvement. I often find a normal whiskey and cola to be a fairly bland highball, but the sharp note of cherry floating through the mix helped to accentuate some of the vanilla, oak and honey flavors of the Buffalo Trace I used in the cocktail.
I hoped the grapefruit-flavored Squirt soda would do similar wonders for my spirits, but the best combination was the one that’s already tried-and-true: the humble Paloma, made with tequila (in my case, some Cazadores reposado). There’s just something about how citrus flavors help bring out the aroma in tequila, and I’m surprised at how long it’s taken for the Paloma to hit mainstream consciousness in the U.S. There are a lot of craft-bar versions these days made with fresh grapefruit juice, but I think the Squirt version stands up to new interpretations.
Finally, my favorite two bodega highballs were the most unconventional: Rum and cream soda, and gin with peach Snapple. First of all, rum and cream soda is incredibly dangerous. I poured Sprecher’s with both cheap white rum and a tipple of funky Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, and was stunned. The cream soda erased the alcohol flavor of Bacardi, and turned the Jamaican stuff into a bouquet of freshly cut wood, toasted caramel, bananas and burnt herbs. There was a similar impact with the Snapple and gin. I thought of it while humming “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg, and frankly, I’m disturbed by how much I like it. Snapple is less sweet than most sodas, and the peach aroma plays nicely with the juniper-berry edge from a pour of Bombay Sapphire gin.
When it comes to the corner-store highball, there’s a lot of tried and true options to spring for. But a little experimentation has made me fall in love with the easiest cocktail formula of all — and I’m excited for an excuse to buy cream soda again.