Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.

5 Essential Highballs

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

There are endless cocktails in the world, and new ones invented every day, but how many of these drinks are true essentials? In this series, we're discussing drinks everyone should know—five essential drinks for every major category of spirits.

This week, we're discussing highballs, perhaps the easiest class of cocktail to make. A highball is a group of drinks made of a base spirit and a larger proportion of a non-alcoholic mixer. Now, most highballs are pretty straightforward—fill a glass with ice, pour on a shot of Jack, and fill the glass with Coke, for example. They're hard to screw up at a bar, and the large proportion of unleaded mixer helps you stay hydrated when you're out for a night of drinking.

With one exception, the drinks I'll feature this week require a little more work than a pour of spirit and a spray from a soda gun, but they deliver a greater reward as well. So pull out your knives, cutting boards, and citrus reamers, and let's get started.

Gin and Tonic

The classic highball. I mean, what more is there to say? A G-n-T is a perfect refresher on a summer's day, and yet it's also delicious in midwinter. I love a crisp, hearty London gin, such as Beefeater or Tanqueray, and a bitter tonic water. Don't forget a squeeze of lime!

Not sure what brand of tonic water to buy? The Drinks team has helpfully tested the field and has some suggestions for you. Or if you're feeling ambitious, you can try your hand at making your own.

Paloma Brava

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[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

The traditional Paloma is a wonderful combination of flavors: tequila, lime juice, a bit of salt, and grapefruit soda. For something a little more complex, however, try the Paloma Brava from NYC's Employees Only. This variation adds fresh grapefruit and orange juices to the traditional lime juice, to add complexity and a hint of sweetness.

Get the Recipe »

Cuba Libre

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

You might think of the Cuba Libre as a simple rum and Coke, but you'd be underestimating it. I swore off rum and Coke years ago, after drinking far too many syrupy and cloying versions at parties and bars. (Don't get me started on the abhorrent variations using Cherry Coke and spiced rum.)

It wasn't until I tried the Cuba Libre that I began to again see the merits of this drink. As originally envisioned in its native Cuba, some time just after the Spanish-American War, the Cuba Libre called for the juice of one lime in addition to the rum and the Coke. The lime juice makes all the difference. It marries well with the rum, of course, but it also delightfully complements the flavors of Coke, and it provides just enough tartness to cut through the sweetness of the drink. Use a darker rum—a gold or an anejo—to further tamp down Coke's sweetness.

You can substitute a sugar-cane based cola—Mexican Coke, perhaps, or Boylan Sugar Cane Cola—for the Coke, especially if you're high-fructose corn syrup averse for whatever reason. But be aware: the boffins here at Drinks have evidence that Mexican Coke doesn't objectively taste any better than its HFCS counterpart. But you make the call. I usually make mine with Boylan's, if only so I can feel better about myself for supporting an underdog.

Fun historical footnoote: When the Cuba Libre was first mixed, the pick-me-up in Coca-Cola was not caffeine; instead, it was still the ingredient that put the word coca into Coca-Cola: cocaine. That must have been one helluva cocktail.

Get the Recipe »

Dark and Stormy

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

Another popular rum highball, the Dark and Stormy combines dark and funky rum (preferably Bermudan) and spicy ginger beer with a shot of lime juice. (The lime, apparently, isn't traditional in Bermuda, but it's delicious. Add it or leave it out; it's up to you. I think the drink truly benefits from the lime, though.) The D 'n' S definitely benefits from a rich, spicy ginger beer, not a limp ginger ale. You need the extra kick to stand up to the rum; anything else will get lost in the drink. Barritt's is great if you can find it; otherwise, I like Reed's Extra Ginger, which may be a little easier to locate.

Get the Recipe »

Pimm's Cup

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Second perhaps to the gin and tonic, the Pimm's Cup is the quintessential summer highball. It's close to perfect in every way. The Pimm's Cup is based on Pimm's No. 1 Cup, which in itself is essentially a bottled cocktail, made of gin, quinine, and a proprietary blend of citrus and herbs. Bottled at 50 proof, or 25% alcohol by volume, Pimm's No. 1 Cup is moderately low in alcohol. The Pimm's Cup calls for an ounce of Pimm's No. 1 with 3 ounces of 7 Up or Sprite and some fruit and cucumber, so the resulting drink packs—well, not so much of a punch; perhaps a tickle or caress. But this makes it such a great summer drink. It refreshes without intoxicating.

Get the Recipe »

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He is a proud new father, boozologist, and cocktail curmudgeon. He lives in Providence. You can follow him on twitter at @dietsch.

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