Highball Vs. Whiskey Soda: Is There Really A Difference?

A highball refers to a spirit-and-soda cocktail served over ice in a tall, slim glass — i.e., a highball glass, according to Difford's Guide. That means a highball could be made of whiskey and soda, which also happen to be the ingredients that make up a "whiskey soda." Accordingly, one could argue that a highball is sometimes the same as a whiskey soda, but not always. For example, Difford's Guide considers rum and coke or any "short drinks served tall" as a highball.

Still, others might invoke the history of what we know as the "highball" cocktail to suggest that there is no difference between a highball and a whiskey soda at all — for the simple reason that if what you've got in your glass isn't a mix of whiskey and soda, then it's not a highball. Looking at the debatable origins of the highball, one version suggests it derived at English golf clubs for members to order the highball — "ball" referring to the amber-toned drink in a tall glass, per The Back Label. It also may have been created in a Manhattan bar with scotch during the 19th century in New York (via VinePair).

What all have in common, however, is that at some point in the story, someone dilutes whiskey with soda in a highball glass. In that sense, it seems fair to argue that when the highball was first conceived, it was as a whiskey soda. So is there really a difference between the two?

A highball takes more craft than a whiskey soda

Yes, but ever so slightly. What's really in a whiskey highball has evolved and expanded to include just about any tall spirit-soda-ice cocktail, such as a vodka tonic or a scotch and soda, per Difford's Guide. And from the proportion of whiskey to soda, the shape of ice, the glass temperature, and the various garnishes you can top it with, the highball is crafted to be slightly more distinguishable from your basic whiskey and soda (via Bloomberg). 

Esquire backs this up, believing the title should be reserved for spirit-and-soda cocktails for which some level of care or diligence has been exerted. It goes beyond the level of aiming a soda gun into any old glass of whiskey on ice and calling it a highball.

The takeaway here is that getting the highball you want may require ordering with some degree of specificity. But if what you want is a whiskey soda, it's pretty straightforward as its ingredients.