Complex craft cocktails are great and all, but you don’t need a set of sleeve garters, a tin of moustache wax and a multicolored array of mixers to drink well at home. Sometimes the simple highball—a mix of spirit and something carbonated over ice in a tall glass—is the best way to go. And the best part is that affordable spirits generally make the tastiest highballs. So leave the top-shelf stuff on the top shelf and try some of these combos next time you’re thirsty.
PARTIDA BLANCO TEQUILA ($40) & TONIC WATER
Yes, tonic water goes with things other than gin! The herbal, grassy notes in tequila—especially unaged blanco tequila—go really nicely with the bitter backbone of a good tonic, and the tonic’s sweetness and bubbles help round off any harshness to create an intense but refreshing beverage. (Bartenders are starting to take notice, too, so you should expect to see Tequila & Tonic on a cocktail menu near you soon.) Partida’s blanco offers a great balance of crispness and complexity that’s an especially good partner for tonic.
MARTIN MILLER’S WESTBOURNE STRENGTH GIN ($35) & CLUB SODA
Where tequila’s bold flavor takes well to tonic, the mixer’s sweetness can sometimes overwhelm the more delicate botanicals of a gin. If you’re a G&T fan, I urge you to try gin and soda instead, maybe with a squeeze of lime. This lets the gin’s subtleties shine through while keeping the drink nice and light-bodied. Martin Miller’s is an excellent gin in the old-school London dry style, with a hefty juniper punch and lots of spice; and its higher-proof Westbourne Strength bottling makes those flavors even more concentrated.
GEORGE DICKEL NO. 12 TENNESSEE WHISKEY ($25) & GINGER ALE
I love a really spicy ginger ale, but if you mix it with a really spicy whiskey like a rye (or a high-rye bourbon), the flavors can clash a bit. Instead, pick a smooth, mellow and sweet whiskey, something Tennessee specializes in. Dickel’s No. 12 is a bit longer-aged than its standard No. 8 bottling, bringing in more oak, caramel and vanilla notes. (If you’re lucky enough to live in Alabama, it’s best with Buffalo Rock, one of my very favorite ginger ales that, sadly, is only available in and around Birmingham.)
LA NIÑA DEL MEZCAL ESPADIN ($50) & GRAPEFRUIT SODA
Mexico’s favorite tequila drink is the Paloma, a mix of the agave spirit with bittersweet grapefruit soda. (Squirt is standard, though Jarritos’ version is pretty good too.) But I find that smoky mezcal goes even better in the classic tipple. La Niña del Mezcal Espadin is a top-quality bottling at a comparatively affordable price, making it the perfect candidate. It brings a nice level of smoke and rusticity to the party without going overboard.
KNOB CREEK BOURBON ($31) & CLUB SODA
Bourbon & soda is almost always a safe order when you’re at a bar with…less-than-stellar cocktails, and the case is the same mixing drinks at home, too. A bourbon with a good balance of spicy and sweet is what works best with soda, and Knob Creek offers great value. It offers a mix of nutty and fruity notes that actually seem to be brought out more strongly when diluted than when sipped neat.
APEROL ($27) & SPARKLING WINE
Whether with brunch, all afternoon or as a pre-dinner aperitif, the Aperol Spritz is making a big comeback lately. That drink only has four ingredients (Aperol, prosecco, club soda and an orange slice), but if even that’s too complicated, just make an Aperol highball with whatever sparkling wine you have laying around. The spirit’s lightly bracing bitterness (think of it as Campari’s less-intense sibling) goes wonderfully with a crisp bottle of bubbly.
COCKSPUR FINE RUM ($15) & COLA
For a Rum & Coke, a clean and crisp white rum like those produced in former Spanish colonies is the classic choice. To shake things up a bit, try this bottling from Barbados instead, which is still nice and light in texture but adds a little bit of citrus and oak. Cola will always be the dominant flavor when mixed with booze, so you want something that can easily play second fiddle, and the bargain-priced Cockspur Fine Rum serves that role beautifully.
Jason Horn is Playboy.com’s spirits columnist. He lives in Los Angeles and you can follow him on Twitter @messyepicure.
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