Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | February 17, 2011

The Highball Dilemma

My latest cocktail column is up at PRZMan, “The Highball Dilemma.” It’s a variation on a post I’d written here a couple years ago, “Getting Past the Highball at Parties.” The text of the column is below the fold.

The Highball Dilemma


I’ve been to a number of events lately — weddings, conferences, college reunions — that have generously offered up open bars, well stocked with an array of quality vodkas, tequilas and scotches, alongside some lonely looking bottles of sweet and dry vermouth. The pity of it is that because most event-staff bartenders don’t know much in the way of cocktail making, the average open-bar customer orders nothing more than a spirit on the rocks or, more often, a highball. A highball is a tall drink, usually served with one base spirit and one non-alcoholic mixer — Gin & Tonic, Bourbon & Cola and Vodka & Soda, to name a few.

Unfortunately this is where the problem for a cocktailian comes in. Sure, I don’t mind a Gin & Tonic on a hot afternoon, particularly if I’m stuck in a suit at an outdoor wedding. But I don’t want to feel obligated to drink a sweet cocktail just because I’m at a wedding.

If the event’s bar has vermouth or triple sec, your options get much better, bringing Martinis, Manhattans and Margaritas into the mix.

The dilemma is that once you move away from a highball at a wedding or reunion, you’re at the mercy of the bartender’s supplies and skills—or lack thereof. The way around this is by knowing how to make the cocktails you like. You should never be hesitant to give a bartender precise instructions as to how you prefer your drink.

My favorite cocktail (arguably) is a Dry Martini, made with equal parts gin and dry vermouth, as well as a dash of orange bitters if the bar has them. This is a very simple cocktail and I’m more than happy to explain to a bartender what I mean when I ask for a Martini.

Of course while I can get a passable Martini in most situations, I know I won’t get the best Martini I’ve ever had. Here’s why:

  1. I like my Martinis stirred with a lot of vermouth, which is uncommon in the United States
  2. The likelihood of an event bartender having a bartending spoon to stir the drink is slim. Most likely it will be shaken poorly.
  3. If you like olives, you should have no problem. But if you want a lemon twist, you’re likely going to be dealing with a slice of lemon that has its flesh hacked from the peel. It’s not elegant and the cocktail is likely to have at least as much lemon juice as lemon oil in it as a result.
  4. There won’t be any orange bitters, so it isn’t even worth it to ask.

As I mentioned above, there are other alternatives as well. The Manhattan and Margarita are naturals, as is an Old Fashioned. If you’re willing to talk them through it, a Rickey is another option. A Rickey is made with gin, the juice of about half a lime and club soda. It requires the bartender to hand squeeze about 5-10 of those tiny lime wedges into your drink, so be sure you leave a nice tip. And while the most popular Rickey is made with gin, it’s also great with bourbon.

A poor set of choices is all too common at weddings and big events. But if you go prepared, there are ways to have decent cocktails while your friends are sucking down rail vodka.



  1. This is one reason that I carry a mister of orange bitters with me in a cigar case when I’m going places without bars I trust.

  2. Dang, that is a handy solution Doug. I’ll keep it in mind…

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