Summer heat calls for embracing the simplest of mixed drinks.

With all the whiz-bang gizmos and 10-ingredient recipes of the modern cocktail world, the simple highball—a base spirit plus a mixer over ice in a tall glass—can feel a little quaint. But when it comes to laidback summer entertaining and warm weather refreshments, is there really anything better?

Take, for example, the Cuba Libre. Sure, the recipe is basically nothing more than a rum and Coke doctored up with a squeeze of lime. But when the four o’clock afternoon heat of August is setting in and your guests are thirsty, do you really want to be hauling out the aromatizer and special bitters to carefully construct fussy cocktails? The sound of clinking ice in a highball glass plus the soft fizz of soda starts to feel mighty appealing.

Here’s the trap that many of us fall into: mistaking simple for boring. And as a category, the world of highballs is anything but, covering everything from Gin & Tonic basics to more elaborate garnish-heavy Pimm’s Cup-type of drinks—which means there’s enough variety to keep you busy all summer long.

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Photo by Danny Valdéz.

For the hesitant, a few simple tricks will help elevate the highball from college dorm room party to top-shelf order. First, find the highest quality mixers possible. For Gin & Tonics, that means searching out new wave tonics, such as Q Tonic, Fever-Tree, or Tomr’s. With more zip and bite than store brand tonics, these spunky sodas will breathe new life into a reliable cocktail party standard.

The same can be said about the proliferation of other gourmet sodas. One only need mosey down the beverage aisle at a high-end grocery store to get ideas for an inspired highball. Sparkling grapefruit soda over a shot of mezcal and a squeeze of lime makes for an excellent Paloma. For the easiest Tom Collins, just add some sort of sparkling citrus juice—lemonade for the traditionalist, blood orange juice for the experimentalist—to gin.

In the same vein, choosing exotic citrus fruits as accents can change the whole tenor of the drink. Think calamansi limes, yuzu, pomelo, white grapefruit, or Meyer lemon in place of regular lemons and limes.

Next, make it look pretty. A high-ball is exactly the time to haul out your vintage drink mixing stirrers, gold-rimmed highball glasses, and linen cocktail napkins—the little touches that reveal elegance in simplicity. Spend some time on your garnish game, cutting even

citrus wheels and cucumber ribbons. Freeze ice in square cube silicon ice trays, which on top of looking neater have the added bonus of being easy to pop out.

And finally, for the truly inspired, taking time to learn the history behind your highball of choice can help add an entirely different dimension. The Americano’s Italian roots—born from a century-old standard called the Milano Torino—add continental ? air to an otherwise simple drink. The ubiquitous Gin & Tonic arose from British ex-pats living in India mixing quinine-rich and malaria-preventing tonic water with gin. And to go back to the Cuba Libre—yes, it’s a “just” a rum and Coke, but a pedigreed one at that, which gives good precedent for drinking simply.

Try This at Home: Cuba Libre

The Cuban War of Independence began in 1895 and ended with Spain turning the reins over to the United States in 1898. Soon after, a flood of soldiers— and a flood of Coca-Cola to keep them satiated—landed on the island with the ingredients for one of the 20th century’s most ordered (and derided) drinks: the rum and coke. Named somewhat ironically for the rebel cry, “Viva Cuba libre!” the Cuba Libre is a perfect marriage of Cuba and America’s liquid sensibilities: good rum mingled with the unmistakable smack of Coke, lightened with a squeeze of fresh lime. The true Cuba Libre can now legally be consumed in the U.S., so go fi nd yourself some Havana Club and a sixer of Mexican Coke and rejoice.

Serves 1

2 ounces rum, white or golden
1 lime, halved
Coca-Cola Classic
Garnish: lime wheel or slice
Glassware: Collins

Directions:

In a Collins glass, add rum and squeeze in lime halves.

Add ice and top with Coca-Cola.

Stir gently to combine.

Garnish with a lime wheel or slice.