The moment one asks for soda with whisky, his or her standing as a whisky appreciator takes a beating. And if one asks for a soft drink to dilute his/ her whisky, the standing goes for a nosedive. The one who drinks with water with or without ice is considered knowledgeable & the one who drinks on the rocks is considered a great aficionado. How correct is this perception? What is the origin of soda in whisky?
Let's begin with the history of soda. In the year 1767, Joseph Priestly infused carbon dioxide into the water and made the first soda. Jacobs Schweppes first made commercial soda in 1783. It was a very expensive drink in those days. The edible ice also came around that time and was similarly expensive. Mixing ice or soda or both was a statement of luxury & affluence and that's how the culture of diluting whisky with soda & ice came about. As days passed, the prices of both became lesser & lesser and what started as a style statement got retained as a way of drinking.
When soda was added to whisky, it not only gave a fizz but also altered the taste to a considerable extent. Ice also cools the taste buds and gives a different dimension to taste. The same can be better understood if one drinks chilled beer and normal temperature beer of the same variety.
Before I proceed further, let me explain my perspective of the use of soda with whisky in India. No doubt, whisky of various forms & classes are the most popular form of liquor in India after country liquor. However, the Indian penchant for whisky is not very old. Whisky drinking by Indians is a practice of little over 200 years only. It's a gift of colonial times. When the British started ruling India, a lot of them came and stayed here for long periods. Travel wasn't easy and it took months to reach Britain. All transport was by ships and no aeroplanes flew in those days. The officers were not only English but Scottish and Irish as well. The difficult climate, hostile natives, unknown tropical diseases – all made their Indian days very challenging & stressful. Although servants were aplenty, yet they missed their food & beverages. The food they could cook or teach their native khansamah to cook but what about their favourite late evening post-dinner whisky? They badly missed it and wanted to import it from their homeland. However, space in ships was limited to more important stuff than whisky. Being desperate for whisky, the colonial officers decided to brew the drink here in India. As expected, the produce never could match the quality back home. The quality of raw materials, absence of proper barrels, lack of expert brewers and lack of Scottish quality water – all contributed to it. So, to make the India brewed whisky palatable, they started adding Soda to it. They already knew how soda alters the basic taste of whisky. The natives, some of whom were getting close to the Sahibs, learnt about this new drink called whisky. Depending on the utility, the British rulers created a new class of Brown Sahibs who thought it prudent to copy the lifestyle of their colonial masters. This started the tradition of Indians drinking whisky with soda. It was an adopted phenomenon and the practitioners had no idea that Britishers back home had soda initially as a luxury & in India as a necessity. Native drinkers assumed it's the norm. Even our habit of chakna and drinking whisky pre-dinner also has a colonial past but I shall defer it for some other occasion.
I have already dealt with how soda was invented and how it made its way to the whisky glass. Let me elaborate a little more. After soda as diluents to whisky became a fait accompli, lot many stuck to it even after soda lost its luxury drink lustre. Some mix only soda, some use a mixture of water & soda. One of the most expensive whisky-producing countries in the world is Japan. Brands like Hibiki are any connoisseur's delight. Yet, one would be surprised that most Japanese prefer to drink their whisky with soda, irrespective of how good the whisky is! The Japanese way of drinking whisky is termed as 'HIGHBALL'. Most of us are aware of the tall, cylindrical highball glass but very few know what a highball is. A highball is not only whisky with soda but any alcoholic drink mixed with another soft drink. Thus, Gin & tonic, Rum & coke are all examples of Highballs. I often come across a lot of people mixing a soft drink to their whisky. Purists look down upon it as a blasphemy. Is it so? Not actually! One may not have heard of it but there is a popular highball called' seven on seven'. It originated when a whisky brand called Seagram's Seven was mixed with Seven-Up, a popular soft drink. So, if you drink whisky with Seven Up, flaunt it by saying you are drinking seven on seven. What is the proportion of mixing soda or any aerated drink to a liquor to term it as Highball? Ideally, it is 1:4. So, to get a Japanese Highball, mix 120 ml of soda with 30 ml of whisky. One can garnish with a peel of lemon or orange but not many other ingredients. One must not confuse between a cocktail with a Highball. The cocktail is a mixture of many ingredients with base liquor like vodka or white rum. However, any other liquor can be used in a cocktail. A cocktail has a specific name, needs to be prepared, shaken or stirred or even more elaborate procedures need to be followed. A highball is a very simple, usually self-prepared hard drink diluted by a fizzy soft drink.
So whisky lovers, stop feeling guilty or embarrassed if you like your drink with soda or even a soft drink. You are not doing anything not done before or not done in style.