For those uninitiated in the art of drinking, “highball” might sound like a game old people play at a casino. But for those of us in the know, a highball is technically a cocktail that has one spirit base mixed with a larger percentage of a non-alcoholic mixer served with ice in a tall glass (also called a highball glass). In Japan, “highball” means a mixture of whisky and carbonated water.


BEGINNING

Torii Shinjiro. Photo courtesy of www.suntory.com
Torii Shinjiro. Photo courtesy of www.suntory.com

The Japanese have been making whisky since the 1920s. It is said that the Japanese highball came about because the Japanese love to drink alcohol while eating, and since it is difficult to drink whisky straight while having a meal, the addition of the soda water tempers its strength and makes it enjoyable to have with food. The first wave of the Japanese highball came in the 1950s during the period where the Japanese were poor and recovering from the war. Drinking whisky with soda water was an inexpensive way to have a drink. It was also the time when Suntory founder Torii Shinjiro opened a chain of Tory’s bars, where their Kakubin Highball was the bestseller.


DECLINE

However, after its peak, the highball was perceived as an old man’s drink and eventually lost its popularity. Added to that was the economic downturn that happened in the late 1980s to early 1990s, when whisky itself lost its appeal because it was pricey and people were trying to be conservative in their spending. There was a significant slump in whisky consumption over those decades, as people preferred to drink beer or shochu, which was more hip, more accessible price-wise, and more readily available (no need to go to an expensive whisky bar).


RESURGENCE

Suntory Kakubin Whisky
Suntory Kakubin Whisky

With the recent recognition that Japanese whisky has been getting, it is not surprising that the highball is also making a comeback. The phenomenon of old fads coming back into fashion (hello, chokers) certainly applies to this drink. Today’s young people appreciate this lower-alcohol option for whisky that allows them to enjoy the flavors of whisky without sipping it straight and continue to drink it with their meals.

Kakubin Highball in Chotto Matte, BGC
Kakubin Highball in Chotto Matte, BGC

But the biggest factor in the resurgence of the Japanese highball is the campaign of Suntory, a major distillery. Since 2008, Suntory has pushed and promoted highballs to high heavens. To attract a younger crowd and to veer away from the whisky’s image as something old men drink before bedtime, they got a young actress and model (Koyuki) to endorse them. They convinced key bars (Izakaya) to add highballs to their menu (the number of establishments has grown enormously since then: from 15,000 in 2008 to 40,000 in 2009) and since most places serve the drink made with Suntory whisky, the Kakubin whisky (in the box-shaped glass bottle and yellow logo) saw a 70% growth in sales when the campaign first started.

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old

Suntory also came up with something to rival the convenience of beer: highball in a can. These can be found in supermarkets and grocery stores all over the country. The cans gained them a younger clientele who were now being introduced to whisky in a casual way. (Rival distillery Nikka also released canned highballs featuring whiskies like Black Clear and Taketsuru 12 years)

Nikka Coffey Grain
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky

Pushing the envelope further, in 2011, Suntory developed the concept of “highball bars” that offered premium-quality highball cocktails and highballs served on tap using a variety of whiskies (including Kakubin, Yamazaki 10 Years Old, Hakushu 10 Years Old, and The Macallan Fine Oak 12 Years Old). (In New York, a highball-on-tap bar called Piora offers Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky and Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt)


BASICS AND RITUALS

Now you might think that the Japanese highball is just straight up whisky with soda water. This is Japan we’re talking about here. You bet their drinks are carefully and meticulously crafted. And while there are ready-made versions of this refreshing whisky drink, there is still nothing like having your bartender build the drink for you.

There are several ways to make a Japanese highball. Some add garnishes like mint, lemon, or lime. The Samboa (in Osaka) Highball doesn’t have ice in it, just chilled Kakubin whisky, chilled soda, and a chilled glass with a twist of lime, resulting in a rich, full-flavored drink. The Shinchu Highball (from the soldiers who drank them after the war) are made with Scotch (often Johnnie Walker), with a couple of ice cubes, soda, and strictly no stirring. The Kaku Highball is made of Kakubin whisky and soda on ice with a dash of ginger ale or cola.

Mizuwari. Photo courtesy of www.whisky.suntory.com
Mizuwari. Photo courtesy of www.whisky.suntory.com

The most particular kind of Japanese Highball is the Mizuwari (“cut with water”). This is almost along tea ceremony levels when it comes to intricacy, with a certain number of stirs in a particular direction and hand-cut ice with no bubbles. The Mizuwari is a meditation in highball-making.


MIZUWARI RECIPE

Ingredients:

  • 1 to 1.5 fl. oz. whisky (if not Japanese whisky, then Scotch)
  • Two to three times as much sparkling water as whisky
  • Hand-cut ice (no bubbles or minerals)

Directions:

  1. Add ice to a highball glass. Stir with a barspoon to chill the glass, then discard any melted water from the glass.
  2. Add whisky to the glass. Stir 13 and a half time clockwise.
  3. Add the sparkling water and stir three and a half times clockwise.
  4. Nestle the bar spoon underneath the base of the ice, and lift gently upwards to fully homogenize the whiskey and water.
  5. Enjoy.

With the Japanese highball being a part and a way of life in Japan (and slowly the rest of the world), it’s safe to say that this simple and satisfying whisky drink will be around for quite a while.

Restaurateur, expert drinker, creative proprietor of steam punk bar Hooch, SMITH Butcher and Grill Room, Ebeneezers, Poulet Manille, and Ampersand. She wrote The Standard newspaper’s Tipple Tales cocktail and spirits column and co-hosted the Manila episode of the Travel Channel show Booze Traveler with cocktail connoisseur Jack Maxwell. She is DrinkManila’s resident mixology expert.

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