Drink

Japanese Highballs Celebrate Simplicity

Brad Thomas Parsons

Highballs, the category of drinks served in their namesake Highball or Collins glass, consist of a base spirit topped with sparkling water, tonic or a nonalcoholic mixer like ginger ale. Think scotch and soda, gin and tonic, Jack and Coke, Seven and Seven—all Highballs. Whiskey. Soda. Ice. What could be simpler? 

But with such an austere formula, perfecting each ingredient is key to achieving balance, prompting bartenders to turn to the Japanese Highball for inspiration. Whisky Highballs increased in popularity in post-World War II Japan and have evolved into one of the country’s most popular drinks. They are best when made with attention to detail—from the glassware to the temperature of the ingredients, from the ice to the stirring technique (and even number of stirs employed). But across Japan, Highballs can come in many forms—from Highballs on tap at izakayas to canned versions sold in stores.

“A Japanese Highball couldn’t be more simple,” says Houston bar owner Bobby Heugel, “but I kind of think Americans are messing them up, frankly. It’s a simple drink. When they elevate it in Japan, it’s about the specific choices for ingredients. It’s about asking how we can refine it in the simplest ways.” In February 2017, inspired by visiting high-end bars in Japan and around the world, Heugel and his business partner Peter Jahnke opened the 25-seat bar Tongue-Cut Sparrow. For their Japanese Highball, they use Suntory Toki whisky, which Heugel likes for what he calls its everyday flavor ($12, recipe). “It’s very sessionable, to use beer terms, but there’s a lot of complexity as well,” he notes. “There’s nuance, if you pay attention, and it’s bold enough to shine through and speak above the water itself.” As for the water, in a quest to replicate the taste of the Wilkinson brand of water used in Japan, Heugel and his team sampled every sparkling water they could get their hands on in the U.S. before settling on Mountain Valley Sparkling Spring Water. And since they serve it without ice, it’s imperative to keep everything ice cold, so the glass and whisky are kept in the freezer and the water is chilled to the coldest temperature possible.

At The Ravens Club in Ann Arbor, Mich., general manager Nick Dean discovered that customer education was needed when they started serving a Japanese-style Highball (recipe). “We serve a lot of bold drinks,” he says. “A Highball is subtle, and there’s a need to communicate why it’s valuable.” He compares a Highball to a strong IPA and says guests are pleasantly surprised. “I try to push people away from what they think they should be drinking. It’s OK not to like 100-proof cocktails and bitter amaro. I love it, but it’s not always right.” 

Pacific Cocktail Haven in San Francisco is among the growing number of bars in the U.S. that are taking their Highball service to the next level with a Suntory Toki Highball machine. This device pours out a consistent blend of ice-cold whisky and carbonated water with tight, tiny bubbles while allowing bartenders to make adjustments. “I had to redesign the backbar to make space for it,” says general manager/partner Kevin Diedrich, “but it’s already paid for itself. It’s fast. Very fast. The bubbles from the machine are superior to anything you can get from a bottle.” The Toki Hi-Ball became the top-selling drink at the bar and inspired a Hi-Ball Happy Hour menu featuring Highballs made with spirits like gin, vodka, Calvados and amaro. Diedrich notes, “These are refreshing and meant to be sessionable. Plus, they’re easy drinking and don’t get you too messed up. They can be enjoyed at any time, really.”

Brad Thomas Parsons’ favorite cocktail is a Negroni Sbagliato.