"I've spent five to six minutes watching a bartender painstakingly build a cocktail from just three ingredients."
Whiskey sodas have been my go-to for years—they’re tough to mess up and go down easy, even at less-than-exacting dive bars. Or so I thought, until the first time I visited Japan and was introduced to the wonders of the highball, a combination of whiskey and soda water that puts what we know as whiskey sodas to shame.
In Japan, highballs are both science and art. Every Japanese bartender has their own specific style, but what unites them is a precision that turns this dead-simple combo into a cocktail that’s more than the sum of its parts. “I've actually spent five to six minutes watching a Japanese bartender painstakingly build a cocktail from just three ingredients: ice, whisky, and soda water. In even the typical high end American cocktail bar that order will be finished in, what, 30-40 seconds?” says Stephen Lyman, founder of Kampai, a website devoted to Japanese izakaya culture, and the author of an upcoming book on Japanese alcohol traditions.
Most highballs in Japan consist of roughly two parts soda to one part whiskey, though Yusuke Sasaki, a representative of Japanese distilling giant Suntory (which makes both award-winning whiskies and canned highballs for convenience stores), says it depends which kind of whiskey you’re using. “For example, for Toki [a light, clean Japanese whisky], we recommend a 1:3 ratio. For Jim Beam [a more robust American whiskey], we recommend a 1:4 ratio,” he says.
Chilling is important, too—for the water, whiskey and glass, all of which contribute to the overall quality and taste sensation of the finished product. Ice usually comes in large, clear cubes to slow dilution, and is often added, stirred, and drained; then added again to chill the glass appropriately. Whiskey is added and carefully stirred, and then soda water, which is carefully stirred again, often an exact and minimal number of times to maintain carbonation. Garnishes run the gamut from none to citrus to occasionally other fruits and herbs, depending on the type of whiskey and its flavor profile.
There are other, perhaps less-tangible differences between a highball and a whiskey soda, too, including, importantly the context in which it’s consumed. Highballs are everywhere in Japan, from high-end cocktail bars with tuxedoed staff to cans in vending machines. Although the exact origins of the drink are murky, Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, is widely credited with popularizing the cocktail in the 1950s at his “Tory’s Bars,” which specialized in highballs.
Torii found that diluting whiskey with water and ice was a way to bring to the spirit’s proof down and make whiskey accessible to a wider audience. Highballs became an easy-sipping drink to accompany a meal, often as in lieu of beer. “The highball is supposed to be a light, refreshing, cold beer alternative,” says Lyman. “So the ‘right’ way is to make something that's not too boozy, retains its effervescence, and stays nice and cold.”
At a recent visit to Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery in Japan, distillers outlined their steps to making a perfect highball:
The Perfect Highball
1. Fill a straight-sided 8-12 ounce glass—commonly known as, yes, a highball glass—to the brim with large, clear ice cubes. (Though it’s worth noting that some bars serve highballs in beer steins, emphasizing their beer-like drinkability.) If desired, you may stir the ice a few times and drain any water that’s melted off of it.
2. Add one part whiskey, and stir approximately ten times with a long-handled muddler to cool both the whiskey and the glass. Top off the glass with another ice cube or two to reach the brim again.
3. Pour two to four parts chilled soda water in to the top of the glass, depending on what kind of whiskey you’re using.
4. Stir approximately twice, vertically, using a long-handled muddler in order keep the soda fizzy.
5. Garnish, if you wish, and enjoy.