Why a Highball Cocktail Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the most well-known highball is a whisky and soda. But it’s not just a whisky and soda.
The classic has evolved into a cocktail that's way more than the sum of its parts. For that, thank the dedicated bartenders in Japan. They might not have invented the highball—it's not clear who did and where it happened, though most signs point to the U.S. in the late 1800s—but like so many consumer products, they perfected it, and are now re-introducing it to the rest of the world. And we’re loving every sip of the drink that most people surmise is named for the tall glass it's served in.
For the past three years, I’ve been the bar director for the Momofuku restaurant group. But my highball awakening occurred right before that, when I worked at the speakeasy PDT. We were in Tokyo, guest bartending at the legendary Park Hyatt hotel. At the end of the shift, my boss Jim Meehan served me my first highball; I downed it in three seconds. Yes, a night of bartending had left me thirsty but more than that, I was unprepared for the drink's refreshing deliciousness.
It turns out that I was in the right place to sample my first highball. Japan has been perfecting the art of that drink for 100 years.
In the early 20th century, Japan set out on a mission to learn whisky distilling from the Scotch, the masters of the craft (which is one reason why Scotch whisky and Japanese whisky both spell it without the "e"). Around that time, foreigners began requesting whisky and soda at bars around Japan. “Wistans”—bottled whisky and soda waters—appeared on the market shortly after. Concurrently, in the mid '50s, Suntory whisky founder Shinjiro Torii established the chain of “Tory’s Bars,” specializing in highballs.
Since then, Japanese highball service has evolved to a true art form, with elegant suit-clad bartenders ritualizing every detail: chilling every ingredient, carefully pouring the whisky to avoid disturbing the ice (which by the way, must be completely large, hand-cut cubes). You can still find good-quality canned highballs on shelves in every convenience store throughout Japan.
What takes a highball beyond a whisky and soda?
The most notable difference is the proportion of water to whisky. When people order a whisky and soda in an average American bar, they could well receive bottom-shelf whisky, plus a splash of soda water on top, garnished with a crappy red straw that is always promptly tossed aside.
The Japanese-inspired highball is mixed with a standard proportion of three parts water to one part whisky, bringing the strength of the cocktail down to roughly that of beer. In fact, the highball is intended to be a companion to food, a substitute for beer. Ice is particularly important. Most Japanese bartenders use large cubes of ice to limit the amount of dilution (larger ice melts more slowly); some others use no ice at all, another nod to its beer connection.
The drink must be as cold as possible: the whisky, sparkling water, and glass are all kept in a freezer until service. Garnishes are crucial as well. There are endless variations of highball garnishes, from lemon wedges to citrus peels and cucumber slices, paired specifically to the characteristics of the spirit. Yoshie Iwatani of Beam Suntory recommends adding mint to a Hakushu highball (Hakushu being a smoky, single malt whisky).
“The smoky whisky and refreshing mint makes you feel like you’re in the forest. So we call this highball Mori (forest) Kaoru (flavor/aroma),” she told me over email. The same logic could be applied to a bottle like Compass Box Asyla from Scotland, which is a similarly light, herbal whisky.
In fact, there's very little whisky/whiskey that doesn't work in a highball. Newer malty Japanese blends, like the no-age Suntory Toki, were specifically designed to be mixed with soda and served in highballs. But American whiskeys, though they tend to be heavier, also hold up in a highball. The only whisky you should avoid: Super peaty Islay scotches won't do a highball any favors. And anything expensive; remember, you're diluting this. (As for glasses, almost any 10-ounce one will do, from the eponymous highball, to a water glass. Just don't use a coupe or wine glass; that's weird.)
The highball is evolving in other ways besides whisky; we’re now moving into the era of the automated highball. In Japan, Suntory has developed highball machines, effectively putting the drink on tap which allows for a perfect pour, every time. At the newest Momofuku in Las Vegas, we modified a draft beer system so we can serve carbonated highballs. In a cocktail where bubbles are so crucial, carbonating both the water and the whisky adds a new, refreshing dimension to the drink. It’s doing so well, I'm hoping to bring highballs on tap to Momofuku in New York.
What many consider to be a basic cocktail, not worth fussing over, is endlessly perfected by the Japanese. The world is a better place because of it.
Recipe for a Perfect Highball (Soda Maker Version)
Makes 4 Drinks
Add 1 cup of your favorite whisky to a 1-liter carbonation container of a home soda maker like Soda Stream, and fill with cold water, preferably filtered. Cap the container and freeze for 30 minutes. At the same time, freeze 4 tall glasses, such as collins or old fashioned. Carbonate the mixture according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Fill the chilled glasses with ice and pour in the carbonated highball mixture.
Garnish according to the following rules. I'm partial to Japanese whisky but you can use Irish, American, or Scotch whisky instead.
Lighter whiskies such as Hibiki and Hakushu pair well with a sprig of herbs like mint, thyme, and sage, or fruits like cucumber and lime. Be sure to add garnishes to the glass, not the carbonation bottle (or else you'll have an explosive mess on your hands).
Fuller, spicier whiskies like Yamazaki, Mars Iwai, and Nikka Pure Malt are best with citrus garnishes such as orange peels and lemon wedges. They also work with a splash of citrus juice like orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime or yuzu.
Recipe for a Perfect Highball (Simple Version)
Makes 4 Drinks
Chill your favorite whisky bottle, sparkling water, and glasses in the freezer for 30 minutes. Fill the chilled glasses with ice, and add 1.5 ounce of whisky to each. Top each drink with 4 to 5 ounces of the chilled sparkling water. Garnish according to the above principles.