How Japanese Bartenders Craft A Good Highball

This popular cocktail is more than just whisky and soda.
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It used to be that ordering a highball was saved for grimy-floored dive bars where your drink would come with a flimsy paper straw. But these days, the whisky and soda concoction is getting a fancier spin with Japanese bartenders and their reputation for paying close attention to detail.

Temperature, for instance, is one of the key details that Japanese bartenders have mastered. As a highball is meant to be enjoyed with food more than on its own, it has to be served very cold, and at half the strength of a neat whisky. Ice is the key to achieving this.
At Bar High Five in Tokyo, master bartender Hidetsugu Ueno is particular about the type of ice served in his bar. He was in Hong Kong last September for a pop-up at the MO Bar, at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. During the pop-up, Ueno shares that the ice he used was hand-cut to the shape he wanted by a bartender he brought over for the event. The right temperature and shape of the ice is important when it comes to making a highball, he shares.
To keep a highball chilled for as long as possible, crystal-clear ice balls are used so the time taken to melt into the drink is longer. "Ideally just one (or two) large pieces of ice to fit the glassware you use," says Ueno.

The glasses used to hold a highball and the sparkling water or soda are also usually kept in a freezer to make sure the drink is served as it should be — ice cold. How you pour the soda water makes a difference too.

"Ice is important for highball, but most important thing for making a highball should be how you pour soda water," says Ueno. "You must pour it with no wave, fast enough between ice and inside of glassware so you don't really need to stir to mix it."

Then, there’s the proportions. While a highball in America usually involves average whisky doused with a splash of soda, the Japanese-inspired version is more refined. The common practice is to use three parts of (filtered) water to one part of whisky, to bring down the strength of the alcohol so the drink won’t overpower the food. Fresh fruits are often used as garnish, specifically paired to the flavour profile of the whisky used.
At Ronin in Hong Kong, for instance, the popular 24-seater restaurant has a beverage menu with a wide selection of highballs. Here, different Japanese whiskies are mixed with soda water, then served with fresh garnish such as yuzu or grapefruit.

With highballs as good as these, save the whisky on the rocks for after dinner. This cocktail has gone past dive bar standards to come into its own.
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