The Basics History & Trends

The Amazing Art of the Japanese Highball

Joe Leonard

On its surface, the Highball is one of the simplest cocktails out there. Yet when perfected, it turns into a delicate, refreshing and flavorful libation that’s more complex than it appears. That’s on display nowhere better than the fine cocktail institutions of Japan, where the Highball is an art form, and today a growing number of stateside bartenders are importing the tradition as well.

“American perception is that everyone just thinks of the Highball as a Whiskey Soda,” says bartender-owner Kevin Diedrich of San Francisco’s Pacific Cocktail Haven, where the bar’s daily happy hour has evolved into a popular Hi-Ball Hour, with half a dozen different renditions. “But when done correctly, with the right flavors and the right accents, it can be delicious.”

Haiballer cocktail at Dram & Grain. Clarissa Villondo

Achieving that delicious outcome is more difficult when simplicity remains the goal, and small missteps are amplified because there’s less to hide it. “It’s a delicate balance,” says Diedrich. “There’s a lot of flavor—it’s not just Whiskey & Soda. Anyone can pour you a Whiskey & Soda. It’s how it’s presented; it’s how everything around it makes it taste better.”

1. Clarity and Size of Ice

Diedrich follows a number of careful preparatory steps to hone and refine his Highballs. “We have our ice cut for a specific dimension for the glasses,” he says. ” One-hundred percent clarity of the ice. The Highball glasses are being kept in the glass freezer. So everything is cold and refreshing. It’s meant that way. Highballs are supposed to be cold, refreshing, flavorful and having the little detail of the ice, garnishes and spirit all thought out.”

Highball made with Suntory Toki whisky, club soda and a citrus spritz. Joe Leonard

2. Precise Preparation

The devil is in the details in this drink and not just for the recipe but, as Diedrich references, for the drink’s construction. This includes the well-honed craft of stirring and building the cocktail, using the right ice and getting the drink to the correct temperature, maximizing carbonation and showcasing clean, bright flavors.

“The hallmark is super careful preparation,” says bartender Mikey Barton of Washington, D.C.’s Dram & Grain, “Chilling the glasses, stirring X number of times, all this thought and preparation that goes into an individual drink.” At Dram & Grain, the bar’s latest menu was dubbed Dram & Global, offering a series of drinks inspired from different cities across the world, including Tokyo. Barton’s Haiballer cocktail includes Mizu shochu, Suntory Toki whiskey, a house-made Golden Delicious soda, Angostura bitters and a burdock root garnish.

Highball with Suntory whisky.

3. Purposeful Ingredients

“I think it’s really important for me that each thing that you’re doing for a drink has a purpose,” says Barton. So the apple soda was a natural fit for the fruity notes of the Toki and also builds on what Barton describes as a classic pairing of whiskey and apple. “And the whole thing ends up drinking like something that didn’t have any thought put into it. ... You kind of take one sip and all the ingredients meld together as one instead of picking out individual parts. It all drinks as this cohesive unit, which plays off the whiskey Highball concept.”

One of Diedrich’s Highballs also incorporates Suntory Toki, along with Q club soda and lemon oil, each ingredient carefully selected. “The carbonation is a very big factor,” says Diedrich. “So I sought out the highest carbonated soda water out there, which is the Q.”

Highball with Suntory whisky.

As for the Suntory Toki itself, Diedrich quickly found a new Highball favorite when it was released, which is no surprise as the whisky is meant to be mixed and the brand hosted launch parties showcasing the expression in Highballs. “The way they designed it, I think that Toki makes hands down the best Highball out there,” says Diedrich. “You get this vanilla and coconut, and the little lemon oil I use is like a lemon twist dropped in there. It just makes it pop, and all the flavors go together really well.”

It’s no surprise either that the entire category of Japanese whisky works well in this class of drink. “Japanese whisky is very feminine,” says Diedrich. “The flavors are very delicate, and just like with Japanese food and cooking, it’s about a lot of flavor in a very compact thing. That’s how I always view Japanese whisky—very flavorful in this little compact thing. I think the combination of that and being delicate.”

Marugin Highball made with yuzu, ginger and honey.

4. Proper Ratio

Another key to the Highball is the ratio of spirit to soda, keeping the drink crisp and light. “This is another fundamental tenet of the Highball,” says Barton. “It’s a whisky drink that’s meant to pair with food. It’s meant to be sessionable or repeatedly imbibed.”

Speaking of session-worthy drinks, it’s worth noting that along with precision stirring, clear ice and careful execution, there’s an opposing realm of the Highball which also exists, where the drink is found in cans purchased from vending machines or served on draft in massive mugs.

“If you’ve gone to Tokyo and had Highballs on tap or bought a Highball out of a can from a machine, it’s amazing,” says Diedrich. “It’s just such a cultural thing. It’s something that’s delicious and on a hot day, you can just crush a bunch of them and it tastes good.”

Ultimately, that’s what the Highball is truly about, whether it’s being slowly stirred over the course of minutes or cracked open from a can in seconds. It’s refreshing and repeatable, hopefully enjoyed among good company to help set an appropriately bubbly tone for any occasion.