Behind the Bar Stick People

The Perfect Highball: How It Forever Changed One Bartender’s Career

Sometimes the simplest things in life are really the most complex. So it could be said of the Highball. Whisky, soda water, glass, ice—what could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, it turns out. To find its proper form, every element of execution must be flawless. The result? Beauty in simplicity that so eloquently epitomizes the Japanese style of bartending. Few bartenders appreciate this to the degree of Kazuhiro Chii.

The Yokohama native developed his craft at Ocean Bar Chrysler, a legendary outpost in his Japanese hometown. Today he pursues perfection behind the bar at Waku Ghin, located inside Singapore’s iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino.

“The Highball is one of the most interesting cocktails, in my opinion,” says Chii. “The taste of the drink can change dramatically with the use of a different whisky or soda or with a change in the proportion of whisky and soda in making the drink.”

Hakushu Highball.

At Waku Ghin, Chii’s standard bearer is built around Hakushu whisky. “It has the right taste,” says Chii. “It’s smooth and has a nice aroma of the forest, which can provide a relaxing effect for the drinker.”

It’s probably more than just the whisky, though. Sidling up to Chii’s bar elicits a zen-like serenity. Much of this has to do with his calming approach: determined, purposeful, economy of motion—Kabuki theater in cocktail form.

“When I first started bartending, my master taught me that the bartender must be a shadow and the main player is the guest, not the bartender,” he says. “This philosophy is still ingrained in me today. Japanese bartending is deeply connected with Japanese culture, such as sado (Japanese tea ceremony), budo (Japanese martial arts) and zen.”

Kazuhiro Chii.

After nearly 20 years behind the stick in Japan, Chii exported his skills along the South China Sea eventually landing at Bar 84 in Singapore. A handful of awards at international cocktail competitions was enough to persuade Tetsuya Wakuda to recruit him to lead the chef’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Waku Ghin, in 2012.

A food-focused establishment was a natural home for Chii, where his trademark Highballs—low in alcohol, easy to drink—pair naturally against the delicate flavors of freshly prepared Asian cuisine.

Although it’s now a pervasive crowd pleaser, Chii can recall a different time. “The Highball was a popular drink in the 1950s in Japan,” he says. “But its interest dwindled over the decades because the younger Japanese considered whisky in general to be too strong for pairing with food. Then in 2008, Suntory, Japan’s largest and oldest whisky manufacturer, found a way to revive the Highball with a successful campaign that included a TV commercial featuring Japanese model and actress Koyuki. The success of the campaign led to the growth of the Highball in Japan and Asia.”

Waku Ghin whisky on the rocks.

It was around this same time that Chii wholly immersed himself in methodology. He distills a decade of dedication into these broad brushstrokes: “When pouring soda water into the glass, one must take extra care,” says Chii. “The refreshing carbonation is the best part of a Highball. A good bartender must handle it well to avoid losing carbonation. Carbonation will be lost if the soda hits a hard surface such as the ice or on the side of the glass. The soda water needs to be poured gently onto the whisky directly in between pieces of ice. It’s also important not to stir too much. The Highball is almost complete when soda water is poured in because both ingredients combine well due to a lower density of whisky. One stir is sufficient to prevent any loss of carbonation, which can lead to a flat drink.”

With more than 85 handcrafted cocktails on the menu, you’d think that fashioning a basic Highball would start to seem somewhat pedestrian. Think again. “When my guest tells me that Waku Ghin’s Highball is the best, it’s a great pleasure for me,” says Chii. As for his own personal preference? “I like the Dewar’s Highball,” he says. “I have been drinking it for more than 20 years.”

Whether you’re in Singapore or Sioux City, sipping on a Sazerac or a Whiskey & Soda, your level of enjoyment should always be proportional to a rigorousness of execution. With his career, Kazuhiro Chii reminds us that the simpler a drink seems, the more energy becomes available toward the complexity of its preparation.

“Japanese bartending culture is not about addition,” he says. “It’s about subtraction. It’s about finding the simplest and best way to create a drink. In place of fluff, there’s precision.” If a drink is simple, it follows, you should expect it be nothing less than sensational.