Toast the Tokyo Olympics With a Traditional Japanese Highball
Learn from Suntory’s Gardner Dunn and award-winning barkeep Julia Momose.
Booze plus bubbles. It’s one of the cocktail world’s simplest yet most satisfying combinations. From England’s inimitable Pimm’s Cup to Texas’ heat stroke antidote Ranch Water, the no-frills equation has been gracing bar tops across the globe since time immemorial. And in Japan, home to the upcoming Summer Olympics, the age-old thirst quencher is affectionately dubbed the “highball”—a modest name for a drink whose quiet, omnipotent influence spans generations.
“In the 1950s, the highball was a favorite of whisky drinkers in Japan,” says Gardner Dunn, senior brand ambassador for Japan’s storied House of Suntory distillery. “It was built to bring the proof of the whisky down and open it up in a refreshing way to pair well with Japanese cuisine.”
Dunn should know. According to drinks maven Julia Momose, the brains behind Chicago’s acclaimed Japanese-inspired cocktail den Kumiko and author of forthcoming book The Way of the Cocktail: Japanese Traditions, Techniques, and Recipes, Suntory’s gorgeously balanced whisky played a major role in the development of that original mid-century highball craze.
“In an effort to sell more Japanese whisky, Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii tried to break into the beer drinker’s market by emphasizing the low-ABV, effervescent deliciousness of the highball,” Momose says.
As soon as they touched town in the Land of the Rising Sun, highballs became an instant and widespread hit. Today, you can amble into any bar in the country and you’re bound to encounter a host of revelers clinking tall frosty glasses together to a raucous soundtrack of “Kanpais!” And we’re not just talking about the kind of hole-in-the-wall dives where two-ingredient mixed drinks most often reign supreme.
“The popularity of the highball in Japan is undeniable,” Dunn continues. “People enjoy them in big mugs filled with ice at izakayas, after work with friends while eating yakitori, and at more formal bars where the bartender adds each ingredient carefully, stirring the ice to chill the whisky 13 and a half times to the left, and then adding soda water down the arm of the spoon, careful not to burst the bubbles.”
Easy-drinking and served crispy cold, highballs are currently making inroads stateside, becoming a permanent fixture in everything from laid-back sports bars to high-end omakase outfits. The demand is so strong, in fact, that Suntory is back to its old tricks, and this time has come correct with a specially designed new whisky, as well as an astoundingly innovative piece of barware: a ready-to-rock, kegerator-style highball machine, tailor made to crank out perfectly proportioned tipples with a flick of the wrist.
“Beam Suntory has spent the better part of five years working on a highball machine to import to the U.S.,” Dunn explains. “The machines deliver one part super-chilled whisky plus three parts super-chilled soda water with high carbonation directly into a glass that ideally contains a perfect spear of crystal clear ice. With only two ingredients, the drink can either be absolutely spectacular or really terrible—it all depends on the quality of the components.”
The distillery stocks its machines with Suntory Whisky Toki, a proprietary blend that takes Hakushu American White Oak Cask Malt Whisky, beloved for its bright green apple notes and mellow mouthfeel, and mingles with vanilla-tinged Chita heavy-type grain whisky and a splash of coveted Yamazaki Spanish Oak Cask Malt. The result is an approachable, honeyed, and enticingly aromatic sipper with a kiss of woody, ginger-laced spice at the finish. And weighing in at 43% ABV, a jolt of frigid sparkling water is all it takes to make any time Suntory time. (No joke: “toki” translates to “time” in Japanese.)
Speaking of language, drinking these beauties comes with its own vocabulary. “In Japan, we have a phrase we use when we first sit down at a bar—‘toriaezu’—which means ‘to begin with’ or ‘for now,’” says Momose. The accomplished barkeep grew up in Japan and continues to hold highball culture close to her heart. “I love to sit down after a long day and call for a ‘toriaezu highball.’ They’re bubbly and refreshing, but the best ones are more than a sum of their parts.”
It’s clear that Japanese whisky highballs go above and beyond their average Jack-and-soda counterparts, but, as Momose indicates, the cocktail is also praised for its versatility. Not a fan of brown spirits? Toss in a botanical-forward gin like Suntory’s Roku, go with a palate-pleasing rice-based vodka like the distilling giant’s Haku, opt for sultry Japanese shochu, or wile out with an off-the-wall pick like reposado tequila, smoky mezcal, or dry Fino sherry. The choice is yours—just make sure to get your wording right.
“We have an affinity for creating words from a combination of two words,” adds Momose, referencing the multitude of curiously named highball variations. “Chu-hi is a shochu highball (sho-CHU + HI-ball). A whisky sonic, vermouth sonic, or gin sonic is a highball made with a combination of soda and tonic (SO-da + to-NIC).”
Try your hand at stirring up some of Tokyo’s finest by putting one of these four standout Japanese highball recipes to the test.
Toki Highball Recipe
Courtesy of Gardner Dunn
- 1½ ounces Suntory Whisky Toki (preferably pre-chilled to enhance carbonation and lower the temperature of the overall drink)
- Chilled soda water
- Citrus twist for garnish
Fill the glass to the brim with ice. Add whisky and stir to further chill. Fill again with ice. Add three measures of soda water directly onto the spirit, taking care not to splash the ice or the glass. Top with an expressed lemon or grapefruit twist.
Sonic Highball Recipe
Courtesy of Julia Momose
- 1½ ounces spirit of choice (Japanese whisky, shochu, vermouth, sherry, tequila, mezcal—you can’t go wrong)
- 2 parts Top Note tonic water
- 1 part Fever Tree club soda
Fill a glass with ice and stir to chill. Pour off melted water but reserve the ice. Add spirit to chill, then add tonic and club soda directly onto the spirit, taking care not to splash the ice or the glass. Guide a bar spoon down the inside of the glass and gently nuzzle the ice upward and to the left to allow the ingredients to incorporate underneath the cubes. Lower the ice back down without agitating the cocktail and enjoy.
Courtesy of Julia Momose
- 1½ ounces shochu
- Flavored sparkling water like Fever Tree Lime & Yuzu or Top Note Grapefruit
Fill a glass with ice and stir to chill. Pour off melted water but reserve the ice. Add sochu to chill, then add flavored sparkling water directly onto the spirit, taking care not to splash the ice or the glass. Guide a bar spoon down the inside of the glass and gently nuzzle the ice upward and to the left to allow the ingredients to incorporate underneath the cubes. Lower the ice back down without agitating the cocktail and enjoy.
Courtesy of Julia Momose
- 1½ ounces shochu
- Seasonal fruit
- Fever Tree club soda
Add fruit to a sturdy-bottomed highball glass and muddle well, using a muddler or wooden spoon. Add shochu and stir gently to incorporate. Top with ice, add club soda to fill, and enjoy.