Mar 19, 2019

Adventures of George: The Japanese Highball

Hakushu tasting

Hakushu tasting

March 20th, 2019   |   By Tony Abou Ganim

The beauty of a well-made highball lies in its simplicity and attention to the details!

After a long day of travel, George finally found himself in Las Vegas, checked into his room at the Delano, and in need of some liquid rejuvenation! After dropping off his bags, he headed straight to Libertine Social inside Mandalay Bay for a little stimulation. The bar was bustling with what appeared to be the gathering of convention-goers celebrating the end of a busy period of meetings – George knew the look very well. He was able to secure a stool at the far end of the serpentine bar, facing a strange looking contraption that somewhat resembled a beer tap and a soda fountain machine, from which a bartender was dispensing a drink.

“Hello, I’m Jose. Here’s a food and drink menu, and I’ll be right back to get your order,” the bartender greeted George. George perused the menu and settled on the Libertine Burger with “Kraft-Ed” cheese and caramelized onions, and the Belgium fries. Looking over the cocktail menu, he was leaning toward having one of the Swizzles but was still very intrigued with whatever was being served from that tap device.

“What looks good, my friend?” Jose inquired.

“Well, I’m going to have the Libertine burger and fries, and to drink, I was curious … what do you serve from that fancy contraption?” George asked, pointing to the highball machine.

“That’s our Japanese Toki Highball Machine. There are only two in Las Vegas and we have one,” he replied. “We serve a traditional Japanese highball featuring Toki Whisky, and the machine produces an extremely carbonated soda water. We add a dash of Yuzu and a twist of grapefruit.”

George found the highball to be light and refreshing with just the right amount of Whisky to soda, and he was pleasantly surprised by the intense amount of carbonation the machine afforded. He also found it to be the perfect complement to the richness of the two beef patties grilled on a flattop, smothered with cheese and caramelized onions, which he was devouring. “Another Toki Highball, please,” he requested.

“Put that one on my check and I’ll have one as well,” the gentleman sitting next to George interjected. “Hi, my name is Karl. I work for Beam Suntory and we sell Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky – glad you like it.”

japanese whiskey

“It’s great. I’ve never had Japanese Whisky before and definitely never served from a machine like this,” George replied.

“Toki is a blend of Whiskies produced at three of our distilleries – Yamazaki, Chita and Hakushu,” he explained. “This machine is designed to mix a classic highball consisting of Whiskey and soda water, but with a very high level of carbonation. They are very popular in Japan and if you visit any izakaya (gastropub) you will find people drinking highballs, generally made from this type of machine.”

“Fantastic! Who knew such a simple drink could be so incredibly elevated,” George remarked. “I guess I need to make a trip to Japan to experience it for myself.”

“I’m headed there in a couple of days to visit the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. You should join me,” Karl invited.

“Really? I would love to! You’re not joking, right? You’re sure you wouldn’t mind me tagging along,” George replied, happily accepting Karl’s offer.

“No, it would be great. I’m going by myself so it would be great to have some company,” he responded.

“I’m in!”

George quickly paid his tab, thanked Jose and bid goodnight to Karl with plans to meet up with him in Tokyo. Two days later, George was on a 17-hour flight to Japan, with a newfound sense of adventure to discover Japanese Whisky and the art of the highball. After landing at the Narita Airport, George caught the train to the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo where he had booked a room at the Hotel Gracery. Once checked in, he was excited to explore Tokyo and have his first highball in Japan. George met Karl at a little joint called the Troll Bar, and “little” surely described the place as it only had six seats!

“Konbanwa and welcome to Tokyo!” Karl said, handing George a highball. “Kelly, our wonderful bartender, made this for you with Suntory Kakubin Whisky, which is not available in the United States but you’ll see it everywhere in Japan. Kanpai!”

George settled in nicely to the pace and vibe that is Tokyo, but after three highballs and nothing more than some otsumami (bar snacks consisting of peanuts and spicey rice crackers), he was ready for a more substantial meal. They paid their check, thanked Kelly for her wonderful hospitality and took her recommendation to eat dinner at Gindaco, which specializes in Takoyaki (made from a batter shaped like a ball and filled with minced octopus, pickled ginger and green onion).

Once they arrived at Gindaco, Karl ordered some pork shumai, two orders of Takoyaki, and two Suntory Whisky highballs. The highballs were produced from a machine that resembled a draft beer fountain and were served in mugs, similar to beer, over beautiful ice with that telltale carbonation that was now defining the Japanese highball. After dinner and several more highballs, George was finally feeling the effects of the long flight, not to mention the many highballs consumed. Knowing tomorrow was their first distillery visit, he decided it was time to head back to the hotel and call it a night.

The next morning, they boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto where they would visit Japan’s oldest distillery, Yamazaki. Karl had arranged a tour so they went straight from the train station to the distillery. George was excited about arriving early and the prospect of buying some of the wonderful Whiskies produced there, which he had been told are hard to find in the States. After checking in, they headed to the gift shop only to discover that the rare Yamazaki and Hibiki Whiskies that are so sought after were also not available for sale here, either.

It was now time for the distillery tour, which was fantastic and reminded George of his visit to Scotland. The tour took them through all the stages of Malt Whisky production, from malting, mashing and fermentation to distillation and finally maturation, at which point they were all seated at tables in a tasting room. In addition to trying several expressions of Hibiki, the tasting concluded with a “hands-on” demonstration of how to make a proper highball. George was amazed at the attention placed on what appears to be a very simple drink consisting of just Whisky and soda water. But it was this ritual – with consideration placed on the glassware, the importance of great ice, the chilling of the Whisky before adding the chilled soda water, not to mention the importance of using a highly carbonated soda water – that elevated this unassuming libation to perfection.

“This is wonderful, light and refreshing with just the right balance between Whisky and soda. And those bubbles – wow, it’s like the drink is dancing in my mouth!” George proclaimed.

With their highballs finished it was now time to visit the bar to purchase tastings of the Whiskies produced at the distillery. They were both thrilled to find such an extensive offering of expressions available for sale, but only in tasting portions. After pursuing the menu, George settled on a flight of Yamazaki 12 year, 18 year and the very rare 25 year, while Karl went for a flight of Hibiki that included a taste of the 30 year. George found the Yamazaki 25 year to be simply exceptional with notes of dried fruits, figs and raisins, peaches, apples and walnuts on the nose. On the palate, the Whisky was so rich and creamy, revealing sweet sherry, toasted almonds and oak giving way to cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, with a long, long finish that exposed dark chocolate, licorice and stewed tree fruits.

“These are all amazing Whiskies, but I have to say this Yamazaki 25 year aged entirely in sherry casks has got to be one of the finest drams I’ve ever tasted!” George declared.

japanese whiskey

He continued to taste the wonders of the Yamazaki 25 year as it lingered on his palate for the entire trip into Kyoto, where they would spend the night before returning to Tokyo in the morning. Dinner was at a wonderful place called Bar K6 where they had amazing steak cutlet sandwiches and drank Hibiki Blender’s Choice. After dinner George was ready for bed but Karl had other plans.

“Let’s have a nightcap!” Karl announced. “I know just the place!” Fifteen minutes later they were sitting at the bar inside the Kawaramachi-Sanjo Liquor Museum, where Yukiko was making them highballs with Yamazaki 10 year.

“They don’t make the 10 year Yamazaki any longer but we have some stashed away. I hope you enjoy it,” Yukiko explained.

“I do, and you make a wonderful highball. I’ll have one more, then I really need to get some sleep,” George proclaimed, paying the check and saying his goodbyes and leaving Karl to hold down the bar without him.

Back in Tokyo, Karl had a full day of sight-seeing planned, which included visiting Bar High Five, the wonderful Ginza-style cocktail bar from barman extraordinaire Hidetsugu Ueno. As it turns out, not only is this one of Tokyo’s most respected bars but it also offers one of the city’s largest selections of Whisky.

“Konbanwa,” the barman greeted them each with a warm hand towel and a small bowl of otsumami.

“We would love to see a cocktail menu,” Karl requested.

“We don’t offer a menu but can make any of the classics or craft something special for you,” the barman replied.

“Whisky highball?” Karl asked.

“What’s your preference in Whisky?”

“Hibiki please,” Karl answered.

The Highballs were served in tall crystal glasses over beautiful ice with that wonderful carbonation and perfect balance. After their second round, it was time for some sustenance so George paid the barman, thanked him for his hospitality, and Karl and George said their goodbyes. Next stop was Shin for Udon with Tempura and a bottle of Daiginjo-shu sake before heading to the New York Bar atop of the Park Hyatt Hotel. This is the bar made famous by Bill Murray in the film “Lost in Translation.” Here they enjoyed Hibiki 17-year-old Whisky served in beautiful crystal glassware over hand-cut ice and listened to amazing jazz while taking in the incredible views of Tokyo from the 52nd floor. Finishing a second glass of Hibiki as the band was wrapping up their final set, George was feeling the effects of this whirlwind trip and was ready to return to the hotel, as the morning would bring another distillery visit with it.

The next day would be their last day in Japan and it included visiting the Hakushu distillery in the Yamanashi Prefecture, which would require a round-trip train ride. The visit to Hakushu was very similar to the one at Yamazaki with one major difference, and that being the use of peat to malt their barley. Apparently, they import the peat and this gives their Whisky that touch of smokiness one finds in Islay single malts. After the tour, tasting and lesson in making a highball with Hakushu, George found himself at their tasting bar with a small sample of Hakushu 25 year as well as another taste of the remarkable Yamazaki 25 year sitting in front of him.

“What a way to end an amazing adventure!” George commented. “I truly can’t thank you enough for this wonderful opportunity!”

After the train ride back to Tokyo, George enjoyed still tasting the faint memory of his final sip of Yamazaki 25 year as they headed back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before the long flight home.

“I’m hungry!” Karl declared. “Let’s grab one last meal at Gindaco.” Karl ordered them a couple of Suntory highballs, an order of pork shumai, and he got two orders of Takoyaki for himself.

George returned home with an amazing memory of Japan, the wonderful hospitality of the people, a love and admiration for Japanese Whisky, and a newfound understanding and appreciation for the simplest libation of all, the highball!



Yamazaki 10yr High Ball

The Yamazaki classic highball with heavy carbonation visible.

The Highball Ritual – Elevate your highball experience!

  1. Proper glass – crystal highball glass
  2. Ice – large, hard, dry, clear, cold cubes
  3. Chill glass – This allows for the ice to temper as well as chilling the glass. (Dump out any melted water.)
  4. Add Whiskey over ice and stir 20 times.
  5. Add chilled Q Soda Water.*
  6. Stir only once to mix, so as not to disturb the bubbles.
  7. Garnish with a swath of grapefruit peel (optional).

* I prefer Q Soda Water as it has a great amount of carbonation and comes the closest to that produced in a Japanese Toki Highball Machine.

Simple, yet elegant and so wonderful when done well!