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The high art of the Japanese highball

On a recent trip to Japan, Alice Lascelles is reminded of the simple magic that makes a Whisky Highball the star of the show across Tokyo's buzzing bars and smoke-filled izakayas

Words by Alice Lascelles

japanese highball whisky drink
The Collection

I recently returned to Japan for the first time in several years. It was a joy to be back; but then again, it always is. Over the course of a week, I crammed my maw with many weird and wonderful things: wasabi KitKats, sushi rice perfumed with cherry blossoms, immaculate albino strawberries that cost £5 each… Naturally, I also hit lots of bars and worked my way – most heroically – through some exquisite spirits and cocktail lists.

The drink I enjoyed the most, though, was the simplest of all: the whisky and soda, or as it’s known in Japan, the Whisky Highball. Popularised in the 1950s by Japan’s first whisky company Suntory, it’s a drink you’ll find everywhere – from the swankiest cocktail joint, to the scruffiest beerhall.

At Marugin, a smoke-filled izakaya in downtown Tokyo, I lean on a counter scuffed pale by decades of feet and drink vast tankards of whisky and soda on draught, accompanied by little barbecued skewers of meat. As the bar begins filling up with locals, the noise levels and the flames grow ever higher. Over on the other side of the room, an old-timer raises his tankard in my direction as if to say, ‘Kanpai!’

Just down the road, at the 12-seat basement bar Apollo, the Highball comes in a much more glamorous guise: it’s served in paper-thin glassware and cooled by 4-inch gems of hand-cut ice. As Tom Waits croons in the background and candles flicker in the dark, I can just about make out the many bottles of fine and rare Japanese whiskies that line the bar.

The Ginza speakeasy Bar High Five is renowned for its cocktails – they’re what the tourists come for, anyway. But locals are just as likely to order whisky with water – mizuwari – or a classic Highball, according to Hidetsugu Ueno, the bar’s impressively quiffed proprietor. ‘The Whisky Highball is an old-fashioned drink – but we like it simple, here in Japan,’ he says. ‘It used to be just a drink for businessmen, but now you get the cool guys drinking Highballs instead of beer.’

I try to order a classic Highball, but Ueno-san suggests something ‘a bit more weird’. (There is a menu, I believe, though you never see it – they’re more omakase here.) He mixes gently peated Hakushu malt whisky with Yamazaki soda water from the same source used by the Kyoto distillery, then laces it with honey, lime and yellow Chartreuse. Softly smoky, sharp, and citrus- and herbal-sweet all at once, it is absolutely delicious.

whisky highball in izakaya

At Kyoto’s tiny Samboa bar, the signature Highball is served without ice – an affectation that I’d hitherto considered a capital crime. The bar is so small that, at first, we have to wait for a seat on the lantern-lit porch outside, watching geisha girls loom out of the darkness like beautiful ghosts on a rainy night. Once inside, we take our seats at the long wooden bar and order a round of Kaku Highs, made with frozen Suntory Kakubin blended whisky and little bottles of soda water. No stirring is allowed – it damages the bubbles apparently – so each bottle is upended into the glass with a flourish ‘to ensure the drink is well mixed’. Our waistcoated bartender then finishes each Highball with a scented lemon twist. It’s as crisp and cool as a lager – I do not miss the ice. Nor am I prepared for the deadpan delivery of a tiny dish of Smarties on the side.

You rarely have a Highball in Japan, it seems, without some kind of dainty snack – and each morsel serves as an intriguing insight into a bar’s idiosyncrasies. At Marugin, it’s chargrilled duck’s hearts and quail’s eggs; at Apollo, it’s chocolate cigarillo biscuits. At Bar High Five, I have a thimble of sweet-potato shards followed by a mouthful of Brie atop a tiny biscuit. At Analog, a ‘listening bar’ in Tokyo, you get one free tune per drink, which you can choose from the racks of vinyl that are arranged around the room. Snacks are truffle crisps and popcorn chocolates served in a bowl made from a repurposed 7-inch single.

Japan has taught me to lose myself in the tiniest of things: the colour of a dish of pickles; the way the light falls through a washi paper screen; the multiple ways a bartender can reinvent a recipe comprised of only two ingredients

Japan is a glorious assault on the senses, but it’s also taught me to lose myself in the tiniest of things: the colour of a dish of pickles; how the light falls through a washi paper screen; the multiple ways a bartender can reinvent a recipe comprised of only two ingredients.

Back home, as I unpack my yakitori-scented belongings, I’m reminded of these things. So many wonderful memories distilled in just one drink

Alice Lascelles illustration
By Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles writes about drinks for The Financial Times and is the author of The Cocktail Edit (Quadrille 2022). Follow her @alicelascelles