The Art of the Highball

Mixology becomes automated

One of the ironies of cooking is that the simplest dishes are the hardest to replicate (if you disagree, try making spaghetti with garlic and oil). The same axiom applies behind the bar. While the mixology revolution has spawned cocktails with long lists of ingredients and complicated instructions, most of the classics are two or three-ingredient drinks, and their very simplicity functions as an inducement to screw things up.

On its face, the highball appears to be the simplest of all. What could be easier? You throw some ice in a highball glass, pour in a few ounces of your favorite tipple, and fill it up with your mixer of choice. In Japan, however, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Many of us are aware that the Japanese are far more fastidious, in most things, than we are. They’ve adapted their Zen-like approach to the cocktail world, where the highball occupies near-mythic status. Every aspect of the drink—the glass, the whisk(e)y, the mixer, the ice and the garnish—is subject to examination and contemplation. Here’s a consensus on the fine points:

  • Use a smaller glass (eight or ten ounces), so you can finish the drink before it turns watery
  • Fill the glass generously with ice
  • Use high-quality spirits, but save the exceptional stuff for the snifter
  • After adding the whisk(e)y, stir 10-15 times to cool the contents
  • Use the best available mixers, such as Fever-Tree or Q-Soda
  • Garnish with a lemon zest (optional)

The amount of mixer is crucial, as it will determine the strength and taste of the highball. A 2:1 ratio will yield a strong, bracing drink. Softer spirits (such as Japanese whisky) shine at 3:1, while American bourbon might do better at 4:1.

When it comes to whisky, the 800-pound gorilla in Japan is Suntory (now known as Beam Suntory), famed for its trio of outstanding distilleries: Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki. Japanese whisky is lighter in texture than the version produced in the U.S. or Canada; it is similar to Scotch but without the astringency, and it has been frequently described as feminine. While you can locate it in this country, what do you do if you can’t find a conscientious Japanese bartender?

In the era of hard-to-get visas, Beam Suntory has come to the rescue with the Toki Highball Machine. Bars in the U.S. can purchase one through Lancer, an equipment company dedicated to turning out machines that reproduce the perfect highball every single time. The Toki whisky, a “new generation” blend of spirits from the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries, has a flavor profile designed to optimize the pleasure of the drink. About 100 machines are currently in use, primarily in major cities, but don’t be surprised if one comes to a watering hole near you.

Sometimes, artificial intelligence has an upside.


Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on Amazon; his third novel, Impeachment, will be released this fall.

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