As part of our month long exploration into Asian influences and cocktail culture, we’re starting off by exploring a popular Japanese way to enjoy Whisky: Whisky Highballs.
Technically the highball is a drinks family that encompasses any cocktail that has been mixed with a spirit, mixer, and ice (think Gin and Tonics, Rum & Coke or Scotch & Sodas).
We Brits might well be far more aquatinted with G&T end of the family than the Whisky Highball branch but in Japan, you can find whisky highballs everywhere. It's at all ends of the spectrum in terms of cost and occasion too - literally sold out of vending machines all the way to carefully constructed in posh cocktail bars.
Why is it so popular there?
Put simply - because it’s delicious - a whisky highball is light and refreshing. It’s also easy to make but the devil is in the detail. While the ingredients for a whisky highball are extremely straightforward (the only components you need are whisky, soda water and ice), for many Japanese bartenders, assembling a highball is close to a science; The temperature, glass size, type of ice, and mixers used are each carefully considered.
If you get that combination right at home, you too can enjoy a lovely combination that feels both effortlessly lightand yet has a lingering complexity.
Moreover, it’s also a great drink to appreciate the full scope of what whisky has to offer - compared to drinking whisky straight this makes it far more accessible!
How Do You Make A Whisky Highball?
Fill a tall glass with ice
Top with soda water
Optional: Citrus peel garnish
Making a whisky highball is super easy. You simply need to fill a tall glass with ice, add whisky, top with soda water, and stir gently. The general rule is to use a 3:1 ratio of soda water to whiskey (50ml to a 150ml can of soda). Many go lighter than this as the art of a good highball is its elegant simplicity - it’s not meant to be super boozy!
Is it literally and Whisky + Soda?
Yes, but an elevated version! Whisky-soda is the kind of drink you get at a dive bar from someone slinging drinks with a soda gun.
Consider the highball as short hand for a whisky soda made with some thought and consideration. One where the lengthening spritz of premium soda water teases apart the flavours of the spirit in the glass, and one where lots of little things are done so well they create something that's far better than the sum of its parts.
How does a Whisky Highball differ from a Mizuwari?
A whisky highball and a Mizuwari are two slightly different ways to enjoy whisky. Mizuwari literally means ‘water’ (Mizu) and ‘divide’ (Wari) and that’s the major difference.
A Mizuwari is a mixture of whisky and water, whereas a whisky highball is whisky, soda water and ice.
Additionally, a Mizuwari can sometimes be served in a rocks glass, while a whisky highball is almost always served in a tall glass. Another seemingly minor difference (but all the details matter!) is that a Mizuwari is left undisturbed once made, while a whisky highball is stirred gently.
Should you garnish a highball?
The vanilla and orchard fruit flavours you find in many whiskies will generally always benefit from a citrus twist in a whisky highball. Really subtle fresh fruit notes tend to survive but can be augmented further with the use of lime so we say go for it!
That said, if in doubt a garnish of lemon or orange zest will complement almost every whisky choice and tend to be the safer place to start. If you want to go brave, mandarin and grapefruit are worth keeping in mind but pair these wisely.
If you want to try something different with your garnish, a sliver of apple adds a fun dimension and accentuates those crisp and clean notes further.
Whiskies to consider when making a highball:
We tend to recommend picking something light but flavourful. Clearly given the connection, Japanese whisky is a good section to browse through (a few curated highlights below) but don't restrict yourself - there are so many Lowland Scotch Whiskies that are great, as are some of the Australian whiskies.
The ideal is a subtly smoky whisky or one that has a gentle wood spice to add a bit of extra depth, but if you are picking soft and elegant whiskies they’ll also shine in this simple and refreshing drink (especially when accentuated with the right choice of garnish).
Begin by looking at these contenders...
Toki Whisky: Light and floral, Toki has an ideal profile for highballs, and once you factor in the that tinge of spice and the vanilla notes from the malt and grain whiskies included in the blend - you'll understand why it's a solid choice for the cocktail.
Hibiki Suntory Japanese Whisky is a great whisky to sip neat, so it's little wonder that it also works with soda water which brings out the whiskey's honey, orange zest, and sweet chocolate notes.
Nikka From the Barrel is a richly flavoured, hugely complex yet affordable Japanese whisky. We find it benefits from a little water to allow the flavours to open up in general and when that comes in the form of effervescent soda - the nose remains lively, especially with an orange garnish.
The Chita Whisky is very clean and crisp overall. On the nose there is a Crème brûlée and cardamom note while to taste it’s mild and smooth with a hint of mint and deep honey. Those subtle herbal tones, honey and structured woody spice really suit being mixed with a soda water and a sprig of lemon thyme.
It’s so easy to see why the Highball has become an iconic symbol of Japanese drinking culture. It's hard to be snobbish about it and that makes it such an equaliser; It’s both super accessible and yet also complex.
The levels of detail make all the difference and it’s because of that that it remains universally popular across the spectrum of whisky fans - from discerning bartenders to casual drinkers finishing a shift.
Get stuck into the minutiae of it and you’ll see why too!