The Latest, Greatest Japanese Whisky Craze To Hit The U.S.

Whisky highballs

Whisky highballs on draught are beloved all across Japan, but the refreshingly light cocktails that go great with food are just taking off in the U.S.

Gabi Porter/Sunory

Japan is one of the world’s greatest whisky producers, and its single malts have been awarded the highest possible acclaim, including “world’s best” recognition (the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world’s single best whisky in 2014), while its blended whiskies are equally impressive, if not better. I’ve written about this extensively here at Forbes in years past, and have gone on the record as noting that I think Hibiki is the best blended whisky out there, period, superior even to the highest shelf Scottish stuff (though I still give my single malt allegiance to The Macallan).

I’ve been singing the praises of Japanese whiskies for as long as I can recall, and in recent years Americans have bought in to the idea, to the point that pretty much any place that considers itself a decent bar has to have some Japanese bottles on the shelf. The downside of this newfound popularity is shortages of all the better labels, and prices that have gone up sharply.

Fortunately, an even more recent imported Japanese whisky trend is bringing the tasty pleasures of the Pacific Rim to American drinkers on a more modest budget - the Highball revolution.

Several years ago, I traveled to Japan to do a newspaper feature on the growing trend of Japanese whisky, and its related tourism: distillery visits, top whisky bars in Tokyo, and so on. I went out to dinner one night with the former Master Distiller for Suntory, the nation’s largest beer and spirits company, and we ate at a divey, under the railroad tracks local haunt where we cooked our own oysters over a fiery grill in the middle of the table, a real roll up your shirt sleeves kind of spot. It was fabulous, and we drank draught whisky highballs along with our meal, not something I had ever done before - partly because I hadn’t thought of it, but mostly because you couldn’t get draught highballs anywhere but in Japan. As he explained it to me, while the Japanese have long been fans of beer and whiskey, wine never enjoyed the mainstream popularity it does here, and in its absence, they needed something to go with food, especially for non-beer lovers. This led to the popularity of the highball, a relatively simple cocktail of whisky and soda water, which really took off in the 1950s.

But the quantum leap came in the Eighties, when Suntory developed a sophisticated draught highball machine for bars, enabling fast, simple, consistent serving of the easy drinking cocktails, often served in icy cold beer mugs. Today, the popularity of the highball in Japan is unmissable - any izakaya (pub) or yakitori joint is full of people swilling them in big, ice filled mugs. There is even a full shelf of canned highballs alongside beer in every 7-11 cooler in Japan, including Suntory’s. We had draught mugs with our oysters, and there was a reason why I enjoyed them so much - because Suntory basically re-engineered the staid highball to be better from the ground up.

First, they recognized that it needed to be cold, so the draught machines are refrigerated to pre-cool both the whisky and soda so it’s chilled before hitting the ice, which means less water dilution. Secondly, they found that fizzier and finer bubbles (think champagne) were better, so they super-charged the carbonation, to one and a half times (or more) of soda water from a bottle or bar soda gun, with smaller bubbles. Finally, Suntory even created a new whisky specifically for the task, Toki, which was designed to be the perfect choice for the highball. Toki is a lighter, blended whisky that uses the acclaimed Yamazaki malt as its key base component, alongside Hakushu malt whisky, aged in American white oak cask, plus Chita grain whisky, adding sweet vanilla and a clean taste.

So while Japan takes its craft cocktail culture every seriously, there’s an argument to be made that no mixologist can beat the one handled machine (though if you want to try at home, you can at least get the Toki - it’s about the least expensive readily available Japanese whisky in this country at around $30). Suntory launched the new concept at just one Tokyo bar as a testing ground, and today the machines are in thousands of locations across Japan - and soon, hundreds across America.

A few months ago, I was in Atlanta doing a restaurant story for a major magazine, and I came across one of the Suntory highball machines in Little Trouble, a really cool bar and restaurant in the hip West Side Provisions district. The bartender told me they had been one of the first dozen places in the country with one, but by the time I contacted Suntory, they told me they are rolling them out too fast to keep track of, and there are now well over one hundred, in nearly half the states in the nation. For example, just two years ago there was one bar in Chicago with the machine, now there are around ten, along with hotspots in New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and many other places. Some are reconfiguring their machines to dispense highballs (or rye-balls) using other whiskeys in Suntory’s portfolio, including Jim Beam and Makers Mark, while some bartenders add-post draught flourishes of their own, from garnishes to juice infusions. But the signature Toki draught highball is so refreshing and different you should try it if you see it. It’s a cocktail that whisk(e)y lovers will appreciate, but even non-fans might well be surprised to find they enjoy.

Cheers!

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Japan is one of the world’s greatest whisky producers, and its single malts have been awarded the highest possible acclaim, including “world’s best” recognition (the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was named the world’s single best whisky in 2014), while its blended whiskies are equally impressive, if not better. I’ve written about this extensively here at Forbes in years past, and have gone on the record as noting that I think Hibiki is the best blended whisky out there, period, superior even to the highest shelf Scottish stuff (though I still give my single malt allegiance to The Macallan).

I’ve been singing the praises of Japanese whiskies for as long as I can recall, and in recent years Americans have bought in to the idea, to the point that pretty much any place that considers itself a decent bar has to have some Japanese bottles on the shelf. The downside of this newfound popularity is shortages of all the better labels, and prices that have gone up sharply.

Fortunately, an even more recent imported Japanese whisky trend is bringing the tasty pleasures of the Pacific Rim to American drinkers on a more modest budget - the Highball revolution.

Several years ago, I traveled to Japan to do a newspaper feature on the growing trend of Japanese whisky, and its related tourism: distillery visits, top whisky bars in Tokyo, and so on. I went out to dinner one night with the former Master Distiller for Suntory, the nation’s largest beer and spirits company, and we ate at a divey, under the railroad tracks local haunt where we cooked our own oysters over a fiery grill in the middle of the table, a real roll up your shirt sleeves kind of spot. It was fabulous, and we drank draught whisky highballs along with our meal, not something I had ever done before - partly because I hadn’t thought of it, but mostly because you couldn’t get draught highballs anywhere but in Japan. As he explained it to me, while the Japanese have long been fans of beer and whiskey, wine never enjoyed the mainstream popularity it does here, and in its absence, they needed something to go with food, especially for non-beer lovers. This led to the popularity of the highball, a relatively simple cocktail of whisky and soda water, which really took off in the 1950s.

But the quantum leap came in the Eighties, when Suntory developed a sophisticated draught highball machine for bars, enabling fast, simple, consistent serving of the easy drinking cocktails, often served in icy cold beer mugs. Today, the popularity of the highball in Japan is unmissable - any izakaya (pub) or yakitori joint is full of people swilling them in big, ice filled mugs. There is even a full shelf of canned highballs alongside beer in every 7-11 cooler in Japan, including Suntory’s. We had draught mugs with our oysters, and there was a reason why I enjoyed them so much - because Suntory basically re-engineered the staid highball to be better from the ground up.

First, they recognized that it needed to be cold, so the draught machines are refrigerated to pre-cool both the whisky and soda so it’s chilled before hitting the ice, which means less water dilution. Secondly, they found that fizzier and finer bubbles (think champagne) were better, so they super-charged the carbonation, to one and a half times (or more) of soda water from a bottle or bar soda gun, with smaller bubbles. Finally, Suntory even created a new whisky specifically for the task, Toki, which was designed to be the perfect choice for the highball. Toki is a lighter, blended whisky that uses the acclaimed Yamazaki malt as its key base component, alongside Hakushu malt whisky, aged in American white oak cask, plus Chita grain whisky, adding sweet vanilla and a clean taste.

So while Japan takes its craft cocktail culture every seriously, there’s an argument to be made that no mixologist can beat the one handled machine (though if you want to try at home, you can at least get the Toki - it’s about the least expensive readily available Japanese whisky in this country at around $30). Suntory launched the new concept at just one Tokyo bar as a testing ground, and today the machines are in thousands of locations across Japan - and soon, hundreds across America.

A few months ago, I was in Atlanta doing a restaurant story for a major magazine, and I came across one of the Suntory highball machines in Little Trouble, a really cool bar and restaurant in the hip West Side Provisions district. The bartender told me they had been one of the first dozen places in the country with one, but by the time I contacted Suntory, they told me they are rolling them out too fast to keep track of, and there are now well over one hundred, in nearly half the states in the nation. For example, just two years ago there was one bar in Chicago with the machine, now there are around ten, along with hotspots in New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and many other places. Some are reconfiguring their machines to dispense highballs (or rye-balls) using other whiskeys in Suntory’s portfolio, including Jim Beam and Makers Mark, while some bartenders add-post draught flourishes of their own, from garnishes to juice infusions. But the signature Toki draught highball is so refreshing and different you should try it if you see it. It’s a cocktail that whisk(e)y lovers will appreciate, but even non-fans might well be surprised to find they enjoy.

Cheers!

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I am the NY Times Bestselling author of Real Food, Fake Food and have been traveling the world as a journalist and passionate fan of all things fun for 20 years. I have ...