When Masahiro Urushido considers a highball, the first thing that matters is how it looks. He pictures a long, tall, cold glass filled with stacked ice, whisky and highly carbonated soda water. In Japan, the highball is a working-class drink that, while democratic in its appeal, usually displays care and consideration—even lifelong dedication—in its construction. “I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad highball in Japan. I like canned highballs. I like crappy izakaya highballs. It depends what you expect and what you pay for it,” says Urushido. “But what are you complaining about? It tastes like a highball.”
Urushido, known by most simply as “Masa,” is a managing partner, head bartender and “director of deliciousness” at the award-winning Japanese American bar Katana Kitten in New York’s West Village. The name—a mashup of the austere beauty and tradition of a samurai sword and the playful nature of an adorably curious little cat—is the perfect encapsulation of the bar, where a team of skilled bartenders comes together for a nightly house party set among Japanese movie posters and a soundtrack of ’80s hits. That extends to Katana’s inventive approach to highballs.
Despite the Perlick glass froster (which keeps a flotilla of 12-ounce beer steins below zero degrees), the custom ice from New York’s Okamoto Studio, and the elegant Toki Highball machine that juts out from the center of the bar like the shiny engine of an Italian sportscar, Urushido insists that there is no secret to perfecting the highball. “We don’t do anything special here,” says Urushido, whose forthcoming book, The Japanese Art of the Cocktail, will be out this June. “We just try to do the right thing.”
The “right thing” comes down to what the highball embodies—bracingly cold, highly carbonated, refreshing—and maintaining that platonic ideal. The rest is about experimentation. “It’s kind of like when you’re a little kid and you first start really paying attention to things,” he says. “You surprise yourself.”
To get a sense of what that looks like in practice, we asked Urushido to deconstruct the creative process behind three distinctive highballs. Here’s what he had to say.
The neon green Melon-Lime Soda, a mashup of the vodka soda with lime and the Midori Sour, stands alongside the house Toki Highball and the fragrant Shiso Gin & Tonic as a top-selling highball at Katana Kitten. The idea for the drink originated at one of the first bars Urushido worked at in New York: Kingswood, the now-closed high-volume bar in Greenwich Village where he fielded countless requests for vodka sodas. “Vodka Lime Soda, over and over,” he recalls, drawing on muscle memory to mimic making the drink with his eyes closed. “Vodka, shitty ice, soda water from the gun, and a lime wedge.” But Urushido’s reinterpretation took a turn in a new direction with the addition of a certain disco-era Japanese melon liqueur.
The drink’s split base of a full ounce each of Absolut Lime and Midori—two ingredients you don’t usually find in a craft cocktail bar—might cause a stir with some bartenders, but Urushido is undeterred. The inherent sweetness of the drink is cut with fresh lime juice and tart Japanese sudachi (another citrus fruit). Lime peels come into play in the housemade matcha-lime cordial, which counterbalances the sugar and amps up the bright aroma of the drink. “At Katana Kitten, we drive home that the first sip should always hit you and leave an impression,” says Urushido. “At first, the Melon-Lime Soda is a punch in the face that delivers the most vivid flavor, but as the ice melts, the undertones of lime flavor are introduced; by the end you’ve experienced all of the intended balance of the flavors.”
A simple Scotch & Soda served as the inspiration for a savory highball whose seemingly austere profile packs an umami punch. This Tsukiji Highball, named after the historic Tokyo fish market, was only served once at Katana Kitten for a private event, and the divisive drink proved to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair. The base of the drink was Glenfiddich 12-year single malt that had been briefly infused with dried bonito flakes, imparting a distinctive smoky, savory flavor to the whisky. The highball construction remained the same, topping the spirit with chilled soda water, but the final flourish was Urushido’s inventive take on a Margarita’s salted rim. He used a small brush to coat one side of the rim with a thick layer of nikiri-joyu “paint,” a blend of savory tamari and soy sauce fortified with sake, mirin, kombu and bonito flakes bolstered by two barspoons of Ultra-Sperse, a thickening agent derived from tapioca starch.
“On one hand, it’s a Scotch & Soda, but this was an occasion to make something very Japanese,” says Urushido, who was additionally inspired by sipping a Speyside single malt alongside beautiful sashimi brushed with nikiri-joyu sauce. “I thought of the Scotch whisky as a body of water, and how it became a broth itself from the aging and the flavor of the wood cask, and the bonito flakes enhanced that,” he says. Guests at the private event were encouraged to take a sip from the unadorned rim first, then turn the glass. When their lips touched the salty, tamari soy–painted rim, what looked and seemed like a classic highball evoked a rich Japanese soup.
Blue Angel Highball
The Angelo Azzurro (Italian for Blue Angel) is a Roman-born cocktail with a notorious reputation that most Americans have never heard of. The drink was new to Urushido as well, but he quickly transformed the oddball mix—three parts London dry gin, two parts triple sec and one part blue Curaçao served in an oversized Martini glass—into an azure-colored highball in a frosted beer mug with a bright red cherry bobbing among the floating ice cubes.
“I had never heard of this drink before, so I had to think of it while considering the setting of Katana Kitten,” says Urushido. “I didn’t want to disrupt that distinctive blue color of the drink by adding lime juice, which would make it cloudy. I wanted that striking blue clarity. That was important.”
Taking into account the drink’s original base of gin (lots of gin), his mind went to a Gin & Tonic, but he supplemented the Japanese Roku gin by adding a light acidity from fino sherry. “It’s a nice touch and softens it a bit, and brings that sherry flavor that works particularly well with gin,” he says. The familiar sweet orange flavors of the original Angelo Azzurro are present courtesy of the all-natural Combier liqueur. A dash of maraschino liqueur plays well with the aromatic cherry blossom–flavored tonic water that tops off the drink, and a big fat red cherry for garnish completes a final note of sakura. “That cherry blossom flavor is so nostalgic to me,” says Urushido. “To me, it’s the familiar flavor of kids’ candy back in Japan.”