Maguchi Dreams of Highballs

The owner of Tokyo’s Rock Fish has spent more than 30 years perfecting his idiosyncratic, iceless highball.

“I fell into bartending because of Tom Cruise,” jokes Maguchi Kazunari in reference to the actor’s infamous role in the movie Cocktail. The jovial owner of Tokyo’s Rock Fish is adorned in a pressed white coat, soft buzz cut, 1930s club bow tie and a half-cracked smile. He looks up at me with a raised eyebrow in anticipation of my drink order, but he already knows what I’m having. It’s the only thing to have at Rock Fish.

Maguchi-san’s idiosyncratic, iceless highball is referred to here as a “Kaku-hi” (Kakubin highball). He serves them to Ginza’s thirsty salarymen, who, by 3 p.m., are marching in like briefcase-bearing penguins. They place their orders by throwing up a finger or two in the direction of Maguchi-san, who quickly dispatches crisp highballs with second-nature deftness alongside his creative menu of otsumami, or Japanese drinking snacks, like soy sauce sake-marinated sardines cleverly heated right in the tin over an open fire and a unique Scotch egg encased in corned beef hash and sesame seeds.

Kaku-hi, onegaishimasu,” I say, holding up a finger like the other patrons. With a nod and an affirmative “hai!,” Maguchi-san drops down to the freezer below him and reappears with a frosty bottle of Suntory Kakubin 43 percent. The whisky, which was discontinued in 2000 and is now sold exclusively to him (at his insistence), is essential to his highball. He measures out exactly 60mL of the whisky and pours it into an ice-cold glass etched with a logo of a drinking fish. He then reaches for a refrigerator dedicated to dozens of bottles of Wilkinson Tansan, Japan’s favorite club soda. He empties the entire 190mL bottle into the glass—again, no ice—and garnishes it with exactly two hard pinches of a nickel-size lemon peel for subtle fragrance. I take a sip and let out a long, satisfied sigh; the harmony of these ingredients, at the perfect temperature, is a revelation.

iceless japanese highball cocktail

The choice to eliminate ice isn’t exactly intuitive. Highballs are as defined by the use of it as they are by their namesake glass and requisite bubbles. But my countless missed connections with the Japanese whisky highball all come down to the ice: the longer you let it dilute, the more the drink resembles little more than an abandoned whiskey-soda at a wedding reception. Maguchi-san’s, by contrast, maintains a balanced ratio even when the temperature of the drink rises over time. However, I can confidently report that the Kaku-hi is so refreshing and drinkable that a warm highball isn’t even a consideration at Rock Fish.

Maguchi-san’s take might seem postmodern, but it actually has roots in Japan’s Edo period. Toward the end of the 19th century, refrigeration consisted of large slabs of ice stored in an insulated “icebox.” Instead of adding ice to drinks—an expensive proposition—cans, bottles and mugs would all be placed on top of the ice box to chill. Advancements in refrigeration eventually rendered the icebox obsolete, but some places never let the tradition die—most notably the famed Samboa Bar in Osaka. It’s there that Maguchi-san first honed his bartending craft at the age of 18, after answering an ad in the newspaper for a barback position.

Seventeen years later, he left Osaka for Tokyo to open Rock Fish, where he now serves an average of 150 Kaku-hi per day in nearly the same style as Samboa Bar, save for his choice of whisky. What may have begun with replays of Cocktail has amounted to a lifelong mission to master the highball—and a perfect example of shokunin kishitsu, which roughly translates to the “spirit of the craftsman.”

On my fifth Kaku-hi—it’s that refreshing—I ask Maguchi-san if and when he plans to retire from bartending. He reaches down to the fridge to grab a fresh bottle of whisky, flashes me a wry smile and says, “99.”

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Dylan James Ho is photographer and writer from Los Angeles. He and his wife, Jeni Afuso, are also the husband-and-wife photo duo, DYLAN + JENI. When they aren’t photographing food, cocktails and hotels, they enjoy traveling far and away to unearth some of the world’s most delicious food and drink. They have contributed to Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Garden & Gun, GQ, Mr. Porter and more.