Ubiquitous in Japan, the whisky highball, like so much of Japanese drinking culture, has become an object of fascination on this side of the Pacific in recent years. But American bartenders, keen to put a personal stamp on the timeless formula, have introduced a number of subtle (and some not-so-subtle) twists to the basic combination of whisky, soda water and an optional twist of lemon.
At Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, for example, Toby Cecchini has kept his dead-simple Scotch & Soda, which was inspired following a trip to Japan, on the menu for the past year. “I wanted something that… had a slight twist to it, and a subtle nod to Japan as the inspiration,” he says of the drink, which is garnished twice, with an aromatic twist of grapefruit peel and a shiso leaf. As a base, Cecchini experimented with a number of lighter-style whiskies from both Japan and Speyside, but settled on the fruity and “featherlight” Compass Box’s Great King Street Artist’s Blend, which he describes as “perfection” in the two-ingredient formula.
Other bartenders, however, have made a point to push the envelope of what constitutes a highball, like Chicago’s Julia Momose, whose variation is bolstered by small measures of mango vinegar, mango brandy and black cardamom-infused Sauternes, all layered over a base of Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Whisky. Elsewhere, McLain Hedges of Denver’s RiNo Yacht Club takes a Japanese highball, built on Suntory Toki whisky, and diverts it through France; his Ballin’ is a Habit sees three unorthodox additions, namely a full ounce of Dolin dry vermouth, a splash of St-Germain and a few drops of saline.
At New York’s George Washington bar, newly opened within the Freehand Hotel, Ben Rojo’s Commodore Perry Cooler proves to be a similarly modern rendition—albeit one that offers an overt nod to Japan. “I was inspired by the green notes in Suntory’s Hakushu malt that play so prominently in their blended Toki whisky,” says Rojo of the base spirit, which he infuses with shiso leaves for added complexity. Sweetened with wasanbon, a fine-grained Japanese sugar, and bittered with a measure of yuzu juice, it manages to stretch the highball template, yet still hews closely to the spirit of the original.
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