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The Japanese Way to a Better Highball

Ice, whiskey, soda—that's all there really is to a whiskey highball, right? Not so in Japan. Hannah Kirshner on what the experience of a traditional tea ceremony taught her about careful ritual applied to the Japanese whiskey highball.

Two weeks into my apprenticeship at a sake bar called Engawa in rural Ishikawa, a regular whom I’d befriended requested that I make him a highball. My lessons thus far had included washing glassware without rolling up my sleeves and unscrewing the cap of a sake bottle in a single, smooth motion. Mostly, I was to stand out of the way, observing how the proprietor worked. Needless to say, after two weeks taking coats, offering menus and quietly watching from the end of the bar, I was thrilled at the opportunity to do something behind it.

In Japan, the whiskey highball (known simply as a highball) is so ubiquitous that you can buy one from a vending machine at most train stations. Having worked in cocktail bars back in the U.S., I was confident that I knew how to make one. But at this establishment, as in any serious Japanese bar, the method for making a highball—how to stack the ice and hold the glass, the number of times to stir and the finishing flourish of swizzling the bar spoon—was strictly prescribed.

American bartenders take pride in personal style—each establishing his or her expertise by standing out. But in a serious Japanese bar, there’s a right way to do everything, and everyone working there will do it exactly the same way (izakayas, analogous to casual pubs, are the exception). And even at Engawa, where cocktails are not a specialty, a highball has to be prepared and presented just so. Guests laughed and my boss cringed as I fumbled along, trying to follow his instructions: Put your hand here! Don’t let the whiskey touch the ice. No, swizzle more! 

Why did such a simple drink require this careful set of ritualistic steps? I could appreciate it, but it wasn’t until I experienced a Japanese tea ceremony that I actually understood it.

Japanese Highball Cocktail Ice

I remember the host moving slowly and deliberately, removing a bright purple silk cloth from his waistband, opening it with a crisp snap and carefully folding it. He artfully wiped the chashaku (tea portioning spoon) and natsume (tea container) and examined the bamboo whisk. In the quiet of the tearoom, his every movement felt theatrical. He guided a ladleful of water into the drinking bowl from a simmering iron pot, pouring out half to warm a bowl, and dribbling the rest of the water back into the pot, bringing our attention to its sound.

He then opened a canister of bright green matcha powder, transferred it to the bowl and gracefully ladled in more hot water, vigorously whisking the mixture—shya shya shya—until a fine froth adorned the top. The first guest accepted the tea with a bow and rotated the bowl, drinking it in three sips. Before returning it, she examined the vessel, appreciating its fine craftsmanship. Every gesture, for both the host and guests, is strictly choreographed.

If a cup of tea can mean so much more because of the ritual surrounding it, why not a highball, too?

During my time in Japan, I joined a group of respected older women in the neighborhood for weekly tea ceremony lessons in the home of a professor and tea master, Mr. Oshita. They taught me to enter the room on my knees without touching the threshold and to begin by appreciating an illustrated scroll and flowers that Mr. Oshita would change every time we visited. I learned to bow with my hands cupped softly as if there was an egg in each palm; to turn away from the guests when carrying a dirty tea bowl and towards them when holding a kettle of fresh water; even the correct way to open and close the sliding paper door of the tearoom.

The austerity of tea ceremony has a way of bringing certain cultural values into relief—the same values that dictate the practiced hospitality of the Japanese bar.

Two months after that first highball, I would still see my boss look on skeptically when I built a drink or poured a beer. I was good at stacking the ice for a highball, he would say, but I would get whiskey on the ice when I flipped the jigger into the glass. Still, I relished how it focused my attention on the smallest details—and, more importantly, how it made a drink we Americans typically associate with mindless nights out feel like something to be savored. 

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A former baker an bartender, Hannah Kirshner is founder of Sweets & Bitters. She works as a writer, recipe developer and food stylist and based in Brooklyn, NY (with frequent trips to Japan).