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The Highball Machine Has Been Hacked

The Suntory highball machine has become an accidental source of experimentation.

At Honeybee’s, a newly opened saloon-themed bar in New York’s East Village, Japanese-style highball machines dispense American Rye-balls, a wholly American spin made with domestic rye.

“It’s Japanese ingenuity meets American tradition,” says the bar’s beverage director, Sother Teague. “Since Suntory acquired Jim Beam, I asked if they’d rebrand one of the highball machines for me,” he explains of the genesis of the drink. Presented in a tall glass with Kold-Draft ice and adorned with nothing more than a lemon twist, the Rye-ball does not stray far from the simplicity of its Japanese counterpart, which has been a staple in the country’s bars and izakayas for decades.

Suntory introduced the highball machine in Japan in the 1980s in an effort to drive demand for highball cocktails—essentially a few ounces of whisky chilled with ice and topped with soda water. The machines, which protrude above the bar in a slender column about the height of two whisky bottles stacked end-to-end, refrigerate and marry the whisky with sparkling water, dispensing the finished drink like a beer on draft.

Once only found in Japan, things changed when Suntory released Toki—a blended Japanese whisky—to the US market in 2016, when they also began to offer bars Toki-branded highball machines. They first appeared at corporate events and a handful of carefully selected restaurants focused on Japanese cuisine. Eventually, the dispensers made their way to cocktail bars too—particularly those that specialized in Japanese ingredients and bartending techniques, ultimately becoming a symbol of a “serious” cocktail program. (A representative from Beam Suntory estimates that there are now more than 75 Toki highball machines at bars and restaurants in the United States.)

While highballs, with their two-ingredient construction, are relatively easy to make, bartenders cite the intense carbonation the machine provides (supposedly five times the fizz found in soda water) as a primary reason behind stocking one at their bars. “It also chills the whiskey, so the bubbles are slower to dissipate,” says Teague.

In part, that exceptional carbonation has led American bartenders to experiment with possibilities beyond the intended Toki Highball. At Chicago’s Blind Barber, beverage director Joe Briglio swaps in Haku vodka for whisky in a refined take on the vodka soda. At Washington, D.C.’s Zeppelin, the particular effervescence provided by the machine is described as “baller bubbles” by partners Ari and Micah Wilder, who use it to carbonate drinks like the Kabuki Springs, a blend of Roku gin, Italicus, grapefruit and lemon.

One of the more common tweaks bars are implementing, however, is to sub American whiskey for Japanese. Given that Suntory is the supplier, most variations tend to feature spirits within the Beam Suntory portfolio. Such is the case with Honeybee’s aforementioned Rye-balls, as well as the Wheated Highball at Tullibee in Minneapolis, made with Maker’s 46, a wheated bourbon. In Chicago, Longman & Eagle has also outfitted their machine to serve Jim Beam bourbon highballs instead of traditional Toki.

But Tony Correale, bar manager at Longman & Eagle, has tried the machine with other whiskeys too, calling on less-expected expressions over the course of several experiments. “They don’t all work for highballs,” he notes of his findings. For example, Compass Box Hedonism, a blended Scotch, was “amazing,” says Correale, “elevating the vanilla and caramel notes in surprisingly elegant ways.” Heavily sherried single malts, on the other hand, were a no-go. “Too cloying and sweet,” recalls Correale.

The Longman & Eagle team has even begun branching out beyond whiskey altogether to include lower-proof alternatives. One recent example is the Cap Corse quinquina highball, made with the Corsican aperitif wine in both its iterations. “Blanc or rouge make beautiful floral highballs,” says Correale. “It’s about exploring different spirits combined with highball water,” Correale says of the motive for tweaking the Toki machine. “We’re still talking about a two-ingredient drink, it’s not more complex than that.”

But some bartenders are looking to push the potential of the machine beyond the standard two-ingredient format. “I’ve been talking with Suntory about the possibilities of putting a cocktail through there,” says Briglio. The consensus, however, is that sugar from syrups and juices would be problematic for inner workings of the machine. For now, his solution is to top cocktails with the extra-carbonated soda water pulled from the dispenser.

While the idea of running a cocktail through the machine in the first place seems at odds with the simplicity of the whisky highball, conceptually it stays true to Japanese tradition. As Teague explains, “In Japanese culture, it’s common to really dig into the ordinary in an effort to create the extraordinary.”

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