Japan - home of the Highball serve that has given Scotch a welcome boost

Japan - home of the Highball serve that has given Scotch a welcome boost

There can be little debate about the role the Highball serve has had in Scotch whisky's performance in Japan. The serve - comprising whisky, water and ice - is Japan's most famous drink, as well as the country's biggest contribution to modern drinking society.

The most popular story surrounding the etymology of the word "Highball" centres on the railroads. As a sign that the track ahead was clear, allowing the train to safely increase its speed, a ball would be located at the highest point on the signal line. Another theory, shared by cocktail historian Greg Boehm, is that it takes its name from a type of poker being played prior to the coining the term for the serve.

The Japanese Highball first appeared shortly after the end of World War II, and came to become the most popular way of enjoying whisky during the late 1950s. Appealing to consumers looking for new taste experiences, the Highball quickly became popular as an accompaniment to food, and soon became symbolic of the rise in popularity of restaurants.

The Highball is now seen around the world in top-end cocktail bars and presented as a luxury serve for higher-end occasions.

The serve is known for its meticulous preparation; the key to creating the perfect Highball is a fine art, and this is what makes the cocktail so special and revered. In order to truly understand the technique behind the famous cocktail, I spoke to two of the Chivas Masters local winners to understand where their influences for this drink came from.

  • Nayoya Mizugishi - 2016 Chivas Masters Local Winner

"Few people think about Highballs as cocktails, but personally I pay a lot of attention to the way I make them. The only ingredients required are whisky, water and ice, so it may seem an easy drink to make. But, in reality, it requires a delicate balance.

"There is no difficult technique or magic touch needed but, because of its simplicity, I think it is important to clearly show my guests each part of the process - from the way the bottle is handled and the way the cap is opened, to the way the drink is stirred. A mizuwari (meaning 'mixed with water') or Highball done properly holds a hidden exciting potential for my guests, and it's exciting when people truly understand that a Highball is a real cocktail that requires real skill.

"The mizuwari first appeared not in bars as you might expect, but in restaurants. Japanese whisky makers wanted to find a drink that would make a good pairing with Japanese food. Perhaps because bartenders were not involved in its creation, the way to make it was initially very casual. Then, the enjoyment of mizuwari spread beyond restaurants to the average household. Today, Highballs are the most common way to consume whisky in Japan. They are also a great introduction for those looking to discover whisky for the first time.

"I would recommend a thin glass. The way the drink coils on your tongue and spreads in your mouth directly from the glass to the mouth is best obtained by a thin glass.

"I prefer to use soft water where possible. Water that is soft to the palate and that is carefully mixed with alcohol will cool and carry a faint viscosity. I feel it has a different texture to normal water.

"Where ice is concerned, the best option is to have strong ice that does not melt easily.

"In terms of quantity, I would recommend three ice cubes in a tumbler of between 10oz to 12oz. If you put four ice cubes in, it melts too quickly - and with only two ice cubes the liquid-to-ice ratio doesn't quite work. Bartenders are always looking for the best proportion between whisky and water, because we want to maintain the colour of the whisky.

"If the glass becomes cloudy, or if after three minutes the ice is melting and the ice cube has floated to the top of the glass, the drink will not have a good appearance.

"Don't overfill the glass: It's easier to smell the aroma of the drink if you leave some space at the top of the tumbler. It's important to make it carefully – but this does not mean slowly.

"Scotch tastes even better the more knowledgeable you are about it. But, there is no need to sit at your desk and study whisky, just come to my bar instead!"

  • Ryuichi Saitoh - 2015 Chivas Masters Local Winner

"The Highball is an everyday drink that is popular in social drinking occasions. It's an easy-drinking cocktail that is a symbol of Japan - and it's something that we are very proud of.

The drink has been a part of Japanese culture since 1945, when shochu Highballs were popular. Today, whisky Highballs are particularly appreciated by consumers.

Put two large, pure and hand-cut ice cubes into a large tumbler and pour in the whisky. Then, pour in the sparkling water as gently as possible, to maintain the bubbles and avoid damaging the ice.

To create a unique experience, consider adding traditional Japanese ingredients such as tea, tea leaves, cherry blossom and shiso. Alternatively, try using fresh European botanicals, or experiment with ginger ale or tonic water as your mixer.

My personal favourite is to use a little of my own camomile and honey syrup and a quarter of squeezed lemon, topped up with half ginger ale and half soda.""