Meet the Japanese Contraption Making the Best Whiskey Drinks

Wayne Curtis
Courtesy Gabi Porter
Courtesy Gabi Porter

The Whiskey Highball is a thin and insipid drink. It is made by taking perfectly delicious whiskey and diluting it with sparkling water. The name “highball” sounds celebratory and festive and vaguely suggestive, but don’t be fooled: it’s another name for “whiskey and soda.” In an era in which serious drinkers embrace potent, spirit-forward cocktails, Highballs have all the appeal of light beer.

I’ve never been a Highball fan for the reasons outlined above. So, on a trip to Japan earlier this year as a guest of Beam Suntory, I was puzzled by its ubiquity. It was more common than even the cute, wide-eyed kittens on teenagers’ backpacks—I spotted Highballs on commuter trains as salarymen cracked open tallboys of the stuff. In Tokyo, happy-hour crowds lined up at bars to get Highballs dispensed from futuristic-looking machines.

And the Highball has invaded the United States—it’s everywhere these days, and it a good contender for the it drink of the year.

It occurred to me that the problem was not with the Highball, but with me. And my problem, it tuned out, was simple and easily diagnosed: I had grouped Highballs with classic cocktails and rated it accordingly.

Highballs are, in fact, not cocktails. They are an early form of hard seltzer—in fact, they are the ur-hard-seltzer, a category that would not be invented until more than a century after the Highball first appeared.

That proto-Highball surfaced sometime in the early 1890s, and was then called a Splificator. (The recipe, in its entirety, from an 1895 bar guide: “One piece ice; let customer help himself to whiskey, and fill up with Apollinaris water.”) It was a hit; by 1898 a popular play appeared called The Highball Family, in which “the wife and the mother of George Highball endeavor to illustrate to him the folly of indulging in too much liquor when he goes out to the club.”

The first decade of the 20th century was peak Highball. The Buffalo Enquirer reported in 1900 that fancy drinks—cocktails, fizzes, cobblers and the like—had faded in popularity, to be “replaced by the whiskey highball and the gin rickey, [which] can be compounded by anyone who knows their ingredients.”

In New York the same year, the Times Union reported that “whiskey highballs and a number of other combinations of whiskey…and carbonated water” had become all the rage, “and among the summer drinks of which Brooklyn bartenders are so proud.” (I know, classic Brooklyn bartender.)

Highballs persisted through Prohibition, often employing sodas that were flavored and sweetened, like cola and ginger ale. These drinks were easy to make at home, and had the added benefit of masking the taste of crappy bootleg liquor. Highballs continued to be widely consumed in the post-Prohibition years—in the 1940s, Canada Dry marketed its bottled soda water as ideal for Highballs, and touted their “pin-point carbonation” as offering what they called “ear-appeal.”

Highballs entered into an eclipse in the 1960s, when American Speech magazine noted that, “in sophisticated drinking circles the term high-ball has become practically archaic...The illuminati ask for ‘whiskey and water’ or ‘Scotch and soda.’”

And now, it’s back.

The Highball’s recent resurgence—The Highball is Taking Over America, was an episode of The Daily Beast’s Life Behind Bars podcast last May—can trace its roots to Japan, which has been enjoying Highballs as long as anyone else. In 1907, it was reported that U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft drank “Japanese highballs” with his hosts, although exactly what those consisted of is unclear. (The Japanese whisky industry was essentially non-existent then, although in the 1880s any sort of Japanese alcoholic beverage—including sake—might be referred to as “Japanese whisky.”)

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Beam Suntory</div>
Courtesy Beam Suntory

The recent return of the Highball can actually be traced to the fall of Japanese whisky. Around 2008, the House of Suntory was faced with sagging whisky sales—consumers were increasingly drawn to lighter spirits such as vodka and sochu. “Whisky was too hot and aggressive for a younger generation,” said Atsushi “Charlie” Takeuchi, a marketing manager with Beam Suntory. The sales team, where Takeuchi was a member, noticed that whisky Highballs were still selling well at better bars, despite the overall decline in whiskey’s popularity. “The question was, how can we put a highly skilled bartender in a machine,” Takeuchi said.

Beam Suntory partnered with Nittok, a Japanese company that makes beer and beverage dispensers, to develop a machine that could craft the perfect Highball, every time. Suntory paid the development costs and got exclusive rights for several years. They placed the first few in Tokyo bars, where they were an instant hit—some selling upwards of a hundred Highballs a day. Other bars took notice; by the end of 2008, the machines were in 100 bars, and the following year 300. Articles on their appeal were published, as were numerous ads for Suntory Highballs. Bars across Japan clamored for the machines, and today about 5,000 have Highball dispensers. Then consumers wanted drinks at home, so Suntory released canned Highballs in 2009. The Highball’s renaissance was in full flower.

In 2011, the Highball turned its sights west. Suntory sensed opportunity in the United States, and spent five years getting its machines approved and licensed for use here. The first were launched in New York and Chicago in June 2017. Word of mouth spread. Two years later, about 120 Highball machines are located in bars across the United States, with about a quarter of those in New York.

One might be tempted to dismiss their popularity as a potent mix of marketing hype and novelty. But the machines did effectively put a quality bartender in a box. It started with exacting proportions—in the United States, the ratio is one-part whiskey to three-parts sparkling water. (In Japan, where more dilute drinks are favored, the ratio is one to four.)

The mixing was the easy part. The machines also chilled the whiskey and the soda to near-freezing temperatures before dispensing—37 degrees. That not only helped maintain carbonation, but also reduced dilution when the drink first hit the ice.

The carbonation is also a selling point. The Highball dispensers are engineered to inject higher-pressure gas into the water (which is first filtered in the machine), making it fizzier than what comes out of the standard soda gun. Takeuchi says that gas pressure in a standard soda is about 3.5 to 4.0 volumes. (A volume is a unit of measurement defined as the number of times the total volume of dissolved gas can be divided by the volume of liquid.) Champagne is typically around 5.0 volumes (hence the smaller bubbles and thicker bottles.) The Highball machine produces carbonation at 6.0 volumes, meaning a profusion of small, delicate bubbles, which have been shown (in studies of Champagne⁠) to convey flavor more efficiently. The machine was also designed with a proprietary nozzle that maintained full carbonation to the point of dispensing.

“Once the machine came out with the highly carbonated soda, it was just kind of word of mouth,” says Gardner Dunn, the New York-based senior whiskey ambassador for Beam Suntory. “It’s all down to the bubbles.” As an added benefit, the machines could dispense carbonated water without whiskey, allowing bars to make all sorts of tall drinks with high-quality soda water.

The growth of the machines in the United States has been slower than in Japan, owing to the fact that Beam Suntory can subsidize or distribute the machines for free in Japan, but is prohibited by law from doing the same here. Bars have to purchase the Highball machines, and at a price of $5,000 to $7,000, that can be a steep hill to climb.

But Dunn and Takeuchi believe the Highball and its robot master will continue to spread.

“We’re a little more health conscious these days, and people are looking for lower ABV and fewer calories,” Dunn says. And with the resurgence of hard seltzers and high-end mixers like Fever-Tree and Q Tonic, “it’s the perfect storm for the Highball.”

The Highball was arguably the first hard seltzer, and if the current trend pops, it may endure to be the last. I’d wager that in 2120 drinkers will still be drinking whiskey Highballs. White Claw and its brethren will exist only as a Wikipedia entry, and one seldom visited at that.

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