Highball cocktails are buzzing with popularity all around the world—that is, everywhere but the United States. While cocktail culture capitals like Tokyo, London, and Singapore have been doling out highball variants for decades, stateside hubs like New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis (if we do say so ourselves) are only beginning to participate.
The bones of this built-in-the-glass cocktail appear, on the surface, straightforward and commonplace: your spirit of choice (often whisky) plus usually-but-not-always carbonated liquid. These distinctions tend to split the cocktail community into two camps, each constantly trying not to roll their eyes at the other. Many insist the world is already drinking highballs in the form of single-pour cocktails. Nico de Soto, owner of the award-winning Mace in New York City, is in this camp. “People already drink types of highballs, with gin and tonics, whiskey sodas, and all that. They just don’t know to call it a highball,” he explains with a shrug. Some on this side argue the recent popularity of the spiked seltzer has delivered a proto-highball, while others believe it threatens to slug drinkers back to the synthesized flavors of the cocktail dark ages.
The second group feels the creation of a true highball is a deliberate act—a soulful attempt to more deeply consider your approach to drinking. Japanese bartenders, especially, have become world-famous for their philosophy of “craftsmanship” in cocktails. Their instructions for the highball are very specific and intentional, focusing on ingredient quality and the art of the process. (They advise stirring the drink exactly 16-and-a-half-times—inciting most of the aforementioned eye-rolls.)
Ben Fiddich in Tokyo is a prime example of this artful approach to cocktails. It is constantly awarded as one of the best bars in the world. The bar’s owner and head bartender Hiroyasu Kayama attributes the transpacific discordance of highballs to the quality of oft-ignored components.
“The spirit must be of good quality,” he says. “If the ice is in good condition, it will be a good highball. Temperature is very important. The ice has to be very cold, right from the freezer. I went to the U.S. and saw the ice; it was shit ice.” He grins mischievously, delighted by the possibility of these words being published.
Both schools of thought agree on one factor: consumer education. Drink trends live and die by their acceptance into the modern zeitgeist, and Kayama credits some of the highball’s popularity to the Japanese cultural history of the drink. “Highballs boomed the first time in 1960 because of Shinjiro Torii from Suntory,” he explains. “When he was first making whisky, the taste was no good. He was thinking the best taste for his whisky is in a highball. Now the whiskey is very good. It’s refreshing and the right taste for the perfect drink.”
Highballs are now ubiquitous in Japan, whether made with exacting specifications by world-famous bartenders or purchased from the vending machines that line the walls of commuter-train stops. Nico de Soto portends a possible shift in culture with a single catalyst: “Maybe someday soon, someone on ‘Mad Men’ or something will order one and then everyone will be at the bar like, ‘Ahh, I need a highball!’”
In the end, it comes down to the individual. Some enjoy the simplicity and ease of the single-pour cocktail; it is as uncomplex to order as it is to make. Others enjoy a ritual or taking an artist’s approach to the everyday item. There is a time and a place for both. The cocktail culture of the United States is growing and changing at its own pace—maybe the highball will catch on and maybe it won’t. I’d suggest, though, trying a process-focused highball before some television character makes them more common than a Cosmo.
Artfully built, beautifully iced highballs are available by request at several quality cocktail bars around Minnesota. In the Twin Cities, check out the highball skills of Jon Olson and the team at Esker Grove. Madison Allen and her crew will surely craft a killer riff at The Hasty Tasty in Uptown. And new-kids-on-the-block Blaine Young and fellow mixers at Hodges Bend will gladly serve you 16-and-a-half stirs with a side of their signature smooth style.
2 ounces spirit of choice
Place whatever ice is convenient into whichever glass is preferred. Combine ingredients into glass. Serve.
1 part spirit of choice
3 to 4 parts sparkling water
Place several large, very cold cubes of clear ice in a highball glass. Stir until glass begins to frost and strain off the excess water. Add the spirit down the side of the glass ensuring it does not rest on the top of the ice cubes. Stir exactly 13-and-a-half times clockwise. Top with sparkling water and stir exactly three times more to incorporate. Serve.