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Over the years whisky has been consumed in many different ways. Some of the serves are based on tradition and science, and are meant to bring out the full potential of any good whisky. Order your dram straight, or with a few drops of water, and you’ve made the whisky gods proud.
Other serves mask and weaken the whisky’s flavour, and simultaneously, anger whisky connoisseurs worldwide. Don’t believe me? Enter any high-end whisky bar, from London to Tokyo, and order an 18 year-old single malt on the rocks. Odds are a seasoned whisky expert will sit shaking in his or her bar stool, a few feet away. They might even interject and school you on the “right” way to consume your dram.
Some serves shouldn’t even be legal. I mean ordering a Yamazaki 12 year-old with Cola… Seriously?
But one serve is as disputed as they come, and while many from the Western world cringe at the thought, the entire population of Japan love, and swear by this serve.
To most the serve is commonly known as a whisky highball, or a whisky and soda. Grab a highball glass, fill it with ice, add the whisky and top it up with soda. It’s simple, watery, and believed to ruin good whisky.
However, in the land of the rising sun, the whisky highball isn’t as simple as we know it. The Japanese highball can be described as an art, and after venturing into a few bars in Japan, you’ll find that it’s the most common way whisky is consumed.
As you know, Japanese whisky is the definition of smoothness and delicacy, and savouring it straight is the only way to fully experience its potential. But there is beauty to be found in the Japanese highball serve, as it captures Japanese culture in one, tall glass.
To understand the craft of the Japanese highball, one must find understand an important part of Japanese culture. The term is kodawari, a relentless attention to detail and pursuit of a higher standard, turning anything into art or craft. In Japanese culture this term in uncompromising and not adhering to it is unthinkable.
One need only take a close look at the many parts of Japanese culture to understand the depth of the term.
Craftsmanship is of the utmost importance in Japan, found in the traditions and intricacies of the historic tea ceremony created by the samurai, in the high standards of their cuisine, in sushi making, in hospitality, and in the food and beverage service industry.
The Japanese even seek perfection in their foreign imports, from cuisine to clothing. The Japanese mission towards perfection is very real.
This is also true it the distilling world, with Japanese whisky makers constantly pursuing improvement and perfection, by making their whiskies more delicate, smooth, and deep.
The Japanese Highball
Now bring kodawari, Japanese whisky, and a whisky highball together; it doesn’t sound so bad anymore, does it?
The Japanese version of the whisky highball is not only an art, but a ritual. And in Japan it’s called a mizuwari. Here’s the method that makes it so different from your typical whisky and soda.
It all starts with a tall glass filled to the middle with hand-cracked ice with no ice bubbles or minerals. The seasoned bartender, puts a cocktail spoon into the glass, and with precision begins stirring the carved ice in the glass until the sides of the glass begin to chill. The stirring is mesmerising in itself, and bartenders in Japan are trained in the specific circling method used.
The melted water is poured away, and the whisky measure is poured in carefully so as not to touch the top of the ice. The whisky is stirred into the ice, as some of the liquid from the ice blends in with the whisky. The glass is now topped up with more ice, and the soda is poured over the mix.
The cocktail spoon is fitted underneath the base of the ice, and lifted upwards in one smooth motion, to fully blend the whisky and ice with the soda. The spoon is brought out of the glass, making the soda froth slightly, and then served immediately.
The real beauty of the Japanese highball lies in the simplicity and control of each part of the process. While some bartenders count the stirs of the highball, most Japanese do not, as the creation of the perfect highball means being in the moment, and embracing the way the specific ice cracks. Selecting the perfect pieces to build the drink, and letting nature run its course, are all necessary steps of the drink’s creation.
“It’s more of a bartender’s sense or feeling,” says Shinya Yamao, the Japan-born bar manager of Piora, in New York City. “Like sushi, you can start with the same fish and the same rice, but two different sushi chefs will make something different.”
Use a traditional Japanese Yamazaki single malt to create the perfect highball. Trust us on this one.