The Lowdown on Highballs

Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to get right.

Take the highball, a three-ingredient cocktail so deceptively simple that calling it a “cocktail” at all might seem generous. But as with any artistic pursuit, intent matters, and a true highball aspires to be greater than the sum of its humble parts.

Technically speaking, all you need to make one is booze, soda water, and ice. So why doesn’t your run-of-the-mill vodka soda qualify? Because the drink is more than merely a half-carbonated vehicle on the road to tipsyville, and calling a rum-and-coke a highball is like downing a snifter of well-aged brandy as a shot—it isn’t wrong, but it’s definitely missing the point.

The high-concept highball was developed, perfected, and fetishized in Japan, where it was popularized in the 50’s as an ice-cold, bracingly carbonated alternative to beer. What began as a commercial attempt by Suntory to bring whiskey to a wider audience can now be found everywhere, from delicately etched glasses in highfalutin cocktail clubs to cans you can cop out of a vending machine (take notes, Boston!). It’s the staple drink of the izakaya—Japanese equivalent to the gastropub—where most bartenders consider a well-crafted highball to be an expression of art, and they’ll go painstakingly deep into the weeds to make yours perfect, complete with hand-cut ice stirred a precise number of times to achieve ideal temperature without dilution.

To find out what makes the ideal highball so sought-after (without the round-trip to Tokyo), make a pilgrimage to the South End’s own izakaya, Whaling in Oklahoma, where passion for the drink is aided by a little technological wizardry to help their bar team pour you a perfect highball every time.

Grab a seat at the bar, and after you’re done ogling the gorgeous mural you’ll notice what appears to be a silver beer tap snaking up from the bar top. You’re actually looking at a very fancy highball machine manufactured by Suntory. It’s a miracle of science that combines high-octane carbonated water (stored right below the bar, so no bubbles are lost in transit to your glass) with the perfect proportion of pre-chilled Suntory Toki whiskey. That golden ratio is three parts water to one part whiskey, and pre-chilling it means the bubbles stay crisp, sharp, and plentiful. Large, clear ice cubes ensure that your drink won’t dilute to a watery mess between sips, and Toki’s light, bright profile pairs perfectly with a fresh twist of citrus as a garnish.

A whiskey and soda is perfectly good, something you might order at an open bar or a dive where you don’t trust the bartender to make you something more complicated. A whiskey highball, by contrast, is an effervescent experience unto itself. It’ll wake up your palate before a meal and rejuvenate your senses after a long day of work. That perfect alchemy of three ordinary ingredients drinks more like great champagne than whiskey, low enough in alcohol to sip all day, but high enough to stimulate thrilling conversation. It pairs well with sushi, oysters, and a burger, but it’s gorgeous all on its own.

See what opening Bar Manager Colin Mason had to say about why he loves this fancy drink-making contraption and get on over to the South End to try the current line-up of seasonal highballs.


You may also be interested in