In the shaker: Past, present and future of Highballs

A recent trip to Japan saw Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller enjoying a multitude of Highballs on izakaya bar menus. They delve into the cocktail’s past, present and future


The Highball is back: a simple blend of spirit and mixer in a tall (highball) glass filled with ice. Once the drink of 40s detectives, the Highball faded for decades replaced by sweeter drinks. But today, people want to taste good spirits; they don’t want to drink sugar; they want simpler and purer drinks often driven by soda. Its comeback may also be because spirits brands have invested heavily in promoting Highballs.

The Jim Beam Highball is running shoulder to shoulder with the Toki Highball from Japan: both are now available in high-volume bars from dedicated Highball dispensers and served in frozen, thick-glass, schooner-sized, handled mugs.

So, what exactly is a Highball? As described in a 1913 Chicago court case in which a bartender was accused of serving an underage customer: a Highball is a ‘square of ice in a tumbler, two fingers and a knuckle of liquor; water, ginger ale or seltzer to taste.’

What we're drinking

In recent months we ventured beyond our usual Japanese stomping grounds of Kyoto and Tokyo to Kanazawa. It is there that we happened upon three French-Japanese brothers who transplanted from Paris to Kanazawa and opened the pocket-sized bar Furansu.

Local ingredients play a key role in one of their latest creations: the Umeshu Sour. A Japanese plum wine, umeshu is shaken with sansho and basil-infused vodka, kabosu citrus and egg white. Served in a wood saké bowl, this is a creamy, delicate delight.

While it has long been assumed the drink took its name from an early all-clear signal used on American railroads, there is no supportive evidence. Plus, there is another possible origin for the name. The drink emerged around 1895, when high ball poker was all the rage in parlours across North America. High ball was played with numbered balls dealt out – rather poured out – to each of the players from a leather bottle. At this point every player had paid their ante into the pot. Now, they could fold, raise or call as in any poker game with the stakes going to whoever held the ball with the highest number.

Perhaps one of the reasons high ball poker fell out of favour was that the leather bottle could be rigged to only deal the ‘high ball’ when the dealer squeezed the sides slightly. So, when drinkers walked into bars during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and said, ‘Give me a high ball’, they would more likely have been saying ‘give me a winner’ than referencing an old railroad term. Some might make the argument that the Highball never really faded away.

Certainly, ginger ale has been booming as a mixer, especially for Irish whiskey. Coca-Cola still gets mixed with rum. Soda pairs with nearly every spirit. Try the signature drink that appeared on the HMS Queen Mary: a Highball called the Queen Mary Cocktail that was created in 1936 by a bartender named Mutch. It was also served on the Queen Mary’s sister ship, the Laconia. This gin Highball is really worth rediscovering.

Why do brands push Highballs? The ultimate signature drink for a brand (the one that is never likely to come out of a competition) is the simplest possible serve. Coca-Cola accounts for a huge percentage of Bacardi sales. Ginger ale does the same for Jameson. Until the current gin boom, soda was fast becoming the ubiquitous vodka serve (replacing the ’80s vodka cranberry Highball). These drinks are universal because everyone could make them and – with a bit of luck – they also taste good and appeal to a broad audience.

However, the Japanese Highball is more than a marketing ploy. Izakayas (aka: ‘salaryman bars’, the Japanese equivalent of workingman’s pubs) generally sport entire Highball menus that heavily feature shochu. While shochu soda might be the top order, it is frequently flavoured with umeboshi plum or lemon or the soda is replaced with Hoppy, a non-alcoholic lager which, when combined with shochu, becomes a refreshing lager equivalent. The truth is, the Highball is far more a structure than a drink: that makes it a flexible and essential structure for highlighting good ingredients.

QUEEN MARY
Adapted from Motor Boating Magazine, June 1942
Glass: Highball
Garnish: None
Method: Combine gin and ginger beer in an ice-filled glass. Gently squeeze in the lime wedges and stir.
50ml gin
100ml ginger beer
2 lime wedges

SHOCHU SODA
The standard on izakaya menus
Glass: Schooner mug (frozen)
Garnish: None
Method: Combine ingredients with ice in a frozen schooner mug. Serve with a straw or long spoon without garnish.
75ml shochu
125ml soda

IZAKAYA LEMON SOUR
Adapted from countless izakaya visits
Glass: Highball
Garnish: Lemon slice
Method: Combine shochu and syrup in an ice-filled highball glass. Add soda and stir. Garnish with a lemon slice, or as many as you can fit on a yakitori skewer.
50ml shochu
50ml lemon syrup (commercial such as Monin or filtered-homemade syrup)
100ml soda water

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