Highball Fever
How Japan’s least fashionable drink came back from the grave
By: Nicholas Coldicott | Nov 5, 2009 | No Comments | 8,763 views
Photo by Will Robb

Photo by Will Robb

It’s 2008 and Japan’s second largest beverage company has a problem. Whisky, the pride of its portfolio, the drink on which it built its empire, is in a slump. The market has been shrinking for 26 years. Japan is turning its back on the tipple that once epitomized worldly sophistication.

Said company, Suntory, learns that Japan’s young drinkers see the distillate as too strong and a poor companion for food. Whisky is what old men drink before bedtime. To turn things around, the beverage giant launches a promotion that is now seen as a blueprint for other dwindling drinks sectors.

“We used highballs as the theme of the campaign because they’re low in alcohol, easy to drink and they go well with food,” says Tsugihiro Tanaka, head of Suntory’s whisky section.

The highball—a whisky and soda, sometimes with lemon—was Japan’s most popular cocktail in the postwar years. Luckily for Suntory, it’s usually made with their top-selling Suntory Whisky brand, more popularly known by the nickname “Kakubin.”

The company has been pushing highballs since the ’50s, but in September last year the campaign went into overdrive. First, Suntory persuaded key izakaya to add highballs to their menus. By the end of the year, 5,000 pubs had signed up. This year the campaign expanded to 50,000 establishments, and is predicted to reach twice that many by the end of 2010.

Ironically, one of the places not included in those figures is Rockfish, Tokyo’s best-known highball bar. Bartender Kazunari Maguchi learned his trade at Osaka’s Samboa, which created a legendary variation on the highball recipe. Rather than building the drink over ice, Samboa bartenders chill the Kakubin, soda and glass. With no ice to dilute it, the drink stays rich and full-flavored.

When Maguchi arrived in Ginza nine years ago, he brought his highball reputation with him. Rockfish (above) opens at 3pm each day, and usually fills up fast. Maguchi estimates that more than 90 percent of the drinks he serves are Samboa-style Kaku highballs.

Suntory would be delighted if you drank Samboa highballs, but that’s not what they’re promoting. In a strategy akin to curing a phobia, the company is turning the public on to whisky with low-alcohol jokki highballs, light and loaded with ice.

“These highballs are the entrance to the market,” says Tanaka. “Eventually we want people to try Yamazaki, Hakushu and Ballantines.”

For now, though, the highball campaign is still going full pelt. Suntory has opened dedicated highball bars, devised a “highball tower” which resembles a beer tap but dispenses premixed Kakubin and soda, and last month launched canned versions of the drink in convenience stores nationwide.

“The campaign has started well,” says Tanaka, with some understatement. Last year, whisky sales increased for the first time in over a quarter of a century, largely on the back of a spike in Kakubin sales.

Not so long ago it was shochu that recaptured the Japanese public’s imagination, but Tanaka doesn’t like the comparison. “Shochu was a boom, and booms go bust,” he says. “We intend this to be permanent.”

Where to go
  • Malt Bar Whisky Voice This is where Suntory workers drink, and they ought to know a good bar when they see one. Also stocks rare Suntory whiskies.  B1, 2-3-3 Daiba, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3529-6381. Open Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-11pm, closed Sat-Sun & hols.
  • Mokuchi Highball Bar A cheap and cheerful hole-in-the-wall with Kaku highballs on tap. Also serves ginger highballs.
    1-14-24 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3401-7697. Open daily 11am-10pm.
  • Rockfish Tokyo’s highball master runs a cheap, casual and always lively bar in Ginza.
    2F No. 26 Polestar Bldg, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-5537-6900. Open Mon-Fri 3pm-midnight, Sat 3-11pm, Sun & hols 1-10pm.
Know your highballs

It may be only whisky and soda, but there’s more than one way to throw it together.

  • Shinchu highball Named after the postwar occupying forces who drank them, shinchu highballs were made with Scotch, often Johnny Walker, with a couple of ice cubes and strictly no stirring.
  • Samboa highball Chilled Suntory Kakubin, chilled Wilkinson’s soda, chilled highball glass, no ice, and a twist of lemon. For many highball fans, this is as good as it gets.
  • D-hai Short for dekkai-hai, as in jumbo-sized highball. It is what it says it is. Available in your local Pronto and selected izakaya.
  • Kaku highball The current favorite, sometimes served with a dash of ginger ale or cola. Kakubin whisky was designed to use in highballs, which is why even the best bars often employ this cheap-as-chips blended whisky.

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