Seeking understanding and Highball harmony, without ice.
A few weeks ago the leading drinks writer Alice Lascelles went on a press trip to Japan. What unfolded in the following days via her instagram stories was all the hallmarks of bucket list Tokyo trip: Ramen, skylines, cocktail bars, vending machines. bar tools, glassware emporiums. All amidst the everyday scenes of classic Tokyo.
My jealousy levels reached so high I almost tapped unfollow. As someone who spent a month honeymooning in Japan and several years since trying to consume every piece of information in the english language regarding Japan's whisky culture and production methods, it doesn't take much to pique my interest and get me hooked.
One story caught my attention more than the others. It involved highballs being consumed without ice. This isn't a new idea to the world, Dave Broom wrote about a bar doing it near the Nikka Grain distillery in his excellent book "The Way of Whisky", and having explored the topic after reading that book I discovered perhaps the epicentre of the iceless highball movement; a bar called Rock Fish owned by Maguchi Kazunari. Rock Fish has made the iceless highball a signature serve... to the level that (if rumours are to be believed) Suntory continue to produce a discontinued whisky exclusively for his highball serve. Incredible. Queues out the door, flawless execution of a simple idea. It's all the hallmarks of a trend waiting to happen. I hope she writes an article about it!
Read the article i just mentioned from Punch, more about him, his bar and the serve here.
So is it worth making?
We trained as bartenders before becoming blenders, and so the idea of removing ice from a drink didn't sit all that well with us. Of course, it works in cocktails where care has been taken to get everything to the right temperature. So experiments started and soon we were hooked. In the aforementioned article the author Dylan James Ho noted 'the harmony of these ingredients, at the perfect temperature, is a revelation.' We could not agree more.
And this drink appeals to us now because in blending we're aware of the relationship between things that are in motion and things that are fixed. Removing the ice from the drink experience removes a variable - dilution. It gives more control over how the drink tastes right to the end. Of course, another variable (temperature) is introduced - but given it's a short serve and from what we understand the environment in which they're served is fairly high tempo - that's probably not that much of a worry. When you understand the steps that the team at Rock Fish go to to ensure that everything is at the right temperature before the serve begins... you quickly understand that you're not facing the possibility of a warm, poorly made highball anyway. This is pure precision in execution, and there's something very 'Japanese' about this. The removal of something allowing the remaining parts to shine in a way that elevates the whole rather than undermining it. We won't lie, many of our own practices in whisky blending have come from small insights gleamed from trying to understand the thought process behind Japanese drinks making.
Through the fastidious attention to detail of what is considered a fairly simple serve to start with, Maguchi Kazunari and the Rock Fish team have created something beautiful. And in doing so they've allowed the serve to become elevated to something akin an artform. This idea sits well with us.
It remains to be seen whether the iceless highball will catch on. But we've written previously about the need for makers of Highballs to take the elements that go into the preparation seriously. Although highball culture is swooping through the UK and beyond right now - the overall standard of execution is pretty low. Raising awareness of the iceless highball, and indeed amplifying the various steps and considerations that define it's proper preparation send a strong message in the direction of poorly made highballs, whether the trend is accepted or not. No detail is too small to be looked at.
here is our simple guide to preparing a iceless highball properly.
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Get your glass in a freezer. Freeze the whisky and chill your mixer. maybe this is done the day before highball time. In Dave Broom's book I recall the whisky actually being poured into the glass and then rested in the freezer for some hours. He reports it had a very pleasing effect. We're still to discover that.
2. Quick and precise preparation of the drink.
Glass from freezer touching only the base. Pour the spirit quickly. have the soda cold and on hand and the garnish ready to go before starting. From the moment the first element leaves the freezer the clock is ticking. You want as short a time between beginning preparation and enjoyment of the serve as possible (so that you get the drink as cold as possible).
3. Don't dwell on it.
We're not really advocating fast drinking. But this is a drink you want to approach with purpose. Like a martini or any other 'up' serve. It's moment of sublime perfection is the moment it's placed in front of the consumer. Then, like all good things in life it begins a steady but sure deterioration from that moment toward a state of mediocrity, or worse - a sad, tepid and unloved / unappreciated whisky and soda.
4. Find your groove.
We're loving serving these in champagne flutes as arrival drinks at fancy events. We're also messing around with different whiskies, different sodas (Vichy Catalan is remarkable) and garnishes. (Orange Zest is yum).
*UPDATE* we appear to have sold out on our own website so head to one of these retailers to fill your spirits larders instead!
Happy Iceless Highballing!