Notes from a pilot's kid

Japan's Biggest Drink is the Highball

Japan’s alcoholic drink of choice is not sake, umeshu, or shochu. It’s probably either dry, malted draft beer or the highball, a simple whiskey and soda on ice. The highball was popular in the 1950s when Japan was conservative, poor, and in a period of recovery. But Suntory, one of Japan’s largest and oldest whiskey manufacturers, recently found a way to revive the highball beverage at a time when many younger Japanese considered whiskey in general to be their grandfather’s bedtime drink too strong for pairing with dinner. In 2008, 15,000 places served the highball; a year later, the number climbed to 40,000. The growth in popularity of the highball has led Suntory to start introducing the drink to other parts of East Asia, with a goal of 10,000 bars outside Japan serving the beverage by next year. CNN claims this growth came from a large campaign from Suntory that started in 2008 including a TV commercial featuring Japanese model and actress Koyuki. In my own experience, it’s hard to find a place serving a highball in Japan that doesn’t involve whiskey from Suntory, so it’s not surprising that Suntory’s Kukobin whiskey saw a 70% growth in sales around the time of the campaign and has seen sustained 10% year-on-year sales growth in recent years. From what I can tell, highballs are only more popular in Japan now than they were five years ago, and they’re not going anywhere.

Some of Suntory’s ads promoting the highball:

The word ‘highball’ internationally refers to any simple cocktail with one liquor base and a mixer, but in Japan it exclusively refers to whiskey and soda on the rocks. A proper highball, as I’ve been told, can be made with any Japanese whiskey, but it must be made with Suntory’s own soda water, and it is poured over four or five ice cubes. Most highballs in Japan are made with Suntory’s Kukobin whiskey, the whiskey with the ubiquitous box-shaped glass bottle and yellow logo that can be found anywhere.

Suntory Highball

It is common for the beverage to be served in a branded mug as shown above.

There are variations on this standard highball that are commonly available. The most common I’ve seen uses Hakushu whiskey, also from Suntory, and served with fresh mint. Another I’ve seen (and my personal favorite) uses Yamazaki whiskey, also from Suntory, with a lemon or lime, and served with one large chunk of ice instead of several cubes. Any other highball, such as one made with Nikka whiskey, another excellent Japanese distillery, would likely need to be a special request.

Now, it seems like any establishment with a bar in Japan has a highball available. It is common for the Suntory Kakubin whiskey-soda combination to be available on draft, with the Suntory logo prominently displayed on a tap at the bar.

Suntory on draft at a western-style bar in Roppongi

With the highball’s growing popularity, Suntory also developed a “highball bar” concept popular for after-work drinks with coworkers. For special events, Suntory is usually not far away with a highball special or a “highball garden”, such as the one set up under the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree every summer.

Suntory's Highball Bar in Gotanda, Shinagawa ward, with five whiskies on tap.

The highball is popular enough to be sold canned alongside beer and other alcoholic beverages in convenience stores, too. There are at least three variations available: the standard highball in a yellow can, a slightly stronger variety (9% ABV instead of 7%), and a low-shelf version called the Tory’s highball.