A RID­DLE OF A DRINK In the wa­ter­ing holes of Tokyo, the high­ball reigns supreme

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel - Story and pho­tos by Liza Weis­stuch

At Apollo Bar in Tokyo, Hi­de­nori Ko­matsu’s high­ball prepa­ra­tion in­volves dance­like grace and pre­ci­sion, un­der a spot­light, with noth­ing but Tom Waits on the stereo.

Like nearly ev­ery bar in Tokyo, Star Bar — a sub­ter­ranean cock­tail spot in a non­de­script build­ing in the hum­ming com­mer­cial dis­trict of Ginza — fea­tures a high­ball on the menu.

Un­like other bars in Tokyo, it calls its ver­sion a Ninja Ice High­ball. That’s be­cause the hand-cut ice block, a nar­row rec­tan­gle with pre­cise edges, is frozen in a man­ner that ren­ders it clear to the point of be­ing barely vis­i­ble, mak­ing it ap­pear as if the bub­bles of car­bon­a­tion are bounc­ing off a phan­tom ob­ject. It’s served in a Collins glass with an ev­erso-thin lip. The fine bub­bles and the whisky’s sub­tle malti­ness make me want to de­scribe the drink as “re­fresh­ing,” but it’s too so­phis­ti­cated to be con­sid­ered in such vague terms.

Later, at Twen­tyEight, a hand­some bar at the posh Con­rad Tokyo that looks out onto the city from the 28th floor, I or­dered the high­ball. It ap­peared with an air of cer­e­mony. Peter Mizu­tani, who goes by the ti­tle “bar cap­tain,” brought a tray of items and ar­ranged them on the high ta­ble be­fore me: a tall glass filled with dense ice cubes, a bot­tle of Ya­mazaki whisky, an in­di­vid­ual-size bot­tle of soda wa­ter and a small glass dish of shred­ded le­mon rind. He poured the whisky, then soda, slowly. He told me that in Ja­pan, whisky is com­monly con­sumed as high­balls. They’re as in­te­gral to so­cial sit­u­a­tions here as beer is in the U.S.

“It’s tra­di­tional to put whisky and soda to­gether. In a ca­sual at­mos­phere, this is the way,” he told me. “Whisky is strong, but if you’re with friends and you want to keep drink­ing, this lends it­self to an easy drink and good at­mos­phere.”

The high­ball is a rid­dle of a drink. It’s a sim­ple mix of whisky, soda wa­ter and ice, but its com­bi­na­tions are in­fi­nite. It can be done elab­o­rately, a plat­form for show­man­ship and cre­ativ­ity, or get more of a At Twen­tyEight, the stylish­bar at the posh Con­rad Tokyo, high­balls are served with grated le­mon rind, which you can add to your lik­ing to en­hance the drink’s aro­matic ef­fect.

hur­ried treat­ment and still be gor­geous.

Hur­ried is the modus operandi at Maru­gin, an iza­kaya, Ja­pan’s an­swer to the pub, in Shin­bashi, a busi­ness dis­trict just south of Ginza. The bar, one amid many along the con­gested side­walk, is not es­pe­cially no­table: There’s a long horse­shoe bar in the mid­dle, tall ta­bles around the pe­riph­ery for stand­ing, pa­per lanterns and fat HVAC ducts sus­pended from the ceil­ing, the hiss of yak­i­tori cook­ing on a grill. On a Wed­nes­day night in Novem­ber, it bus­tled with “salary­men,” lo­cal jar­gon for men in suits who go to bars late at night, straight from work.

To ac­com­mo­date the packed room, high­balls are served from a ma­chine, a con­trap­tion that’s quite ubiq­ui­tous now through­out Tokyo. It was de­signed by Sun­tory, the Ja­panese whisky com­pany, and this bar is where, in 2008, the first one was in­stalled. High­balls are served on heavy ro­ta­tion to the packed crowd in weighty mugs that are said to have been de­signed for work­ing men’s hands. A de­pres­sion for the thumb at the top of the han­dle en­sures an easy grip. They’re made with Kaku, Sun­tory’s most om­nipresent whisky. From nofrills iza­kayas to swish cock­tail shrines, it’s so com­mon, par­tic­u­larly for high­ball-mak­ing, that to call for the spirit at a bar is sim­ply an­other way to ask for a high­ball.

The high­ball, which has its roots firmly planted in Amer­ica, is a broad cat­e­gory that in­cludes the Tom Collins and even the gin and tonic. But in the 1950s, High­balls are so pop­u­lar in Tokyo that al­most all of the abun­dant con­ve­nience stores sell sev­eral canned va­ri­eties.

to ramp up Ja­panese whisky’s vis­i­bil­ity in a na­tion then dom­i­nated by beer, Sun­tory, which be­gan mak­ing the spirit in the 1920s, in­tro­duced the idea of serv­ing it with wa­ter in keep­ing with the Ja­panese pref­er­ence for lower-al­co­hol drinks. This also made it food-friendly. No­body ever ac­tu­ally stopped serv­ing high­balls in the fol­low­ing decades, but with the com­pany’s 2008 in­tro­duc­tion of the gizmo that pours whisky and soda to­gether from a fa­mil­iar, draft-beer-like tap, the trend took off again.

Through­out a week I spent in Tokyo in late fall, it be­came clear that the high­ball is ev­ery drink for ev­ery­body. In a no-frills ra­men joint, I or­dered one from a ram­shackle juke­box-like ma­chine that also lets you se­lect your noo­dles

and broth and serv­ing size. It was de­liv­ered mo­ments later to my seat in a tra­di­tional hefty mug, poured from the Sun­tory ap­pa­ra­tus.

I or­dered them at a pocket-size bar in Golden Gai, a bois­ter­ous labyrinthine dis­trict where there are sup­pos­edly more than 200 bars in the many mul­ti­story build­ings and al­leys be­hind them.

I or­dered high­balls at Sam­boa Bar, a higher-end spot with an old-world vibe. The first one opened in Ky­oto in 1918. Now there are 14 through­out Ja­pan. They’re known for ice­less ver­sions. The ra­tio­nale, I learned, is that ice changes the drink as it melts. With­out it, it’s di­lu­tion-free.

Mas­tery is on dis­play at Or­chard Bar, an­other Ginza spot sit­u­ated up a nar­row set of creaky car­peted stairs in a build­ing oc­cu­pied by other mod­est restau­rants and bars. Or­chard is the kind of place that might have re­sulted from a brain­storm­ing ses­sion among Wes An­der­son, Ed­ward Gorey and the Chiq­uita ba­nana lady. A menagerie of kitschy knick­knacks is ar­ranged on the bar. Drinks are served in eye-catch­ing ves­sels: a mini disco ball, a small metal wa­ter­ing can, a cock­tail glass with a pen­cil­length stem. Su­mire and Takuo Miyanohara, the hus­band-and-wife own­ers and bar­tenders, hold court. Su­mire pointed out an art­fully ar­ranged plat­ter of fruit. That was the menu. Choose one, and they’ll cus­tom-de­sign a cock­tail. An en­tic­ing propo­si­tion — and one I would later take ad­van­tage of in the form of a per­sim­mon-in­spired gin drink — but first, would they make me a high­ball? Of course.

With a fo­cus be­fit­ting a car­diac sur­geon, Takuo rounded the edges of a cube of ice with a pick. He poured a larger-than-stan­dard mea­sure of whisky, which, he ex­plained, marked this a Kobe-style high­ball. Then he slowly added the en­tirety of a small bot­tle of soda wa­ter and, with­out stir­ring, placed it be­fore me. Tiny bub­bles pirou­et­ted and ric­o­cheted off the ice, min­gling with the whisky.

But the Stradi­var­ius of high­balls is the one we wit­nessed at Apollo Bar. Hi­de­nori Ko­matsu, who opened the dim cock­tail den in 2013, has al­ways been the sole bar­tender here. He plays only Tom Waits. Ev­ery night. (“It suits the place so well, I don’t need any­thing else,” he told me.) He flicks a switch to turn on a spot­light, trans­form­ing the bar into a stage. With that, the chore­og­ra­phy be­gins: a hand-chis­eled, coffin­shaped ice block goes into a crys­tal glass. He dra­mat­i­cally flaps a bam­boo fan over the ice. Tem­per­a­ture is cru­cial, he said. Colder liq­uid holds car­bon­a­tion bet­ter.

There’s an an­cient Ja­panese phi­los­o­phy called wabi-sabi, best trans­lated as the beauty of im­per­fec­tion. The pur­suit of per­fec­tion is in­nate to artists and crafts­peo­ple here, but to reach it, the phi­los­o­phy goes, is dan­ger­ous and an of­fense to the gods. Not to at­tempt it, though, is also an of­fense. But in that mo­ment, drink­ing from a ra­zor-thin-lipped glass as mi­nus­cule bub­bles car­ried whisky fla­vors and Waits sang his raspy yet ethe­real dirges, per­fec­tion seemed tan­gi­ble.

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