In my previous Tokyo related post, I talked a bit about Ginza. Because I spend most of my drinking time in Ginza, I found myself for the first time in a bar that specializes in Japanese highballs. In this review, I will talk about what makes a good highball in detail. Finally, this is where my cocktail geekery comes in!
The bar is called Apollo Bar. The owner, Hidenori Komatsu, is a former Suntory employee. He worked for the company for 13 years. The bar is named after the Apollo Theatre in New York. I remember him saying he spent some time in NYC. You will see his everlasting love for Suntory just be looking at his back bar. The bottles are 90% Beam Suntory whisky. For the non-Suntory fans, he has more bottles hiding in the cabinets. While it is obvious that Apollo is a whisky bar, what will surprise a random walk-in is the bar is more known as a Japanese highball bar.
You may be asking why I would dedicate a review to a simple cocktail. Aren’t all Japanese highballs just whisky, ice and soda water? You are not wrong. But if you have any idea about how seriously the Japanese take their art, some often offer a good elevating twist. You see, Hidenori-san makes Japanese highballs his own unique way. Plus, it’s less filling than drinking beer, which allows more room for food and drinking! Let’s talk about the ingredients.
Of course, we want our drinks kept cold. The common practice is to take a drink from the fridge and add ice. In the top cocktail bars, though, the glasses are kept in a freezer or fridge while not in use. A room temperature glass would increase the temperature of the cocktail poured in it and make the ice melt faster, diluting the drink. Who wants a watery drink? It’s not necessary in the case of Apollo Bar, but other well-known bars in Ginza like Bar High Five routinely keep glasses cold in this way. I’ve been to some izakayas in Japan that do it, too.
An important ingredient that is often underappreciated, perhaps because we only see it as a means to make a drink cold. But there’s so much more to it! Japanese bars are renowned for having clear ice; I’ve never been to one that has cloudy ice. Why is clear ice important? It’s believed that the cloudiness in ice waters down a drink faster, in part because the cloudy hue is a result of air and other impurities trapped in the ice.
The small Japanese bars often order clear ice daily, and they come in huge blocks. The owners or staff, if there are any, then cut the ice into various shapes and sizes before service. Different shapes and cut depend on the various styles of glasses for different drinks. A solid ice does more than make a drink cold. It keeps the drink cold and has less surface area than crappy tube ice or crushed ice. Less surface area results in the ice diluting slower. A drink that stays colder means we can enjoy our drink longer!
The shape of the ice affects dilution as well, the most well-known shape being ice balls and the cubed ice used in whisky tumblers or old fashioned-style cocktails. That said, these large blocks can be more for presentation than practical use. Then there is diamond-shaped ice made famous by Bar High Five’s Ueno-san. While they’re obviously a delight to look at, they also serve an actual purpose. The shape of the ice follows the direction of the liquid. Let’s take a look at a diagram of the parts of a diamond. The more liquid there is in the glass, the more liquid is in contact with the crown and girdle. The more you drink from the glass, the more liquid is left to only come into contact with the pavilion and culet. Thus, with diamond ice, the more you drink, the less watery your drink will become, due to less surface area in contact with ice. This is quite different than ice balls and big ice cubes, where the consistent shape leads to consistently watered-down drinks. Apollo Bar’s ice for Japanese highballs are more like crystal gems, as highballs come in Collins glasses. Now imagine how much ice they have to cut in order to prepare for a night!
Something extra Hidenori-san does in Apollo Bar is he fans the ice after taking it out of the freezer. Fanning the ice allows it to adjust to the temperature of the room more. Mixing ice straight out of the freezer with liquid will make it crack due to the sudden change in temperature. Cracked ice melts faster.
Another unique trick is how he pours the soda water into the highballs. Most soda water is added quickly into Japanese highballs via dispenser or from the bottle, but his pouring method is more akin to properly pouring a a beer. This retains more effervescence.
I should be calling this part’s header whisky, but a highball is any alcoholic drink with effervescence. A gin and tonic is a highball. A rum and coke is a highball. This part will apply to any highball or any cocktail. Chilling the house’s mixing spirits in freezers is something I’ve only seen in Japan, and to some extent, Taipei.
Not every bar in Japan does it, but you will see it if you go to the big cities. I know we have been told not to do it, as it “destroys” the spirit, but who are we to tell the Japanese they are wrong? They often out-do whomever they try to imitate. I would even call it elevation.
According to Hidetsugu Ueno-san, the use of placing a bottle of spirit in a freezer is to keep the cocktail colder as long as possible. He likes to freeze it to a degree lower than the ice’s temperature. Consequently, when he is finally making a cocktail, the ice serves to heat up the cocktail. Wicked! Despite the use of the term heat up, the drink is still very cold.
Now that you’ve read all that mumbling, you can watch my video recording of Hidenori-san making a highball here!
Finally, we are on to the whisky. Jason already talked about the regular Chita release, so I won’t get into it.
On my last night in Tokyo, I re-visited Apollo Bar as my night cap. As I asked for my bill, Hidenori-san surprised me with a glass of this Chita whisky. I guess my broken Japanese and my willingness to communicate with his broken English left a good impression on him. According to him, this was only sold in Chita city, in Aichi prefecture. This has no age statement, but there are guesses online that it’s a 10-12-year-old whisky. According to Hidenori-san, this 43% single grain whisky was aged in ex-red wine casks. I am not sure if it was wholly aged in ex-red wine casks, or just finished in them. I wonder if the casks came from Chateau St. Julien, as Suntory is the owner.
Chita Limited Edition – review
On the nose: Some notes of dry dark chocolate with toffee and other nuts. Some ex-bourbon coconut notes mix with licorice and wax, followed by a quick hit of marzipan. Followed by lingering notes of dates, vanilla, honey and hints of cherry flavored candy.
In the mouth: Tart! Cherries, berries, dates and Fox red candy. Another wave of those flavors with some chalky dark chocolate. Some Bordeaux red wine flavor. No hint of sulfur!
A very good light drink. It’s not sweet like a lot of ex-wine cask-influenced whisky. Due to the ABV and the fact that it’s a grain whisky, the flavors don’t last long. Still, they are coherent and compact, ,so it’s easy to pick apart the flavors I got.
This is definitely a step above, and more interesting than, the regular Chita whisky. I am curious what this would be like at 46%, or even bottled at cask strength. I wish I could give a bottle price or price per glass, but this was on the house. Lucky me!
Thank you, Hidenori-san, for the treat and for being a great host. If any of you find yourselves in Ginza, go here! I promise you will have a great time.