Japan’s Beloved Whisky Highball Machines Are Taking Over Chicago
And we know 7 places where you can try one out firsthand
If the thought of premium whisky and highly carbonated soda water cascading into a frosty glass at the mere pull of a lever gets your Happy Hour juices a-flowing, you’re not alone. The Toki Highball Machine, a bartop apparatus patented by Japanese distilling giant Suntory, delivers expertly balanced whisky highballs on tap, and it’s been steadily stockpiling Chicago devotees since popping up at Boka Group’s lauded Momotaro in early 2017. And more likely than not, it’s set its sights on a watering hole near you.
“I’ve been with the company for about 11 years now, going back and forth to Japan, and the first time I saw that highball machine, about nine years ago over there, I was like, ‘I want one,’” recalled Suntory’s New York-based Senior Whisky Ambassador Gardner Dunn while leading a recent Toki Highball-themed pub crawl around the Chicago. Gardner made his remarks from behind the sticks at Lowcountry, a Southern seafood chain that serves its highballs over hefty chunks of frozen lemon. “In the beginning we were at Momotaro, just some high-end Japanese accounts, but now we’re seeing all these other companies out there really wanting to get a highball machine. Each account is using that highball premise and doing a little twist on it — that trend is spreading, too. We’re really proud to own it.”
If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, keep in mind that isn’t your average whiskey-soda. Pumped through separate lines then married just before hitting the glass, the contraption transforms a combination of filtered sparkling water and chilled Toki whisky into a flaxen-hued stream that bursts with delicate flavor and lively, refreshing bubbles. The whisky in question, an easy-drinking, light-bodied blend littered with floral, biscuit-y and stone-fruit notes and finished out with a dab of peppery smoke, was created specifically for this purpose by Master Blender Shinji Fukuyo.
The blend draws on three of Suntory’s distilleries (Hakushu, Chita and the much sought-after Yamazaki), with the bulk of the juice coming from bourbon barrel-aged Hakushu and a high-grain Chita expression. As a final touch, Fukuyo throws a touch of a Yamazaki single malt aged in Spanish sherry barrels to add complexity and maturity, calling it his “hidden player.”
The resulting whisky comes in at 43% ABV (or 86 proof), exhibiting just enough boozy character to confidently withstand the soda water’s dilution without overpowering the entire cocktail, especially at the suggested three-to-one water-to-whisky ratio. As is customary in Japan (where the most common ratio is actually four-to-one), these highballs are designed to be sessionable, allowing the drinker to down a couple after work without risking their dignity.
“Beer sales actually overtook whisky sales back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s because a lot of Japanese culture likes low-alcohol cocktails,” explained Gardner. “They liked to start their night out slowly, usually with beer, and if they wanted to drink whisky, it’s neat or on an ice ball later on in the night. So the highball machine was created because it’s about the same strength — 7-8% alcohol. It tastes like a beer, drinks like a beer, has high carbonation. That’s when we really started seeing it pick up traction in Japan.”
Another great highball quality? Its razor-sharp effervescence, airy mouthfeel and crisp malt backbone means it pairs perfectly with salty comfort foods, be it a big bowl of steamy, pork-laden ramen or a pile of deep-fried soft-shell crabs. There are currently upwards of 70 Toki Highball Machines in operation throughout the U.S., including seven (and counting) that call Chicago home. And while each bar likes to put their own spin on things, rest assured that Suntory’s core concept remains fully intact. Here’s where to find them.
Momotaro & Izakaya at Momotaro
This upscale Japanese trendsetter in Fulton Market boasts not one but two of bubbly bad boys. Head upstairs for the classic treatment, complete with ocean-fresh sushi and wagyu strip steak, or escape downstairs to wash down some award-winning ramen or bao-style burgers at the subterranean Izakaya.
Ramen-San (River North Location)
Tonkotsu ramen, loaded with buttery chashu pork belly and topped with a molten egg, might be this hip hop-infused late night noodle house’s main draw, but it’s the Toki Highball Machine’s magical elixir that’ll really cure what ails you.
Lowcountry South Loop & Lowcountry Lakeview
Both of this fast-casual duo’s locations pack a full bar alongside huge portions of Southern-tinged seafood like seasoned shrimp, crab legs, mussels and classic sides. The highballs come loaded with frozen lemons for an extra citrus-y punch. And don’t miss the South Loop outpost’s brand new Haku Highball Machine, which subs in Suntory’s 100% Japanese rice vodka in place of the standard brown stuff.
This sleek, rockabilly-esque Streeterville newcomer keeps the highballs flowing for just $6 a pop during happy hour, the ideal accompaniment to a giant plate of Nashville hot duck livers and soul-crushingly good fried chicken.
Wells St. Market Food Hall
The Loop’s liquid lunch-seekers can get their fix inside this gourmet food court where the Toki on tap is just one of four boundary-pushing highball variations on the menu at Dustin Drankiewicz’s airy Grand Central Bar.
Main image via Beam Suntory