Highballs and St Masa
The tale of a mysterious man, a kooky bar and a classic cocktail
Every serious drinker needs a hidden Tokyo bar story. This is mine. After three days in the city, on a short leash held tight by a big Champagne house, I’d consumed seven Michelin stars, drunk enough prestige cuvée fizz to flush an inland river system and never once felt like I’d connected with the great kinetic metropolis just out of my reach. I was rescued by someone who at the time I believed to be a man, but was to discover later was an earth walking angel. His name is Masahiro Urushido. Bar owner, author, mystic. Patron saint of disoriented drunkards. He sent me necessarily intricate instructions to meet in the basement of a nondescript Ginza apartment tower.
The final instruction was, “Turn left when you exit the lift and push against the wall.” The wall yielded and became a portal, and then I took my first steps into the Tokyo I had mapped in my dreams. The room was monochromatic, the colour of stale pistachios. The bar was elliptical and manned by three elderly bartenders in white jackets. They all had towering, immovable quiffs.
If Stanley Kubrick had ever owned a bar, this would be it. Masa and friend waved me over. The only other patrons were two men wearing dark suits and darker expressions. They lit Mild Sevens with robotic regularity and never spoke. An imagination warped by too many movies might suspect they were the kind of men not to be messed with. I took a seat next to Masa, and the barman placed a demitasse of onion soup in front of me and began chipping at the ice for my drink. There was no cocktail list from which to order because a bar that serves only one drink doesn’t need one. The barman slipped the ice into a tall glass, poured a perfect measure of whisky and topped it with a small bottle of soda water that, in yielding its very last drop, filled my glass to the perfect point.
It was there and then I learned what wiser souls had always known. There is transcendental beauty in the perfect Highball. This is the most unadorned of drinks—a healthy measure of great whisky, the carbonated clarity of soda water, the crucial addition of carefully made ice, a satisfyingly tall glass.
But it is this simplicity that elevates it. It hides in plain sight in a world of overworked cocktails. While all around is loud, the Highball speaks its truth in whispers. It’s no wonder the drink is revered, even fetishised, in Japan. It makes sense in a culture that prizes precision. And it’s why every Highball I’ve ever made since that day has been made with Japanese whisky. It just has to be that way now.
Footnote: Masahiro Urushido’s 80-recipe masterpiece The Japanese Art of the Cocktail should be in the book collection of anyone even mildly serious about cocktail culture. His bar in Manhattan’s West Village, Katana Kitten, below, is a place of pilgrimage.