Five o' Clock Somewhere: A Whiskey Highball at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Five o' Clock Somewhere: A Whiskey Highball at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

 

Continuing our series of armchair travelling (and drinking), writer Harry Seymour considers the whiskey highball, a classic Japanese refreshment that's synonymous with the Park Hyatt Tokyo.

 

In December 1918, a young, Japanese saké brewer from Hiroshima named Masataka Taketsuru sailed to Scotland. His ambition was to learn the secrets of whisky. 

The elusive drink had been known in Japan since 1853, when the American naval commodore Matthew Perry sailed into the capital’s harbour and forced the Shogun to open to international trade — using whisky as one of his crowbars. However, any attempts at domestic production resulted in a disgusting, sticky, brown liquid.

In Scotland, Taketsuru enrolled on a chemistry course at Glasgow University and criss-crossed the Highlands, apprenticing at distilleries and filling notebooks with detailed recipes and intricate sketches of pot stills. By 1923, he had returned to Japan and established the country’s first real distillery amongst Shinto shrines, bamboo groves and crystal streams in Yamazaki, just outside Kyoto. 

Almost a century later and I’m sat at the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, on my own mission to uncover the story behind the success of Japanese whisky.

I’m sipping a glass of smooth, 18-year-old Yamazaki whisky made in Taketsuru’s original plant. It’s produced by Suntory, the country’s most popular whisky brand. But until 2003, they remained little known outside Japan. 

That all changed thanks to one man, and the bar I am in.

When the American actor Bill Murray played a booze-swilling, mid-life crisis celebrity sent here to film an advert for Suntory in Sofia Coppola’s cult hit Lost in Translation, Japanese whisky became cool overnight. Since then, Japan’s whisky exports have risen fifteen-fold. 

‘I was working at the hotel’s Peak Bar at the time,’ says Yasukazu Yokota, the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s F&B Manager. ‘I was there for the filming of one of the scenes, but you can’t see my face,’ he laughs.

Leaning into my sleek, black chair in the dimly lit bar, with Tokyo’s panoramic skyline behind me, I’m offered a lesson in Japanese whisky-drinking etiquette. Unlike in Scotland, where by law whisky must be aged at least three years, in Japan the tipple of choice tends to be un-aged, blended whisky, and it’s traditionally drunk as a Highball (mixed with soda water and ice). Some barmen say a Highball should be stirred clockwise exactly 13 times, which makes me think of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony. Maybe it’s a bit of post-work Zen meditation for salarymen, I wonder.

But Highballs are popular with Japanese women, too. Between 2014-15, a weekday morning TV drama called Massan, which told the story of Taketsuru’s devoted Glaswegian wife Rita adapting to life in Japan, also got housewives drinking them. 

Mr Yokota tells me that the most coveted whisky from the 50 varieties on his shelves is Suntory’s 30-year-old Hibiki — it was awarded the ‘World’s Best Blended Whisky’ medal in 2007 and 2008. He charges 36,000 Yen a glass, he says. (That’s about £250). 

Instead, I plump for a more moderately priced glass of 21-year-old Taketsuru whisky, a snip at 4,600 Yen. It’s made by the Nikka distilling company, which was founded on Japan’s more alpine Hokkaido island in 1934 by Taketsuru, after his initial 10-year contract with Suntory had finished. Today, Nikka still heat the stills Taketsuru imported from Glasgow using a finely powdered, natural charcoal — a technique which gives the whisky its famous deep, peaty taste and is now almost obsolete in Scotland. 

Some of Mr Yokotoa’s bottles of Nikka and Suntory whisky change hand for serious money these days. In August 2020, for example, a single bottle of 55-year-old Yamazaki sold for an eye-watering $795,000 at auction. There is even rumoured to be a black market for untapped barrels from distilleries that closed following Japan’s recession. 

To finish, I order a glass of whisky from Japan’s smallest distillery, set up in 2004 by Ichiro Akuto — a hero of independent distillers. Akuto was the country’s first whisky maker to use domestically grown malt, produced by Japanese farmers trained in Norfolk. (Typically, Japanese distillers import their malt from Scotland, while Scottish distillers now tend to import theirs from Eastern Europe). 

I ask the barman to make it a Highball (they’re not actually on the menu) and watch a jazz musician play the saxophone through a cloud of cigar smoke from a nearby table. Behind me, a group of Americans — Japanese whisky pilgrims — wait for their chance to sit at the counter where their obsession started. Rewarding their patience, I offer up Murray’s seat, deciding that tomorrow I’ll get up early and catch a train to Yamazaki. 


Park Hyatt Whisky Highball Recipe

 

  • 50 ml of whisky (the New York Bar recommends Hibiki Blender’s Choice)
  • Soda water
  • Crushed ice 

 

Recipe

 

  1. Stir a long tumbler with crushed ice to chill the glass
  2. Add the whisky 
  3. Slowly top with soda water, adding it directly into the whisky, avoiding the ice
  4. Stir once with a bar spoon to mix