How to make the perfect whisky and soda

It took a trip to Japan, where whisky and soda is dressed to impress, to revive The Goblet’s passion for the classic stiffener

Image: Chris Burke

I found my first suit shopping trip with a man toe-curlingly boring: as far as I could see, it was just mile upon mile of identical-looking outfits in funereal shades of blue, black and brown. No sequins, no colours, nothing! What I’d failed to grasp, of course, is that a beautiful suit is all about details – the width of the lapel, the position of the buttonhole, the colour of the lining. 

I used to feel the same about whisky and soda, a drink I thought was terribly drab and samey until I visited Japan, where I found the bartenders preparing my grandfather’s favourite stiffener with all the reverence of a martini. I was impressed by the theatre – the hand‑carved ice, the fine glassware and the exquisite garnishes – but I was struck by the variety of flavours, too, which flowered in the presence of water. In every case, the formula was more or less the same, but close-up, each drink was completely unique. 

These days, whisky and soda is one of my favourite drinks. Drier than a cocktail, more refreshing than a dram, it makes a snappy aperitif but can also be an excellent partner for food – in Tokyo it’s not unusual to drink highballs right through a meal. 

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The Japanese tend to drink their highballs quite long – roughly one part whisky to four parts soda, which might sound rather shocking to a Brit. I must say, I rather like it like that, particularly in the summer, but that’s the beauty of this drink: it can be mixed a thousand ways

A lot of Japanese whiskies are expressly designed to go with water (if the water is fizzy, it’s a “highball”, if the water is still, the serve is known as mizuwari, literally “mixed with water”). The elegantly fruity Hibiki Harmony (£65.55 for 70cl) and more richly spiced Nikka from the Barrel (£38.95 for 50cl) are both excellent with soda and boast very good-looking bottles too. But I also find a lot of the Irish blends have a suppleness that works very well in a highball: try newcomer Roe & Co (£29.45 for 70cl), a velvety blend with ripe orchard fruit and a creamy finish. 

The prickle of soda can also give a nice lift to peaty whiskies – I like Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve (£54.95 for 70cl) from Japan’s Southern Alps, a single malt with cool green melon/apple notes, and the subtly smoky Johnnie Walker Black Label (£29.25 for 70cl), a benchmark Scotch blend that will always give a great bang for your buck.

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Some bars go to huge lengths to find the right water for their highballs – the excellent Black Rock in Shoreditch pairs a Bowmore with water from Islay. But a good club soda is just fine, if chilled. Add a nice glass, ice and twist of citrus peel, and you’ll be drinking in style.

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