In his book Japanese Whisky, author Brian Ashcraft describes the highball cocktail as a simple yet elegant blend of whisky, soda and ice. It's a staple of Japanese drinking culture and "the most common way whisky is enjoyed across the country," he says.
It makes sense, then, that a Japanese company would create a machine to make the ultimate highball. Designed and manufactured by the global spirits conglomerate Suntory, the parent company of Beam Suntory, the $5,000 robot is now mixing cocktails at Town Hearth, a baroque steakhouse in Dallas.
While the highball isn't much of a mainstay on bar menus in Dallas-Fort Worth, it's no secret Americans have an insatiable taste for whiskey (spelled with an "e" when referring to anything other than Scotch or Japanese whisky). In 2017, whiskey was one of the top grossing spirits in the country led by an increase in American whiskey and bourbon sales and exports, according to the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council.
Town Hearth is hoping to capitalize on that thirst by installing the North Texas' first highball machine, which is hooked up to a filtered water line behind the bar and has an upside down bottle of Jim Beam Black label fastened to it. The highballs here come standard with bourbon instead of Japanese whisky, though guests can specially order it with a Japanese spirit if that's what they want. (And beware, it might cost you more than the $11 menu price.)
No matter, says bar manager Kris Johnson, the cocktail is equally as refreshing.
"It carbonates water six and a half times what Champagne is," says Johnson, and automatically mixes a 6-to-1 ratio of water and whiskey before bartenders garnish with an orange peel. The cocktail is served over ice and takes a matter of seconds to pour.
"What it's meant to do is make a refreshing cocktail that's not as boozy," Johnson says. "You can taste the alcohol, but it's not like having a whiskey on the rocks."
But, wait, why do we need a machine for this?
"Regular club soda doesn't hold the body as well," Johnson says. The mechanized highball is "more effervescent, it comes out colder so it doesn't melt the ice as fast."
The highball machine debuted at Town Hearth in October, and it might not be the only place you can try it. Neighborhood Services in Addison, which is owned by the same company, Flavorhook, is considering installing one.
"I saw [the machine] in the Sunday Times over the summer. It's exactly what I like to drink," says Nick Badovinus, the well-known restaurateur who is chef and operator of both restaurants and others under the Flavorhook umbrella. "It's light, bright, effervescent, rooted in tradition and essentially quaffable. Had to have it. Had to share it."
Keep that in mind when the weather changes, Johnson says.
"When summer time hits and it's warmer," he says, "it's going to be unbelievable."
See the highball machine in action:
Need more Japanese inspiration in your libation? Shochu, Japan's low-proof national spirit, is making inroads in D-FW.
CORRECTION, 10:35 a.m., Nov. 29, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Atsuchi "Charlie" Takeuchi designed the highball machine. Suntory, the parent company of Beam Suntory, designed it.