Saturday, July 13, 2013

Osaka, Suntory City (2)

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Yesterday, we introduced one of the few remaining Torys Bars. Today, we're looking at the present-day equivalent of the Torys Bar: Suntory’s Highball Bars.

Highball Bar Umeda 1923

In Japan, most people associate the year 1923 with the Great Kanto Earthquake. When the earthquake struck, Suntory was about to create history of a different kind: the country’s first whisky distillery was almost ready for production and a few months later, the first spirit ran from the stills. That was really the beginning of the story of Japanese whisky and so it’s understandable that Suntory decided to attach the year the Yamazaki Distillery was founded to its chain of new highball bars. Sounds better than “Highball Bar 2009”, but it was, in fact, then that Suntory finally managed to break the downward spiral of domestic whisky consumption.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Younger whisky drinkers found old-style whisky bars a bit intimidating, so Suntory tried to get their cheaper whiskies into bars where they could be used for highballs, as an alternative to beer. As they say, the rest is history… The highball concept (revival, actually) really took off; other domestic whisky producers – big and small – jumped on the bandwagon; and whisky sales were up again for the first time in decades. In 2011, Suntory took the highball concept to the next stage and started opening themed highball bars (“Suntory Highball Bars”) built around the concept of “creating specialty bars that offer premium quality highball cocktails”. The first, Highball Bar Shimbashi 1923, was opened on January 28, 2011 in Tokyo’s Shimbashi neighbourhood. Soon after, they started opening Highball Bars left and right. In Osaka, the place to experience the highball boom is definitely Highball Bar Umeda 1923.

The flagship highballs are dispensed from 5-tap highball towers, exclusively designed by Suntory. Here’s what they have to say about the how and why: “It is presumptuous of us to call our shop a Specialty Highball Bar but we have good reasons for this:
- our whisky is cooled below 2 °C by using a dedicated dispenser;
- our soda water is made from mineral water; its gas volume is 6.0, the highest in the beverage industry;
- we use ice which is made below  - 15 °C and shaped like icycles; it keeps highballs extremely cold and highly-carbonated
So, they are delicious!”

Ginger Highball & Yamazaki Raisin Butter © Stefan Van Eycken
And they are. Our personal favourites are the “Hakushu Forest Highball” and the “Yamazaki Highball” (both of which used to be built around the 10yo expressions, but since these have been discontinued, they switched to the NAS versions). We’re also quite fond of the “Hibiki 12 Highball” and, as a palate cleanser, the “Ginger Highball” (Kaku highball mixed with maple syrup infused with freshly grated ginger). The latter is so good we never leave a Highball Bar without having at least one of those. They’ve also got a selection of food that goes well with highballs, such as “Yamazaki Miso” (a mix of white miso, Yamazaki whisky and sea urchin miso, served with narazuke pickles and cucumber sticks) and “Yamazaki Raisin Butter” (made with raisins soaked in Yamazaki whisky).

Hakushu Forest Highball © Stefan Van Eycken
Decorated to reflect a “nostalgic modern” theme, these Highball Bars have proven to be very popular. Last time I was at the Umeda 1923, a couple of days ago, it was so packed I actually had to wait to get a seat at the counter. It seems like Suntory’s highball strategy is working big time. If you’re not a convert yet, check out Highball Bar Umeda 1923 or another one near you. But only if you want to be converted…

Address: Umesendo Building 1F, 2-1-3 Shibata, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0012
Tel: 06-6375-2300
Hours: Monday - Saturday: 11:30 - 15:00 & 17:00 - 1:00
Sunday - Holidays: 11:30 - 15:00 & 17:00 - 24:00

Also take a look at:
Part 1 : Juso Torys Bar
Part 3 : Whisky Shop W., The Aging House 1795 & Suntory Whisky House

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