The Rise Of The TOKI Japanese Highball Machine Explained

By Gustav Vincoeur |

After the Cocktail Renaissance, bartenders began experimenting with complex drink recipes requiring long lists of obscure ingredients. However, recent movement has been a return to simplicity. Accordingly, the next-big-thing in the cocktail world right now is the TOKI Highball Machine. Japanese whisky is booming and the simplicity of Japanese highballs along with it. Now, these mechanized dispensers are elevating the basic beverage to the next level.

Long before high-tech machinery dispensed highballs, the drink first rose to fame in Japan. Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii is credited with popularizing the Japanese Highball during the 1950’s. His marketing campaign aimed to build demand for the then-fledgeling industry. The simple mix of whisky, soda, and ice provided the perfect signature cocktail: easy to build, smooth to drink, and spirit forward.

Torii’s push was a success and by the 90’s, elevated highballs were ubiquitous in Japan, an unofficial national drink. “As highballs became more popular, Japanese bartenders went beyond simple whisky and soda and perfected the creation by optimizing preparation, serving temperature, carbonation levels, and balance,” elaborated Charlie Takeuchi, Commercial Senior Field Marketing Manager, Beam Suntory.

In the early 20th century, highball machines pioneered by Suntory began popping up in izakayas across the islands. “This machine was designed to re-create the precision and innovation employed by Japanese bartenders in their highball ritual” according to Takeuchi. Within a few years, highball machines were as common at Japanese bars as soda guns are at American bars.

“Highball machines deliver super-chilled whisky plus super-chilled soda water with high carbonation at the pull of a lever, each time the perfect proportion (e.g. TOKI–1 part TOKI to 3 parts soda water; Jim Beam–1 part Jim Beam to 4 parts soda water),” explained Takeuchi. “Directly into a glass that ideally contains 1 perfect spear of crystal clear ice.”

The Toki in action [Photo by Gabi Porter]

In 2012, Suntory began eying US markets as a new destination for the machines. It took the whisky company almost five years working with Hoshizaki to develop a product suitable for American bars, but last year, they began appearing in the States. 

There are now a 35 the machines in 16 American markets, installed at venues ranging from high end craft cocktail bars to a baseball stadium. Still, most uninitiated drinkers ask, “How is this any different than a whiskey-soda?” Neat Pour tasted o̶n̶e̶ a few for ourselves at San Francisco’s Pacific Cocktail Haven (a.k.a. PCH) and the results were stunning. The bubbles were small and abundant, more like champagne than soda. The liquid’s color was closer to clear which matched the 100% clear ice. The drink arrives in a highball glass or mug as opposed to a rocks glass.

Or, as Takeuchi aptly observed, “Skillful technique and quality of ingredients set the Japanese highball apart.”

The expert also stressed the importance of ice in the Japanese highball. “Ice serves not just an aesthetic purpose but also a functional one,” said Takeuchi. “TOKI Highball ice should be 1. Sweated–regular ice is jagged and will destroy the carbonation; and 2. Clear–high-density, oxygen-free, glassy surface area ice allows it to melt more slowly and slow the dilution process.”

Yet, we were still uncertain why a dedicated machine is needed. Takeuchi offered more clarification. “The Highball Machine does something ordinary bar guns can’t—it cools the whisky and water to near freezing, ensuring less dilution from melting ice and greater retention of carbonation,” he explained. 

Plus, there is the issue of carbonation. The Tokii device delivers water that is about 50% more carbonated than bottled or gun soda, and 10-20% more carbonated than champagne.

Behind the sticks, maintaining the mechanism is pretty straightforward. “The account needs to perform basic daily cleaning like wiping down dispenser and top tower with damp cloth, washing the drip tray, nozzle and diffuser,” according to the pros.

If you’re considering adding a highball machine to your bar, they are available domestically through Lancer. However, the Toki/Beam-Suntory team is eager to work with any American vendors on staff education and highball promotions.

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