Generally speaking, a highball has only two essential ingredients: a strong spirit, and a weak mixer.
Scotch and soda? That’s a highball. Whiskey and coke? That’s a highball too. Seven and Seven? You guessed it, a highball.
So why, then, would anyone take what is arguably the simplest cocktail in the world and build around it a temple to methodical attention and technical precision befitting some of the city’s finer medical laboratories?
Well, reasonable people could debate that all day long — perhaps over a highball at ThirtySix Bar & Co, the latest offering from hospitality veteran Philippe Nguyen, where every last detail of the highball has been carefully refined to the point of art.
Nguyen credits the Japanese with turning the highball — a drink whose proletarian roots, in Japan at least, are said to go back to an effort by Suntory to court working-class beer drinkers — into an elevated libation.
In their highbrow Japanese iteration, highballs are made with large blocks of ice, the better to prevent excess dilution, and stirred precisely 13 times, a method ThirtySix replicates — though, to be honest, we weren’t exactly counting. ThirtySix takes things even further, producing its own soda water to ensure it has precisely the right pH (8.5, in case you were wondering) and bubble consistency (“champagne-like,” according to Cat, the head bartender).
Bartenders even go so far as to fan the glasses and ice (yes, with a fan) to drive off condensation and preserve the overall clarity of the presentation.
The result is, well, a highball — albeit one as clear and refreshing as a glacier-fed spring.
The Highlander (HK$140) is ThirtySix’s answer to the whisky soda, arguably the most iconic highball. Their take combines 10-year-old BenRiach single malt with the house-made club soda, and a lemon peel garnish. While this taster couldn’t say for certain that the precisely calibrated 8.5 pH of the soda made for a better drink, it was certainly a good whisky and soda.
Meanwhile, the 21st Century California (HK$140) — it’s name an homage to the 20th Century Limited train line that ran from New York to Chicago — is a mezcal-based highball with Italian bitters and white creme de cacao, along with lemon-lime cordial and the house-made soda (in other words, very fancy Sprite). In a bit of a far out twist, however, the drink is served with a small piece of dark chocolate briefly heated and stuck to the rim of the glass.
The drink is somehow both refreshing, thanks to the muted citrus notes, and slightly smoky and bitter, thanks to the mezcal and the aroma of the chocolate, which infuses each sip.
By the way, if you prefer a particular spirit for your highballs, the bar also offers drinkers the option to purchase a bottle to be stored in the space’s “vault” and opened whenever they drop in.
And if highballs aren’t your thing, the bar also offers three “modern classic” cocktails, such as the B for Mayor’s Boilermaker (HK$120), made with bourbon, Czech herbal liqueur, lemon, and a frothy foam topping made from beer — which is not to be confused with regular beer foam, mind you. The drink has an appealing tartness, but it’s more than balanced by the malty sweetness of the beer foam. (Drink quickly, Cat warns, the foam “disappears fast.”)
The Silverfox Fizz (HK$140), meanwhile, is a take on the New Orleans classic the Ramos Gin Fizz, and contains raicilla — a cousin of mezcal and tequila — and coconut cream. In an interesting twist, the small-batch raicilla that ThirtySix uses is naturally fermented in a facility next to a cheese factory, and the drink does indeed seem to have a dairy-esque tang, not unlike marscapone.
It’s impossible to say whether this is result of the wild bacteria that ferment the cheese making their way into the raicilla, or of a kind of barroom placebo effect that comes merely from knowing about the cheese factory in the first place (three tasters agreed there was something dairy-like going on in there!), but the drink is sweet and smooth, like a piña colada with class.
But, at its heart, ThirtySix is about the highballs, which brings us back to our original question: if the highball is the paragon of simplicity, why spend so much effort (and, let’s face it, money) on them?
Well, if nothing else, ThirtySix’s elaborate highball rituals do make for entertaining theater, and maybe the care put into the drinks really does encourage a Zen-like appreciation of perfection in simplicity.
The irony of the whole situation isn’t lost on Nguyen, who acknowledges he’s not necessarily setting out to do a better highball, just to “do it differently.” To him, the difference between one of ThirtySix’s elaborately prepared highballs, and your average slug of scotch topped off with Schweppes, is sort of like the difference between instant noodles and expertly made ramen.
But, he added, “both taste good, don’t get me wrong.”
Address: 2/F, 23 Hollywood Road, Central, Hong Kong
Phone: +852 2336 4498 / +852 2336 1411
Opening hours: Mon. to Thurs., 5pm to 1am; Fri. to Sat., 5pm to 2am; Closed Sun.