Thursday, March 9, 2017


Or how I learned to stop worrying and love Topo Chico

What Do Birds Eat?  

I’m intoxicated, waiting for lunch with the Jungle Bird at a lovely restaurant in Los Angeles. I’m honestly too jacked up for even the grocery store, and she’s introducing me to the director of operations or the GM, god help me. I’m talking with a mouthful of peanut butter, and moving underwater. When I’m like this, I just order drinks until everything starts making sense.
Sparkling rose.
A Topo Chico.

Los Angeles exists in this weird borderland between Topo Chico and Mountain Valley Spring water- there isn’t a clear favorite. I take a big sip of warm, fruity coffee and I feel my senses come back to me. A sip of sparkling rose, and I’m back in the game. She’s been talking, and I’ve been fading in and out. However we come to the topic that brings me back to sobriety: “I don’t like Mountain Valley Spring Water.” She says it matter-of-factly, I recoil in mock terror, she continues, “It’s barely even carbonated! Why bother?”

I say, “I have both of them in my fridge, b.” I’m a house divided, with Topo and Mountain Valley in my icebox. I choose my next words carefully, just in case anybody is watching my life unfold like a reality TV show, “They satisfy you in different ways.” I do a buffalo smile.

She’s not impressed. “I need a mineral water with… Savage carbonation.” For the first time with this whole highball mess, I feel like I’m not crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing with cocktails, and I rely on the opinions of people I trust.

She can read my mind maybe, and adds, “I don’t like Toki either. SORRY.” She said what she needed to say about Topo. But Toki is delicious.

Our food is arriving now, and when you’re bent, good food looks like sustenance from heaven. A brothy thing, Potato chips that are impossibly thin and crunchy. A cold, fluffy salad in some vinaigrette. Perfectly seasoned fish. Fried cubes of soft tofu and chilies. We tuck into it, and it’s just the best. Sunlight on my face, good company, and a whole room full of people revolving around just us. A good meal makes you feel like the center of the universe.

I take a big swig of Topo Chico, and I gaze upon this meticulously designed restaurant on a sloping hill of Los Angeles. I resolve to grow a fucking spine about Topo Chico, about highballs, and The Fox. She drops me off at the airport with a hug, and I check a backpack with half a case of burgundy and an unloaded flare gun onto my flight. 

Anvil’s Highball 

I can’t remember the exact moment I had my first Toki Highball, but it was definitely at Anvil. As far as I know, Anvil was the first place to serve Toki Highballs in Houston. Surely someone beat them to it, but nobody does it better than Anvil even to this day.

Bobby made sure to document the process of him, Peter, and Terry trying over a dozen sparkling waters at different ratios to find the perfect water. They settled on Mountain Valley Spring water. Mountain valley spring water has high alkalinity, and has moderate carbonation with tiny bubbles. They tell me this water is chemically similar to the water they use to make Japanese whisky, and similar in texture to the highballs they drank in Japan.

Toki is a blended Japanese whisky from Suntory. The whisky is kept in the freezer, as is the glass. You pour frozen whisky into a frozen glass, and you add cold Mountain Valley spring water. It’s got two fucking ingredients, and it is one of the slickest, most ethereally refreshing beverages I’ve ever tasted.

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s not some boring Collins glass- it’s a Japanese cut glass Highball that is nearly indestructible, and gleams like a gem when filled with whisky and soda. It’s either covered in frost, right out of the freezer; or as it comes up in temperature it glistens with moisture. The condensation paired with the sight of tiny bubbles floating up through the drink make it quite the spectacle.

Just to make sure you’re overwhelmed with the attention to detail, the drink is placed on a coaster with a Japanese flag stamped onto it. Literally the only thing that isn’t flawless about Anvil’s Toki highball is the Japanese flag is rarely centered on the coaster. For what it’s worth, Tongue Cut Sparrow’s logo is usually centered.

They popularized a beverage in Houston that taps into our childhood desire for popsicles, and our grownup desire to be drunk. The entire presentation is so confident it makes you feel like a secret agent, turning up before a high-stakes poker game in Monaco.

There is no “But…” to this. Anvil (and now Tongue Cut Sparrow) has the best Japanese Highball I’ve ever tasted. 

A Pale Imitation 

I began to ask, what would happen if one made Toki highballs with Topo Chico? Terry’s reaction was immediate, “Topo Chico tastes like saltwater. The carbonation is so high it almost hurts my mouth when I drink it.”  He’d harbored a dislike for Topo this whole time, and their highball research only drove him further away from it. Terry describes drinking Topo Chico like having acid thrown in one’s face, and this makes me like it more. It makes me feel tough. I’m not tough, but it makes me feel that way.

The trouble started when people began asking us for Toki Highballs at Public Services. Without a freezer, without a gorgeous glass to put it in, it was but a shadow of the glorious totem of refreshment Anvil was slinging. I would chill a glass and the jigger with ice water, but it wasn’t even close. We used Topo Chico.

While we were initially super excited for an inexpensive Japanese Whiskey, Sean fell out of love with Toki fast. “It tastes like nothing. It’s the Bud Light of Japanese Whisky.” Furthermore, it’s made exclusively for the American market, whatever that implies. A special, heavily diluted new blend to take our focus off of Hibiki, or so it seemed to a cynic.

I wrote Sean’s complaints off as being a hater. Sean does enjoy bombastic flavors, and it seemed to me that he wasn’t a highball person.

I started asking chef, “What if we got a freezer? We could finally store big cubes, and maybe even do highballs.”

Chef is pretty hostile to spending money with an ambiguous ROI. “No way dude. How many people are asking for Japanese highballs at the bar. One or two a week?” It was true; we weren’t a destination for highballs. However people ordered them and we made them to the best of our ability. They were just sort of cold. They were in a standard glass.

Peter would come in and order highballs, but would lament the use of Topo Chico in a Nikka Highball. “It’s just not the same as Mountain Valley.” Peter isn’t a mean person; in fact he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He just doesn’t have any reservations saying if he thinks something is being done incorrectly. I imagine if we were on bad terms he wouldn’t have said anything at all. I will admit to you now though, that these comments from everyone did add up, and they got under my skin. Not because I have any problems hearing that I’m wrong, but I really just wanted a highball we could be proud of.

It’s really hard to drink a bunch of Toki highballs, to love the drink, and not have a highball in your own bar. 

Bobby Speaks Out 

What really kicked me in the balls though, was when Bobby spoke out about Topo Chico in Highballs. We’d been making our dumpy highballs with guilt in our hearts, and all of a sudden, Bobby goes on facebook and confirms my greatest fears:

You should not use Topo Chico for Toki highballs.

Topo Chico is a great soda for cocktails,

but it overwhelms the delicate flavor of Toki.

There was room for ambiguity before, but now the people that brought the magnificent Toki highball to life had confirmed: Topo Chico doesn’t make good Toki highballs. Run through the Justin Vann hyperbole translator, it sounded like this to me:

You have no idea what you’re doing.

You are bad at making cocktails.

Stick to wine.

I fantasized about pouring all our Toki down the drain. About lighting myself of fire in the street with Nikka From the Barrel. I know I’m spending a lot of time talking about how I didn’t take any of this personally, and I really truly didn’t. But yes, it sucked to hear all the authorities on the subject say that we were doing it wrong.

The worst part about Bobby’s statement on the matter is that he was right. A side-by-side tasting of two Toki Highballs of the same ratio and temperature with the different waters confirms the following:

1. Mountain Valley Spring Water makes Toki taste like spun gold, like early morning sunshine melting fresh snow in front of your dojo as you welcome your students to class.

2. Topo Chico makes Toki taste like Bud Light at a TGI Friday’s where you’re getting broken up with, and the couple in the next booth is making out in front of their kids.

The Pepsi challenge, like blind tasting, is the ultimate equalizer. Sean wasn’t crazy for disliking Toki Highballs as we made them after all. I felt guilty for doubting him, and then suddenly agreeing when Bobby Heugel concurred. 

The Fox Chooses 

One morning the Fox was rooting around in my fridge. I watched her pause to decide between the two waters. Three seconds stretched an eternity before she reached for the Mountain Valley instead of Topo Chico. She smiles and says, “They satisfy you in different ways.”

She twisted the cap off with a deafening crack. We’re having a conversation, I’m talking but I can’t hear her over the ringing in my ears. Like a grenade went off. I still can’t hear properly to this day. It meant nothing, but then why was my heart pounding?

I will tell myself that this was not an analogy for our relationship, which was built on a house of cards in a hurricane. This was just a lady getting a sparkling water out of my fridge. But when you’re a foreign correspondent embedded in the war zone of your own life, you notice these things. I wrote it on my hand that day, in the car. This is the split second that I did indeed take it personally. 

I’m a docent at the art exhibit of my own life, that’s what writing about yourself is like. I arranged the space, I placed the artifacts where I want to, and I decide how close you can get to them before I quietly whisper that you need to step back. It feels more than a little bit narcissistic, but I’m willing to sacrifice any image of modesty for the chance to tart up my past through a dramatic lens.

My love life and my work life are separated by a nothing more than one of those Japanese paper walls, if that. A psychologist could open our wine list and say, “Nineteen Madeiras by the glass? This is a cry for help.” You deserve to know that I regularly make decisions about our menu for all kinds of weird, emotional reasons. I am comfortable admitting to you that I am a weird, emotional person. 

Chef’s Present 

I had all but forgotten about the idea of ever having highballs at our bar. Then, a few months ago, chef calls me the Saturday morning I was supposed to join him at the Joe Presswood auction. “WAKE UP WAKE UP IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY!” Through the haze of a hangover I’m barely able to converse. But I did hear him say “freezer”. He repeats it, “I bought you a stupid freezer for the stupid bar.”

“Now you can make your stupid highballs.”

That Sunday, Chef and Peter loaded the freezer into our elevator. Sean was doing a Sean thing that evening- installing a beautiful tile floor in our mop closet- a floor that no mop closet could possibly deserve. I tucked the freezer into the far corner of the backbar and turned it on with shaking hands. I stocked a bunch of rocks glasses, and a few bottles that made sense: Nikka Coffey Grain, Willet 3 year Rye, and Paul Beau VS Cognac.

Stephanie and I went to eat dinner, and when we came back to the bar to meet Womack, the contents of the freezer were resting at 0 degrees Farenheit.

We got drunk. The highballs were delicious. And so cold.

The next day, everyone is joking about the freezer. “When is the Mountain Valley coming in, Jvann?” I don’t think we ever had to say it out loud. The Mountain Valley was never entering the building. We were going to build our highball in the opposite direction as the one that inspired us: we weren’t looking for a water to flatter Toki, we were looking for a spirit to flatter Topo Chico.

It was imperative that we didn’t copy Anvil. With something that simple, marketplace differentiation is important. But even if we loved Mountain Valley Spring water and identified with it emotionally, it just wouldn’t have been right.

As far as I’m concerned they own it. I have Toki in my freezer at home, but there’s no denying it- the drink tastes better when you’re sinking into one of the chesterfield couches at Tongue Cut Sparrow. That drink is a story of their travels, so too is the bar. I'd feel like we stole a picture off the wall of someone’s house and hung it in our own if we replicated their Toki Highball.

Obviously though, I was comfortable stealing some of the technology that makes it work. 

Research and Development 

We immediately began freezing all kinds of stuff to try with Topo. For every spirit that worked, there were four that didn’t. These are the highlights.

American Whiskey: This seems too easy, but there are a lot of American Whiskies that don’t taste great this way. We’re currently using Willet 3 year rye and Weller Antique. These will change over time.

Japanese Whisky: While Toki doesn’t do great with Topo Chico, Nikka Coffey whiskies are pretty great. Topo seems to accentuate chocolate flavors in these whiskies. Perhaps every Japanese whisky highball would be better off with Mountain Valley. Either way, I would argue these are the two most suited to work with Topo. 

Eau de Vie: We got lucky, and the first one we tried was a hit. Clear Creek Pear Brandy retains its crystalline magic pear flavor in Topo, and takes on a slight haze that looks really cool. Every other Eau de Vie has been a flop.

Rum: Plantation Pineapple Rum will be in the freezer permanently, it tastes like cream soda with Topo.

Cognac: Paul Beau VS makes a great highball. Beyond it’s flavors, I’m so pleased to serve it since I remembered reading about “Fine a l’Eau” in the works of Hemingway and other great literary alcoholics.

Absinthe: I recommend doing this with zero sarcasm. Think about it: absinthe needs to be chilled and heavily diluted. Highballs are super cold and contain a bunch of water. They just make sense together.

Green Chartreuse: Everyone went through a brief period of drinking chartreuse straight and feeling cool about it. This brought an old flame back to life. Frozen Chartreuse in a highball will make you drunk very fast. 

The Glass 

We had the freezer, and we had the water/booze combos we liked. The last piece of the puzzle was a compelling highball glass. Anvil uses a Japanese glass, and like I said, it’s fucking gorgeous. The glass is more than a little bit of what makes the highball great.

We had to find a glass that wasn’t a standardized Collins or highball. Japanese highball glasses were an option. An expensive option that looks like copying Anvil. We thought about it.

Then I remembered those rocks glasses I drank from at the Ace Hotel in New Orleans. It was clearly an inexpensive glass, but its ridges were hypnotic. I stared at it for 20 minutes as I killed a Campari and Soda in the lobby bar. I drunkenly kicked it across the floor on accident. I drank ice-cold water out of it the next morning, and though I was near death, the glass brought me a weird comfort. Nice glassware will make even water seem luxurious. I barfed the same water up immediately and it was still very cold on the way back out. Chef and Stephanie took me to New Orleans for my birthday. We made our time there count.

The glass was a Duralex Manhattan Highball. It costs 4 bucks. This was to be our highball glass. It’s twice as thick as the Japanese highball glasses and I reason this will help it hold temperature longer. I don’t know shit or fuck about thermodynamics; this is just a guess. I do a lot of guessing when it comes to science.

At Blacksmith, I’m telling the GM Anderson about how we’re getting highball glasses. I show her a picture, and she recognizes it instantly, “Ah, Duralex Manhattan eh? Did you get those from the Ace?” Anderson used them in New Orleans too.

“You know what people are calling this drink up in the pacific northwest? A Texas Highball. That’s what they call a frozen whisky and a frozen glass with sparkling water. It has to be because of Anvil.” 

We fuckin stole it 

Christine Nguyen and John Ridgeway are making us look quite modest, highball wise. She famously ordered a Rochelt Elderberry highball at Tongue Cut Sparrow. Late at night I’m getting sent pictures of Jelínek Slivovitz and Vichy Catalan highballs. A liter of Vichy Catalan contains 40% of your daily-recommended intake of salt. I drank that water all over San Sebastian, pickling myself. One day I will try to trick Terry into drinking it.

Ben and Heidi from Oberlin and Birch were visiting chef. We went to Anvil first, and had some highballs. Then we went to public services, and had some more. By then Ben was convinced, “I’m totally taking Highballs back to Rhode Island.” I like the idea of the concept spreading, but I feel weird about it. When he got back home, I get the text, “How do I make a highball?!” In my head I’m thinking, I don’t know the rules man, We fuckin’ stole it. 

“Just make sure you balance the flavor of the water with the flavors of the spirit. Try different amounts of water too.” Ben’s using Lurisia up there.

Alex Negranza kegged Toki highballs for Iron Somm. I think he carbonated Fiji water for that. When I admitted to him that I was going to start doing highballs, he told me something very Alex Negranza of him: that I could add a custom mineral blend to distilled water to design and keg my own mineral water. “You can dial it in however you want!” If it made for a better flavor or a fun garnish, Alex would manipulate the very fabric of space and time if he had to. I respect this. 

These combinations of water & spirit thrill me in the same way pairing food and wine does. Just using the booze and the presentation with little cultural context is kinda the story of my life. This is how you wound up with Swiss cider and German riesling in your local Sichuan restaurant. God help you if one day I gain control of a restaurant pairing menu with a full liquor license, because highballs work with food. 

I do not approve of Highballs that contain more than two ingredients. Spirit/liqueur/water is just too much for me. Fortunately, almost everything in this universe can exist without my approval. See also: dessert pizza, malort, and durian.  


Anvil’s Japanese Highball certainly inspired ours, but don’t call ours Japanese. Calling it a Texas Highball helps me picture a dramatic East / West showdown. A bloody melee in the streets of Houston between Samurais and Cowboys. Our highball isn’t exactly elegant, but it is memorable. This is a highball that speaks only in shouts, that drinks straight from the bottle. That turns the television off with a pistol. It is savagely carbonated, and cold as the icy fingers of death, which it does not fear.

But there is no confrontation to be had. We don’t have an adversarial relationship with the Anvil & Tongue Cut Sparrow folks, as I’m regularly asking them for advice on all kinds of things. The only thing I can really trade them is information on fortified wine. Thank god I can bring something to the table.

It is funny to me that the cocktail that captured my imagination the most as a fledgling bar owner is a whisky and soda. We will never shake a cocktail at Public Services if we can help it (we’ve never used shaker tins in 2.5 years so it’s looking good). Our goal is to serve alcohol as close to straight as possible. I’d tell you we’re a wine bar, not a cocktail bar; but my weekend product mix report might say otherwise. Either way, this presentation of a highball is ideal for our mission. It is a clever new gadget for our utility belt.

Now that I’ve digested and moved on from my insecurity over the whole thing, I simply have to thank Anvil for the idea and get on with my life. We didn’t invent a single cocktail on our menu. None of them are original. The highball is no exception to that. We didn’t invent sherry either, no matter what anyone tells you.

The lesson, if I have to offer one, is that there are no rules with highballs. Shit, there are barely rules in life. As long as you’re making people happy with the product that’s all that matters. Make your own highballs. Taste it against some others.

All I can say about them is that they satisfy you in different ways.