10 ways to drink Japanese whisky: #8, Ice Ball

As Japanese whisky makers enjoy their time in the worldwide spotlight, more and more people are waking up to the reality that Japanese consumers may also know a thing or two about the ways to drink Japanese whisky. Of course there’s the izakaya staple whisky highball, but if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll discover there are plenty more interesting ways that Japan drinks their country’s whisky.

A common theme you’ll find about all these choices: one way or another, you add water to the whisky! Japan generally has no hang-ups about putting water in whisky. If you want to drink Japanese whisky like a local, I suggest you give these a try.

In this 10-part series, we dive into each different serving style.

#8 you already know and probably love. The ice ball was invented over 40 years ago!

Ice Ball

The ice ball has become a trademark of Japanese bartending. Being able to carve ice blocks and chip them into attractive and proportioned ice spheres is a rite of passage for many a bartender in Ginza and the rest of Japan. Ice ball creation is now a craft on its own, where ice deserves as much attention as the drink itself. At most higher end bars in Tokyo, you won’t need to make any kind of special request — just ask for your whisky on the rocks and you’ll get an ice ball by default.

There are actually two schools of thought when it comes to the ice ball. A smooth ice ball will have less surface area directly exposed to the whisky. Thus it melts more slowly, enabling you to enjoy your whisky less watered down, more slowly. On the other hand, a hand-carved ice ball will have bumps and grooves, giving it more surface area exposed to whisky, melting faster, enabling it to cool the drink much more quickly.

Recreating the ice ball at home unfortunately isn’t easy. Unless you’re a professional bartender, it may be difficult to procure ice blocks large enough where you live. Even here in Tokyo, while many ice vendors are perfectly fine selling ice blocks to consumers, it can be quite expensive and a logistical nightmare to use them. That’s not to mention the labor, difficulty, and danger — ice picks are sharp! Some bars even use professional-grade ice presses to make their ice balls.

So what are the alternatives? You can try and rig something up yourself of course. Camper English has already spent an awful lot of time experimenting with this. The other choice is to purchase some kind of consumer-friendly ice ball maker. Ice molds like this one do exist but I’ve found the results to be pretty crappy! Since they don’t take advantage of directional freezing, you’re left with cloudy ice balls with cracks and air bubbles.

Luckily, here in Japan there’s a consumer-level ice ball maker called the Hyosaku using a patented design that takes advantage of directional freezing. While it’s not a replacement for a proper hand-carved ice ball, it does make very clear and smooth ice balls and it easily fits in your freezer. I’ve never seen it for sale outside of Japan though! If you’re visiting, it could be a good souvenir to seek out — sold at Tokyu Hands!

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