Seoul Drinking Dispatch: Journey Through a Fledgling Cocktail Scene

A cocktail next to mini palm trees.
At Alice, an "Alice in Wonderland" themed speakeasy in Seoul, the Lost in Wonderland is a serving of whimsy. Photo courtesy of Alice.

South Korea is coming on strong in the craft cocktail scene with a small, yet top-notch libations culture emerging in its capital, Seoul. On a recent visit to see my wife’s family, we immersed ourselves in the vibrant city’s liquid offerings that have attracted the notice and acclaim of the international drinks community. The fact that they compare favorably with their counterparts in New York, London and Tokyo is testament to the devotion, resourcefulness and skills of this nascent cocktail community, especially in the light of overcoming cultural and practical challenges.

A drinking culture, not (yet) a cocktail culture

Korean society is very hierarchical, with deference to elders and higher-ups unquestioned. Combined with marathon work hours and a culture of politeness over frankness, it is not surprising that stress in Korea is off the charts. One way to vent this pressure communally is via alcohol and it is consumed with vigor. The most popular variety is soju, a vodka-like tipple that averages around 25% ABV.

It is usually thrown back as chilled shots. Domestic Korean beer is also widely enjoyed. When Koreans mix drinks, it is often somaek, which is soju and beer combined. Makgeolli, a traditional unfiltered rice wine beloved by the elderly and farmers, is now seeing a comeback among the young and hip. Scotch whiskies, both blends and now single malts, are de rigueur as prestigious business gifts and deal closers.

Regardless of the kind of alcohol, the way it is consumed in Korea is sacrosanct. Drinkers imbibe together as a group and pour for their friends, colleagues or family members, never for themselves. Korea’s corporate world has embraced this tradition with frequent mandatory “team-building” drinking bouts across multiple destinations, from beer bars to dance clubs to karaoke (noraebang), all on a Tuesday night.

Cocktails like the Gin & Tonic and Mojito are well-known, and flair bartending, which peaked following Tom Cruise’s “Cocktail,” still enjoys currency. Into this hazy, crazy fray, a band of intrepid craft cocktail emissaries has emerged, both homegrown and expat, whose elevated drinkeries offer a glimpse at South Korea’s drinks potential.

A cocktail garnished with cotton candy and a lemon peel that says "Alice." At Alice, cocktails served around the theme of Alice in Wonderland are exceedingly delightful. The Cheshire’s Tail, with its pipe-shaped, glass serving vessel encased in white cotton candy, is a mix of gins infused with lime, cardamom and raspberry, with sugar and malic acid balancing it out. Photo courtesy of Alice.

If "Alice in Wonderland" took place in Korea

Spirituous fans of “Alice in Wonderland” will delight in Alice, a phantasmagorical speakeasy in fashionable Gangnam. The only street-level hint of its existence is a small plaque bearing a white rabbit. Down some stairs (and the proverbial rabbit hole) and through a flower shop, tipplers emerge into a lush, wood paneled space suggesting an English mansion with overstuffed leather seats at the bar.

It is the brainchild of owner/bartender Terry Kim, who was schooled in Seoul’s elite hotels. Bartenders Taeeun Yoon and Albert Lee hold court and stir up cocktails that tell little stories with over-the-top presentations. Consider Cheshire’s Tail, with its pipe-shaped, glass serving vessel encased in white cotton candy, suggesting a feline extremity. Lurking within is a mix of gins infused with lime, cardamom and raspberry, with sugar and malic acid balancing it out.

Inspired by the TV series “Lost,” The Lost in Wonderland marries shrimp-infused Absolut Elyx, Carpano Dry Vermouth, lemongrass, spearmint and black pepper. It is served on a sand-covered plate with a mini palm tree and “S.O.S.” spelled out. “Our guests are split pretty evenly between native Koreans and foreigners. They all come here to be immersed in a fantasy world that entertains and delights,” says Yoon.

A cocktail served in a large conch shell. At Le Chamber, just down the road from Alice, the Talisker Storm Raindrops incorporates doenjang, a fermented soybean paste often used in comforting stews, to impart a subtle umami note. Photo courtesy of Le Chamber.

When a book is not just a book

Down the road from Alice, another subterranean lair awaits, Le Chamber. At the foot of the stairs, guests encounter a tiny lounge area with a stately bookcase. By pressing on a particular book, the case slides open to reveal a majestic room with elaborate chandeliers and tie-and-vest clad barmen. Le Chamber is the creation of J.J. Lim, Louis Eom and Sung Min Park, all Diageo World Class alums.

“In Korea, friends serve each other soju and beer, whereas with cocktails, it is more of a one-on-one between the guest and bartender. It entails a subtle cultural shift,” says Lim. In addition, foreign products must divulge their ingredients to the Korean health department for approval to be imported. Many companies are quite secretive and do not get the green light.

“Ginger ale and ginger beer don’t exist here and we are too small of a market for the multinationals. As such, we make our own from scratch,” says Park. Cocktails include spins on classics, like Louis’s Negroni, which is aged in American casks for three to four weeks and a Vesper Martini made with a housemade version of Lillet Blanc.

Playing on the Korean pantry, the Talisker Storm Raindrops incorporates doenjang, a fermented soybean paste often used in comforting stews, to impart a subtle umami note. Of particular note and worthy of emulation, the menu lists the ABV of each and every cocktail.

A love letter to history’s greatest bon vivant, Charles H. Baker

Nestled deep within the posh Four Seasons Hotel Seoul in ritzy Jongno, behind an unmarked door, lies Charles H, a posh basement bar that salutes the “patron saint of good living,” Charles H. Baker.

Among its accolades, the bar was a top four finalist for a Best New International Cocktail Bar Spirited Award at 2016 Tales of the Cocktail. Head bartender Chris Lowder, formerly of New York’s NoMad Hotel, Amor y Amargo and Booker and Dax, has brought to life the exuberant writer’s libations culled from his well-oiled world travels. “I’ve always been a Baker fan, but many of the recipes in ‘The Gentlemen’s Companion’ read kind of crazy and took a lot of work to get just right. I also wanted to incorporate Korean ingredients, where possible,” says Lowder. Must-have tipples suavely prepared by white jacket-clad bartenders include a flight of Manhattans that shows its evolution from the 1870s to 2002.

The Sherry Hurricane, the first-ever sherry-based cocktail in Korea, unites the fortified wine with passion fruit, lemon, Korean honey, Absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters. The Manila Polo Club conjoins milk-washed white rum, mango, spiced honey, lemon, lime, egg white and Absinthe. Commenting on the expanding mixological palette in Seoul, Lowder notes, “When I arrived here a year and half ago, we had access to only three vermouths. Today, after a lot of hustling, we now stock more than a dozen.”

A neighborhood bar with high-flying ambitions

When owner Kyeong Sup Eom opened d.still in 2010, his intention was to create a bar where neighbors would feel comfortable strolling in wearing their sweatpants, an unheard of notion in dress-to-the-nines Korea. An accountant by training, he gave his bartenders complete free rein to create the drinks program, which resulted in one of Seoul’s first craft cocktail bars.

The unmarked bar is simple, almost austere in design and its focus is on what is in the glass. Don’t be fooled by the thoughtful menu of classic and creative cocktails, which bartender Kahee Shin brushes off with a brusque wave. “Our approach is to ask our guests what their favorite spirits and drinks are and we take it from there.”

A former computer programmer at Samsung, Shin loved to drink and heard that bartenders could drink for free as a perk, so she studied flair bartending and switched careers. Once she began working at d.still, she discovered craft cocktails and taught herself the classics, which often meant going to the source to get beyond received wisdom.

“When I wanted to learn about the Ramos Gin Fizz, I went to New Orleans and saw they are shaken for 3 minutes, not the 20 described in some old cocktail books. Moreover, they pre-batch their ingredients and do what it takes to make things work.” Of particular joy to behold is Shin’s uncannily silent stirring technique, honed over many hours of practicing the motion in an empty mixing glass.

The takeaway

While Seoul’s craft cocktail scene is still in its infancy and limited to pockets of excellence across the city, it is off to a robust start. With a deep respect for the cocktail canon, a creative embrace of ingredients, flavor combinations and presentations, combined with meticulous, courtly execution, the sky’s the limit for the capital city’s libations future.

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