Opinion: Why South Korea is the next destination whisky lovers should visit

Opinion: Why South Korea is the next destination whisky lovers should visit

A trip to the South Korean capital Seoul offers a glimpse of an exciting up-and-coming scene for retailers, bars, and producers

In the basement of the ‘Imported Branded Goods Arcade’ in Namdaemun market, a sprawling traditional wholesale market in central Seoul, tightly packed stalls are piled high with every kind of goods imaginable. Amidst this maze, I find a vendor with at least 600 bottles of rare and collectable whisky. Several similar stalls are dotted about nearby. The shelves groan under row upon row of Springbank, GlenDronach, GlenAllachie, Balvenie, and Macallan bottles.

 

Until just over a decade ago, when official retailers finally began stocking wider ranges of quality whiskies in more locations, ‘secondary’ markets like this one (selling grey import stock brought into the country by individuals returning from trips abroad) were some of the only places Koreans could come to source high-end foreign liquor, which would often be taken back to provincial towns to be sold locally. Until then, it was only really the very big brands and the peculiar <40% ABV ‘Scottish spirit drinks’ that were widely available, the latter mostly in the infamous ‘business clubs’.

 

However, this is really a glimpse of the previous era of whisky in Korea and represents only a tiny percentage of the country’s contemporary whisky market. Nowadays, a wide variety of brands are officially imported and available from Korean retailers – bricks-and-mortar specialist drinks shops such as Star Bottle, department stores, and ‘big box’ stores like Costco – and demand for allocated and rare whisky far outstrips supply, with long lines of people queuing overnight in the hope of picking up limited releases.

 

Such is the level of whisky fervour that, in the 10 days I’ve been in the country, there are three large-scale whisky pop-ups happening in the capital. Wild Turkey’s Jimmy and Eddie Russell, former Diageo marketing director-turned-independent bottler Mike Collings, and Irish Distillers master blender emeritus Billy Leighton are all in town, with an LVMH brand team arriving the day I leave. And that’s just what I hear on the grapevine. Even my unassuming hotel has a poster in its lobby advertising a whisky tasting, and I stumble across three whisky bars within 100 yards of its front door, one replete with a life-size Johnnie Walker ‘striding man’ statue. Banners advertising promotions on whisky highballs appear outside Korean BBQ restaurants. My host, Whisky Live Korea organiser Jackey Yoo, oversees an online whisky community of 100,000 members, all eager for information and tip-offs about upcoming releases.

 

And this is all before we begin to consider Korea’s small but growing domestic whisky scene. Currently, Three Societies and Kimchangsoo, both close to Seoul, are the only two active single malt distilleries, but I hear that at least two more are being built, and at least one soju producer (Hwayo) is making ‘single rice whisky’. Founded by craft beer entrepreneur Bryan Do, Three Societies makes around 300,000 lpa per annum — its fruity and spicy make flowing from stills under the watchful eye of Scottish veteran distiller Andrew Shand. Kimchangsoo is a fully manual micro-distillery run by a founder of the same name, whose dream of making whisky has been enabled through grassroots support. Both are making laudable spirits I suspect will become even more impressive in time.

 

Whisky holds a revered status here. There are bars offering large numbers of historic bottles dating back decades, so visitors can compare and contrast old drams with the new. Korea is not just a hotbed of contemporary whisky fandom, but, like its neighbour Japan, is something of a living archive of Scotch whisky, where bottles that are distant memories in Scotland can be found open on back bars or available to buy. Online whisky retailing is not permitted, but a change to the rules during the pandemic saw the advent of ‘order online, pick-up in person’ (smart order) services, like Daily Shot. Since 2020, this tech start-up has grown exponentially, claiming 1 million active users and over 1,000 pick-up locations, with much of its business focused on whisky. This is just one Korean business that has had its fortune secured by the present whisky boom, but I suspect it won’t be the last. 

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