Life & Leisure

South Korea finally gets a taste of its first single malt whiskey

By Andrés Sánchez Braun

Namyangju, South Korea, Nov 26 (EFE).- Just 40 minutes from bustling downtown Seoul, in the mountains that frame the village of Nokchon, South Korea’s first single malt whiskey is distilled.

It is a charged nectar of spicy notes that its makers hope will storm the global market, starting with female palates.

Although South Korea is known for the contemporary products it exports, from audiovisual content to cosmetics, whiskey is not counted among them. In the alcoholic beverages field, the country is better known for its national drink, soju, which accounts for a third of what South Koreans spend on alcohol each year.

Taking note of the success of neighbors Japan and Taiwan with their single malt whiskeys, and with the challenge of conquering a domestic market in which soju is the undisputed master, in 2017 Bryan Do embarked on the adventure of creating the first Korean single malt.

“This just felt like a natural leap” in terms of making beverages, Do tells Efe.

Four years earlier, he founded the Hand & Malt microbrewery, one of the country’s pioneers of the sector and which was sold in 2018 to Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest multinational beer group.

A year before finishing that operation, he was already planning on making that leap from fermentation to distillation when he met Scottish master distiller Andrew Shand who, after receiving a plane ticket from Do, was captivated by the country.

This resulted in the creation of Three Societies distillery, named after the birthplaces of its three founding partners: Scotland, South Korea and the United States, where Do was born.

Working in their favor is a rise in local interest in whiskey (imports to South Korea grew by 73 percent year-on-year to October, according to customs data) and on the international scene, a growing interest in South Korea.

“We look forward to the Hallyu (Korean) Wave helping bring more eyes towards our whiskey,” says Do as he opens one of the barrels maturing in his cellars, overlooking a peaceful valley about 25 kilometers from Seoul.

The elixir he extracts from the barrel is what Three Societies is already beginning to market, albeit only to a limited extent: Ki-One whiskey (which sounds like “kiwon,” which in Korean can mean “origin” or “genesis” and also “hope”), aged for a year and a half.

“This not the finished flagship product at all,” he says, hoping to have it on the market by 2023, “just our first aged drinks – which obviously have been aged for a shorter period – so that people can see how whiskey can age in Korea.”

Do considers the climate of the peninsula ideal for the aging process due to the harsh winters, which easily reach 20 degrees Celsius below zero in the Namyangju mountains, combined with oppressive summers, when the thermometer exceeds 30C and humidity reaches 70 percent.

“This makes the casks contract a lot when the cold season starts, and to expand during the summer, accelerating maturation. Because of this, in over a year you can achieve the kind of aging you achieve in five in the (Scottish) Highlands,” adds Do.

Interest in the first limited batch of Ki-One launched in September – just over 1,500 bottles that have all been sold in South Korea, Japan, Singapore and the US – points to a promising future and is also driven by the accent that has been placed on the “Koreanness” of the product.

Do realized that in being “the ‘first single malt of Korea,’ we had to find a distinctive taste that represented the country” and so it was decided that the finishing notes would be reminiscent of the spicy characteristics of South Korean food, which is achieved with a slightly longer aging process.

Although Ki-One is made with malt barley imported from Scotland and is aged in virgin oak, bourbon and sherry casks, its creators are also experimenting with different formulas to make special editions that are even more “Korean.”

These recipes involve 100 percent native spring water, aging in barrels that have housed wild Korean blackberry wine, or directly introducing chillies.

But above all, the distillery seeks to appeal to a younger group compared to the traditional whiskey drinker and, especially, to women, at least in South Korea, where Do detected back in 2012 when he opened a small brewery in Seoul that they are the most open group when it comes to new culinary experiences.

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