Serving a cocktail at cocktail bar Alice in Seoul. Credit: Virginia Miller
In South Korea’s
sprawling capital Seoul, the cocktail renaissance may be behind Asian bar hotspots such as Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore, but it is fast catching up. Alongside a ton of Japanese-style whisky bars stocked with vintage whiskies and jacketed bar staff, there are also quirky, hip, sustainable bars, and places showcasing Korean ingredients like omija berry or unsung Korean spirits such as geumsan insamju, a rice-malt liquor packed with ginseng. You’ll find listening bars serving only whiskies, like Soulville Listening Bar, alongside newcomers like Four Seasons’ Oul, with all-Korean spirits and ingredient cocktails. In addition to these, here are nine of Seoul’s very best bars.
Bar Cham"s Chungju Gimbap cocktail. Credit: Virginia MillerBar Cham34 Jahamun-ro 7-gil, Tongin-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Charting at no. 28 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2022, Bar Cham is set inside a hanok, or traditional Korean house, serving some of the most creative and intricately balanced cocktails in Seoul. Owner Lim Byung-jin and team focus heavily on Korean spirits, though like many a great Seoul bar, whisky bottles abound. Soju and makgeolli feature in Chungju Gimbap, a cocktail where both spirits mingle with wasabi shrub, cucumber, lemon and sesame oil in green-nutty glory. Or Goodbye Sadness, a peanut butter-washed cachaça and hazelnut liqueur cocktail brightened by lime and passionfruit. Meanwhile, Scotland meets Korea in Hamyang, where ghee butter-washed damsol (a Korean rice spirit), is mixed with Korean apple brandy, lemon, ginger, and an Islay whisky for a peaty, spicy sipper. Cham means “oak,” and the oak-lined space is a comfortable, relaxed backdrop for exquisite cocktails.
Zest bar"s seasonal house-distilled spirits. Credit: Virginia MillerZestB1 26 KR 55 Dosan-daero 55-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Hip, sleek and minimalist, there are no bottles on display at Zest, which is centered around experimental cocktails and environmental values of minimal waste. Run by founder Demie Kim with Sean Woo, Jisu Park and Noah Kwon, the bar’s centrepiece is a cocktail prep lab where local ingredients shine and waste-free techniques such as in-house carbonation are practised. The bar pours a range of Scotch whiskies and showcases them in cocktails, such as a wintery mix of Naked Malt blended malt Scotch whisky, tangerines from Jeju, and persimmon three ways: kombu-fermented, compote, and dried. Culinary influences are clear in a Caprese cocktail of distilled tomato, bianco vermouth, fino sherry, basil and bergamot.
Pet Nat & Mint cocktail at Bar Soko. Credit: Virginia MillerBar Soko 47 Hannam-daero 20-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Opened in 2017, Bar Soko is a whisky lover’s paradise, heavy on Scotch, with 1920s and 30s jazz creating a soothing atmosphere in the low-ceilinged, cosy space. Jacketed waitstaff and impeccable service evoke some of Tokyo’s best bars, but owner Soko Son’s gracious service is distinctly Korean and his consummate whisky selection and well-balanced cocktails make this one of Seoul’s most relaxed yet upscale bars. Highballs and whisky cocktails abound. One of the most unique is Pet Nat & Mint, essentially a play on a Mint Julep in a Julep cup with Auchentoshan
single malt aged in Sauvignon Blanc casks, an intriguing splash of Australian Marlborough pet nat sparkling wine, yuzu, mint, celery bitters and mandarin orange.
Pine & Co, Seoul. Credit: Virginia MillerPine & Co. 33 Seolleung-ro 157-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Opened in February 2020, the intimate Pine & Co. is modern, sleek and culinary cocktail focused with a sustainability ethos and pro bar equipment including a rotovap and sous vide machines. Flickering candles, a cosy banquette, and two mini-bars helmed by Du Ui “Joe” Hong and Beomsuk “Patt” Park help set a playful tone. Hama, meaning grandmother, is a drink evoking the scent memory of mother and grandmother, including milk, rice, citrus, buckwheat tincture and a touch of Glenmorangie
. Bada is inspired by a Whiskey Sour and a Penicillin with smoked rosemary tequila, ginger honey, lemon and egg white evoking the two whisky cocktails sans whisky. Pine & Co’s uber-cool video game menu takes you to cocktail options and extensive whisky selection grouped by type or region.
The bar at Alice in Seoul. Credit: Virginia MillerAlice47 Dosan-daero 55-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Hidden through a flower shop, this bar is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Whimsical yet hip, it’s run by owner Terry Kim and head bartenders Mason Park and Leo Kim. Topping many best bar lists, Alice’s storybook menus sectioned by season are a delight to read through and the presentation is dramatic, with culinary elements employed. Sense of humour is paramount, evident by cocktail names such as Bonky Monkey and Hippity Hoppity. A prime example is a savoury clarified milk punch cocktail inspired by French onion soup: blended Scotch, caramelised onions, pineapple, PX sherry, milk, cinnamon, pepper, and cheese tuille.
Flaming cocktails at Le Chamber, Seoul. Credit: Virginia MillerLe Chamber42 Dosan-daero 55-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Le Chamber, opened in 2014, is one of Seoul’s most celebrated bars and best whisky collections. Tucked away in a library, this sublime speakeasy features fat leather chairs at the bar, dramatic chandeliers, lush drapes, and live piano jazz. Louis Eom and JJ Lim are consummate barmen alongside captain Ji Hyeon Kim and lead senior bartender Solla Park (the one woman holding strong in the otherwise male team of Diageo World Class bar winners). Drinks are hidden inside steaming books, while Perfect Manhattans are served alongside drinks like a soft, creamy Temptation (dark rum, bourbon, orange, banana, and cream).
Cobbler bar, Seoul. Credit: Virginia MillerCobbler16 Sajik-ro 12-gil, Sajik-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
A hidden whisky haven of vintage and new whiskies, Cobbler is an ideal chilled-out place to linger with friends and bartenders who really know their spirits. Owned by the pioneering Robin Yoo, Cobbler, like Bar Cham, is housed in a hanok. There’s no menu, as bartenders customise cocktails to your preferences. They craft winning cocktails, while vintage whiskies are worth going for alone. I made friends and had great conversation with bartenders and locals here… a truly welcoming bar.
A cocktail at Charles H at the Four Seasons, Seoul. Credit: Virginia MillerCharles HFour Seasons Hotel, 97 Saemunan-Ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Charles H is one of Seoul’s most celebrated bars globally, helmed by head bartender Odd Strandbakken, who came on board in late 2022. Paying tribute to the great 20th-century cocktail writer and world traveller, Charles H. Baker Jr., the bar boasts classics and twists on many drinks in Baker’s legendary The Gentleman's Companion
cocktail book. The bar is subterranean and glowing, evoking grand New York bars of the 1930s. There are whisky flights paired with chocolates, a Manhattan flight showcasing three versions from different time periods, and Baker greats like the Boracay Old Fashioned from Manila circa 1926: coconut-aged bourbon, almond liqueur, and aromatic bitters.
1914 Bar & Lounge at Josun Palace. Credit: Virginia Miller1914 Bar & LoungeJosun Hotel, 231 Teheran-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Opened in 2021, 1914 Lounge & Bar is housed on the 24th floor of the swanky Josun Palace hotel with stunning city views and live jazz centred around a grand piano on a circular stage. Unlike many bars with a view, the cocktails are good and the service warm, though the space is well decorated and refined. There is a 10,000-won cover charge at the bar, but it offers a front-row view of whiskies and local spirits. A house favourite is Room Boy (blanco tequila, omijai berry cordial, lemon juice, Fernet Branca Menta, tabasco, and strawberry hibiscus tea foam), while whisky cocktails lean delicate and approachable, such as Room 201 (12-year-old Irish whiskey, chamomile syrup, passionfruit vinegar, lemon, and egg white).