Distillery Focus

Distillery Focus: Three Societies, home of Korea's first single malt

Korea’s first single malt distillery has been formed by an unexpected trio
By Felipe Schrieberg
Three Societies’  Ki-One whisky
Three Societies’ Ki-One whisky
It’s hard to believe that a location that heats up to 40oC in the summer and minus 20oC in the winter could be an ideal location for making whisky. Yet a craft beer entrepreneur and an experienced whisky maker are braving the elements and doing just that in the Namjangyu region of South Korea.

Located 40 miles northeast of central Seoul, Three Societies is blazing new territory as Korea’s first single malt distillery. It released its first whisky product, the Ki-One Tiger Edition, at the beginning of September, with many other exciting projects and releases in the works. The extreme climactic conditions the distillery faces add layers of both unpredictability and promise. In time, the Three Societies team believes its products will go beyond just the creation of something tasty, blazing the trail for a new category of ‘Korean whisky’ that serves as a wider representative of the country’s cultural heritage.

Three Societies itself is the brainchild of Korean-American founder and CEO Bryan Do. A successful craft beer entrepreneur, he started working on the distillery after he sold his beer company to drinks conglomerate Anheuser-Busch. He first came up with the idea to build the distillery five years ago, and was rewarded in his efforts when Three Societies distilled its first new-make spirit on 15 June, 2020.

Do’s vision became reality thanks to the work of his master distiller and blender, Andrew Shand, who helped design and build the distillery. Shand started his whisky career in 1980 as a cooper in Glenlivet, before moving on to work at Chivas, Ben Nevis, and the Speyside distillery. He has subsequently wandered around the world building new distilleries and helping projects get started, including this one. The distillery name itself reflects his involvement. ‘Three Societies’ is a reference to Do’s American background, Shand’s Scottish roots, and the distillery’s South Korean team and location.

Producing 250,000 litres of alcohol a year, Three Societies is producing a new-make spirit largely following a Scotch template, though its equipment is sourced from different parts of the world. The pot stills were built in Scotland by Forsyths, the mash tuns are German, the mill is from the United States, and all steelwork and tanks were made in China. Malted barley is imported from Scotland via maltster Crisp Malt. In production, everything is done slowly: two-tonne mashes go through a six-hour mashing cycle, and while the wort is heated up quickly to draw out spicy notes the actual fermentation process clocks in at a lengthy 120 hours. Distillation itself and the spirit run are also done slowly, to allow more time for reflux.
The still room at Three Societies

Do compares the distillery’s resulting new make to a hearty Korean meal: “That was something that Andrew and I worked on before we even created our first test batch. We’re conscious that we have the luxury and the burden of achieving something new for Korea, and it better represent Korea well. We want to balance spices, like in a beef stew, accompanied by the many vegetable side dishes you find in the meals here.”

For Shand, the profile of the new make is reflective of Scotch, but with a twist: “It’s like an old Glenlivet, when it really had a nice spice to it, and also something very fruity – a cross between a Highland and a Speyside with a big smack of Korea in there as well.”

Beyond gourmet inspirations, the local climate is helping create a unique character for Three Societies’s whisky. Namjangyu reaches temperatures with a range of 60oC; naturally, this affects both production and maturation, and cooling is particularly tricky. In the hot summers, condensing and lowering the temperature of equipment can be an energy-intensive nightmare, while in the winter, ice builds up in the condensers. “That makes a huge difference to your spirit flavour without doing anything at all,” says Shand.

Like at other whisky distilleries in countries with hot climates, including India and Taiwan, the alcohol evaporation rate in maturing casks at Three Societies is much higher than in ‘conventional’ whisky maturation climates. Shand claims that one year of maturation here is the equivalent of five in the UK. However, cold winters like Korea’s aren’t very common in hotter whisky-producing countries, and Shand illustrates how Three Societies’ whisky really stands out compared to Taiwan-based Kavalan: “A big difference between us and Kavalan is that they also have warm summers, but the winter only goes down to around 15oC. We go down much lower, so the casks take such a huge hit both ways and help create something truly unique. The flavours that are getting soaked into the wood are things I’ve never tasted before. I’m blown away by it.”
Admiring the distillery’s pagoda

Three Societies’ first release, the Ki-One Tiger Edition, consists of 1,506 bottles spread across Asia and the US, giving curious connoisseurs an idea of the results (the number of bottles available honours the date of the distillery’s first spirit run). Though it’s matured for only 13 months in new oak, the whisky is labelled as a ‘single malt whisky’, as Korean law stipulates that a minimum of one year’s maturation in oak casks is required to use the term. The full allocation has already sold out across the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. Demand is a good problem for Do to have: “They’re asking for more, but we don’t want to release it yet. We just want to show the whisky connoisseurs and the media what we’re up to and give an indication what the whisky will be like in a few years.”

The Three Societies team are hoping to roll out quite a few projects by then, featuring maturation experiments that are currently ongoing. A core range whisky, the Ki-One (which means ‘genesis’ and ‘hope’ in Korean), is maturing in a combination of ex-bourbon, sherry, and virgin oak casks and will be released in 2023. Before then, the Tiger Edition will be followed up with Eagle and Unicorn Editions. Shand is also excited to see what will happen with spirit now maturing in two types of Korean oak: “We have absolutely no idea how the whisky in these is going to turn out!”
Master distiller Andrew Shand

Going in other unusual directions, Do tasked distillery marketing manager Yubin Kim with sourcing casks that previously held Bokbunja, a Korean wine made from raspberries, and is already thrilled with the results after just four months of maturation. A small still that has also been used to produce gin will be used to produce rye and bourbon-style whisky from corn which has in part been grown by the distillery. Thanks to Korea’s flexible laws around what can be defined as ‘whisky’, maturing spirit is also being infused with a variety of fruit and spices in casks. Shand has every intention of pushing the envelope with experimentation: “The wonderful thing about not being in Scotland is that there’s no limits.”

The business has also had its share of challenges. Because of high tax rates placed on whisky sold in Korea, Three Societies is shipping 70 per cent of what it produces abroad as overseas sales are more profitable for the distillery. Do hopes this can eventually change: “We’re working on changing the laws in Korea to lessen the tax burden. If that happens, then we can definitely work on selling more domestically.”

Though Three Societies is certainly not the only business to suffer from the effects of Covid-19, its inability to host any events or tastings has also been tough, crippling the sales of its high-end single malt gin infused with Korean botanicals, The Jung One. Where many new whisky distilleries produce gin to raise some short-term capital, the pandemic stopped Three Societies from being able to successfully do so.
The distillery entrance

However, Do has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future, and is even excited by the prospect of competition. Large Korean conglomerates have already started work on their own whisky distilleries, and he estimates that Three Societies has a two-to-three year head start to establish itself. He isn’t threatened by potential competition, and believes that a thriving Korean whisky category will benefit all the distilleries that will get involved: “You have to raise the tide to help all the boats float. More distilleries, even if they’re built by conglomerates, means that there’s more power to negotiate lower taxes and establish better regulations over production.”

Regardless, as the country’s first single malt whisky distillery, Three Societies represents a new entry in the rich Korean world of aroma and flavour that will be enjoyed by whisky fans worldwide in a few years. Shand is happy to compare Three Societies with another major Korean cultural export: “With Korea, you get a lot around K-pop, but we’re going for Whis-K ourselves and turning it the other way around.
The warehouse