South Korea isn't the first place you'd think of for Scotch, but a growing interest in single malts, and more recently bourbon, is driving a bustling bar scene. While the rice based liquor soju remains the national drink of choice, young professionals, especially women are seeking out speakeasies and whisky bars to learn about this fine drink.
In the last three years there's been a shift away from cheap blended whisky drunk in hostess bars to single malts consumed in civilised establishments. Such is the enthusiasm, that Koreans are willing to pay a hefty premium for scotch. In many establishments prices start at 25,000 won (£15) a dram. Prices are high thanks to government taxes up to 180 per cent and stiff business overheads.
A predilection for rare older vintages is also driving collecting and entrepreneurship as bars compete to offer something different. Here are eight of our recommended watering holes.
1. Coffee Bar K
89-20 Cheongdam-dong, Kangnam-gu
Definitely more upscale than your local Starbucks, Coffee Bar K was the first establishment to cater to the needs of discerning Scotch drinkers in Seoul. 500 single malts are on the menu as well as Japanese whiskies, 200 cocktails and a wine list that features rare older vintages and fine champagne. The mixologists here have won many global competitions, lived or studied in Japan, and possess a deep knowledge of Japanese whiskies, spirits and cocktails. Book an early seat at the bar (before 9pm), to mix with high flying businessmen or talk culture and travel with Gangnam's classiest ladies. If you're shy the bartenders are also happy to engage in lively debates on whisky terroir or pre-prohibition cocktails. It's party central Thursday to Saturday so reservations are essential. Valet available.
88-2 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu
Based on the same concept as his Singapore bar, expat Mike Soldner offers an exclusive selection of fine whiskies and unusual rums in a luxurious setting. There's an excellent selection of cigars and the staff really know their cocktails offering a more intimate western service experience. You can also hire a plush private room should you wish to play poker. Friday nights are popular with live jazz which is a good match for rare vintages such as Bunnahabhain 1978 and Avonside Glenlivet 1938. And if you like rum this is your place. Delicacies such as English Harbour 1981, The Kraken Black Spiced Rum and Plantation Barbados 2001 are served by the glass. For reservations there's a minimum spend policy. Watch out for the strict dress code. If you arrive in jeans or shorts you will be offered unflattering baggy pants or asked to leave. So don your best threads! 10,000 won cover charge. Valet service.
3. Bar Lupin
84-18 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu
Hidden behind an unmarked door, Bar Lupin is ideal for the business person who needs to escape the noise and stress of the bustling metropolis of Seoul. It's easy to unwind with smooth jazz trickling through the sound system and 250 whiskies to peruse including the glorious 30 Years Old Hibiki. Gin lovers rejoice! There are 40 gins from around the world along with award winning gin cocktails. The interior is reminiscent of Japanese whisky bars from ten years ago with old paintings, a giant antique clock and model yachts adding some old world charm. The cigar selection here is limited so bring your own, as well as plenty of cash. 10,000 won cover charge. Bottle keeping service and valet.
4. Bar Sahm
660-17 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu
One of the few places where you can enjoy a single malt on the sidewalk, this hole in the wall is the perfect spot to watch the youth of Apkujeong show off the latest designer fashion. If seated at the bar, you'll be drinking under hundreds of half full whisky, tequila and gin bottles suspended from the ceiling. Prices are very reasonable for the area, starting at 13,000 won a dram and Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength is just 22,000 won. There's a decent beer selection, including Duvel, and around sixty whiskies to choose from at this twenty-five seat bar. The Dutch coffee here is fantastic, the staff laid back and friendly. No valet but Bar Sahm is one of the few bars open on Sundays. Around 60 whiskies to choose from.
5. The Factory
402-13 Seokgyo-dong, Mapo-gu
Childhood friends Han Kiu-seon and Park Si-young have created a space perfect for women wanting to unwind after a hectic day at the office. With twenty years bartending experience under her belt Park Si-young really knows her whiskies and can craft mind blowing cocktails to suit your palate. "Single-malt whisky is smooth and not for drinking quickly. It's something to enjoy," she says. There are 250 whiskies listed along with 170 cocktails and a small kitchen that turns out salads, beef sirloin and escargot. Ms Han, a former art dealer, will happily discuss art, music and Korean culture with guests. The crowd here is friendly and liberal since we're in Hongdae, the party district of university nightclubs, heavy metal bars and hipster cafés that don't close until dawn.
410-3 Seokgyo-dong, Mapo-gu
Tired of corporate life as an auditor Eom Kyeong-sup opened d.still with Chef Kim Shin-woo in 2010. Two small wood bars are manned by three bartenders who rotate to keep discussion lively and entertaining. There's a table for parties of twelve at this establishment that truly deserves to be called a whisky bistro. The ambience is cozy and relaxed and it's definitely worth coming here for a dinner or post-concert date. Meat lovers will enjoy the pork cheeks with duck fat fries and the crème brûlée is perfectly balanced with a wee dram. "We're not a speakeasy, rather we're aiming for a pre-prohibition classic bar," says Mr Eom. There are 250 fine whiskies along with European liquors, twenty bourbons and the odd bottle of rum. The humidor is well stocked and there's an array of dried fruits and nuts should you get hungry later on. Ladies will enjoy the cocktails and be charmed by the dexterous bartenders at this 27 seat bistro.
7. Vault +82
653-94 Hanam-dong, Yongsan-gu
The list here offers plenty of depth for those looking to explore 300 older vintages of major producers and sherry aged scotch. A bottle of Glenfarclas Sherry Butt 1953 goes for 20 million won, or you could try a dram of Glendronach Korea Edition Oloroso 1996 for 33,000 won. There's a good selection of cigars and plenty of space here for large groups, corporate events or those tired of cramped, smoky basements. The owners here are very serious about their footwear and offer a complimentary shoeshine service. The cover charge is 5,000 won, and there's a 10,000 won bottle keeping service. Cold cuts and cheeses available as well as a valet.
8. Why Not
657-160 Hanam-dong, Yongsan-gu
Hard to find but well worth scrambling though the alleyways to get to, Why Not is a cozy second floor bar with a broad selection of small production scotch, rare bourbons, fine gin and weird liquors. Singapore trained manager Park Kwan-chul is also an entertaining character with plenty of stories and humour to light up the wee hours of the morning. No printed list but over 200 whiskies behind the bar and some of the best prices in town will keep you coming back. Slices of jamon and various cheeses are available, or order pizza from next door. Don't be put off by the lack of parking, dimly lit stairs or location, this is a hidden gem with bespoke furnishing such as stag antler coat hangers, antique lights and fine crystal that makes one feel right at home.