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(Yonhap Feature) Korea's whiskey market moving from bulk imports to single malt whiskey
By Joshua Hall
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Dec. 18 (Yonhap) -- Much of the hard liquor in Korea is consumed in a different way from other countries, mixed with beer or other types of alcoholic beverages to make "bombs." However, young professionals are increasingly turning away from this form of drinking and opting for more refined liquors, such as single malt scotch whiskeys served in specialist whiskey bars. These consumers and whiskey educators are changing the whiskey market in Korea.

   The country's whiskey market is dominated by blended whiskey, imported in bulk and bottled by major alcohol companies. It is difficult to quantify exact import data since Korean customs does not differentiate between bulk imported whiskey (which is then blended in Korea and branded as foreign whiskey) and single malt scotch whiskey.

   Korea is the seventh largest export market for scotch whiskey producers, sized at US$90.8 million between January-June this year. Industry sources say the market is still dominated by blended whiskey consumed in entertainment establishments with less than 1 percent of the market being single malts.

Lion's Den, in western Seoul, offers over 200 single malt whiskeys. (Photos courtesy of Joshua Hall)

Drinkers' preferences are changing, however. Lee Sang-hoon, owner of the "Lion's Den" whiskey bar in Seogyo-dong, western Seoul, said most consumers know little about single malt whiskey but are keen to learn more. "The single malt market is growing every year. In 2011 people said 'What is single malt?' People used to know only blended whiskey," he said.

   Single malt whiskey is more expensive than blended whiskey. Yet, Lee has been noticing people are prepared to pay more for a beverage with complexity. "Now people realize single malt has more originality and a deeper taste," he said.

   Park Kyoung-won, a computer programmer in Seoul, was one of the participants at a "Whiskey Experience" dinner and whiskey tasting in September. He was there to learn about whiskey before traveling to Scotland. "I want to drink and try new whiskeys," he said, adding that pairing it with food is also part of the experience. "I love tuna with whiskey," he said. "Hanwoo also works with single malt."

   At the "Whiskey Experience," the focus was on whiskeys aged in sherry casks. Whiskeys were paired with Bering Strait snow crab, salads and beef tenderloin steak. There was lively debate about which whiskeys were best with each dish, with some tasters preferring lighter, more aromatic whiskeys, and others fancying peaty single malts.

   For whiskey fanciers such as Gu Eun-hwa, a PR consultant in Seoul, the narrative and history behind the brands are also attractions. "Each distillery has its own place, history. There's a story, a philosophy," she said.

   Gu used to attend wine classes at a wine academy but these days goes to whiskey tastings instead. "Whiskey is easier," she explained. "I can open it right away and I don't have to finish the whole bottle in one night."

   The Internet has become an important forum for sharing stories of single malt production and regional styles. Jackie Yoo, organizer of a "Whiskey Live" international conference and the "Whiskey Experience" tastings, said online communities are very important in the early stages of any trend in Korea.

   "Single malt whiskey is not so popular so it's not easy to find information offline, but the Internet is the front-line of information in Korea. We have a culture of Internet cafes so many people gather and share information and experience of single malt whiskey online," Yoo said.

   The way whiskey is consumed is also changing. "Before, people used to use a shot glass. Now they are more interested in a tasting glass to smell whiskey, look at it and drink it," said Lee of Lion's Den. According to Yoo, Korean consumers should not be underestimated as not having discerning palates. Koreans can differentiate between different brands of Korean beer and soju, he said, "they have a very delicate taste."

   In-grained binge drinking practices pose a challenge to the education and true appreciation of alcohol here. "We destroy everything in the bomb drink, with whiskey, soju, beer mixed," Yoo said.

   The high price of single malt whiskey is another barrier to popularizing it. Despite a trade agreement with the European Union, prices of single malt whiskey remain high with a 5 percent tax reduction in the first year, not enough to offset increased transportation and inflationary pressures. Consumers like Gu sometimes source whiskey outside of traditional channels. "I usually buy whiskey at a duty free shop or abroad," she said.

A tasting of single malt whiskeys, aged in sherry casks, at the "Whiskey Experience" event in Seoul in September

Taxes also affect the marketing and perception of single malt whiskey in Korea. A bottle of single malt whiskey sells for an average of 180,000 won ($167) or more in a whiskey bar. Many importers focus on building up a single brand as old and prestigious rather than having a diverse portfolio of whiskey styles.

   Korea currently has no specialist whiskey academies or whiskey qualifications, whereas there are 10 wine academies. Some knowledge of whiskey is required to pass the national bartender exam and for qualifications such as the WSET Spirits certificate which is taught at some schools.

   People's perceptions are changing, nonetheless, said Yoo.

   "Traditionally Korean people believe whiskey is consumed by the bottle. This concept is changing as people believe single malt whiskey has many characteristics. So people are looking for places where they can drink single malt whiskey by the glass," he said.