Mixologists are working with the country's Prohibition-like restrictions to herald in what's being called "Seoul's first golden age of the cocktail"
Charles H.
Credit: Courtesy of Four Seasons Seoul

Speakeasy bars have made a resurgence across the world over the past decade with cities from Philadelphia to Paris playing on the Prohibition-era trend. In Seoul, this new wave of themed cocktail bars has something more in common with speakeasies of the 1920s than most of their modern-day counterparts.

When Charles H. opened last year in the basement of the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, the speakeasy-inspired bar was the first in South Korea to add pisco cocktails to the menu. Tonic and bitters weren’t yet available and only two vermouths and 10 American whiskeys were legally on the market. “When I first arrived in Korea nine months ago, I realized there were many things I took for granted,” said head bartender Lorenzo Antinori, who replaced Charles H. founder Chris Lowder. “The reality is that in Korea the scene is so young the customer hasn’t had the time to be introduced or educated; consumers are not ready for certain things we have in the rest of the world.”

While international cities like Singapore have been leading Asia's exploding cocktail scene over the past few years thanks to mixologists like 28 HongKong Street’s Michael Callahan, Seoul is just now starting to catch up. Singapore may have invented the Singapore Sling over a century ago, but it’s the recent influx of international bartenders and curiosity of consumers to try trends hailing from the western world that’s helped the city-state secure its status as the one to watch in Asia, with six spots gracing The World’s 50 Best Bars 2017.

“The challenge here in Korea is creating a bar program at the same level as others in Asia even though we have a lot of restrictions,” Antinori said. “Six years ago, the Singapore bar scene was very young, and now I would say it’s the strongest in Asia. That’s our point of reference, but we are aware that Korea is different; it doesn’t have a history of foreigners like Singapore.”

South Korea is a country known for beer and spirits like soju, a distilled rice liquor, and milky makgeolli, a fermented, rice-based beverage that was once a favorite of farmers. But Korean bartenders, with the help of a few pros who've had stints everywhere from Chicago's The Aviary to New York's NoMad, are working with the country’s Prohibition-like restrictions to herald in what’s being called “Seoul’s first golden age of the cocktail.”

“Korea has always been a country that is very closed with prohibitions, but I think now the food and bar scene is helping the country get more exposure internationally and that is the start of a new period for Korea,” Antinori said.

In its opening year alone, former head bartender Lowder, who came from New York City’s NoMad Hotel to work with Four Seasons in Seoul, helped Charles H. earn nominations like “Best New International Cocktail Bar” and “World’s Best Bar Menu” at Tales of the Cocktail. “We’ve gone from being completely new to having a Michelin-starred restaurant, accolades for the bar and making a huge mark on Korean drinking culture,” he told Asia’s DRiNK Magazine. “The same businessmen who used to order a bottle of whisky are now ordering drinks like the Manila Polo Club or a Sherry Hurricane.”

Now, Antinori is looking to drive forward the change his predecessor started. The Roman-born bartender cut his teeth working for five years at some of London’s top bars, from The Savoy’s American Bar and Beaufort Bar to Dandelyan Bar at Mondrian London. He even flew to Chicago last summer to dine at Alinea, which quickly turned into a four-day stint working alongside Grant Achatz’s “cocktail chefs” at The Aviary. In less than a year at Charles H., Antinori has already seen the mentality among consumers change, as ingredients like Angostura bitters, mescal and tonic are slowly getting legalized and making their way into the country.

Gin is now widely known and appreciated in Seoul, so when guests come to a bar, they don’t just ask for a martini; they ask for certain brands of gin they may have tasted while traveling or read about in an American magazine. Names like Old Tom Gin and Navy Strength Gin are among the wave of new gins entering the market each week. Pak Mogua, owner of Seoul’s Korean homestyle restaurant Parc, is one of the handful of “importers” who loved Monkey 47 so much, he decided to take matters into his own hands and import one of the world’s priciest gins himself.

American whiskey is another trend on the rise as consumers are moving past Scotch and starting to discover cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, thanks to spirits like KOVAL and Michter’s, which have slowly seeped into Seoul over the past few months. At Charles H., the best-selling drink on the menu continues to be the Manhattan flight, three versions of the classic cocktail with traditional ingredients like bitters and cherry switched out for green Chartreuse and absinthe. Throughout Seoul you’ll find a few other speakeasy-style cocktail bars scattered in different pockets of the city, from the Alice in Wonderland-themed Alice to the aptly named Old Fashioned and Southside Parlor, started by a trio of Texans who bring a taste of the American South to their Asian- and Tiki-inspired libations.

Spirits are expensive in Seoul, but according to Antinori, guests are willing to pay the price to try something different. The issue is more with the bar community as a whole, since it doesn’t generate enough volume to entice importers to continue bringing in costly new craft spirits. “There’s still a long way ahead, but Koreans are starting to open businesses that are more modern and different from the usual makgeolli, soju and beer places,” Antinori said. “Discovering the ingredients that are locally grown and applying them to cocktails and bar programs would be the next trend because I think Korean bartenders have started to realize that is the best way to utilize what we have here, to actually apply those ingredients.”