A view from the city – Seoul

20 February, 2015

Jackie Yoo, Cocktail Week Korea and Whisky Live Seoul organiser, tells us about the bar scene in Seoul.


Tell us a little about the history of your city’s drinking culture.

The Korean combined market share of beer, soju and maguli is 90%, thus the market for other alcohol products is very small. Ninety-five per cent of its alcohol product is made domestically, so imported wine and spirits is less than 5%. Even though Korea is known as one of the largest consumers of spirits in the world, it lacks diversity. Soju accounts for 95% of spirits consumed in Korea. The alcohol percentage of Soju has gradually dropped from 25% to a relatively low 17% over the past 10 years. Almost all other spirits are imported. The public considers a bar to be a place to consume cocktails and imported spirits. Western bar culture has a tiny market proportion. Doors opened for whisky and wine around the 1988 Olympics, and after the 2002 World Cup club culture widely spread throughout the younger generation, so western spirit consumption has been on a constant rise. 

When did the city get in to cocktails?

As western culture was introduced to Korea, bar culture and cocktails were first introduced in the early 1900s. But public recognition came after the Korean War in the 1950s through American influence. But you could only find classic bars in hotels and high class restaurants. It was restaurant franchises such as TGIF and flair bars that made bar culture familiar to the public in the 1990s. Flair bars were the stepping stone of Korean bar culture and the centre of bartender and bar culture until the 2002 World Cup. After that the scene shifted to clubs and lounge culture. Usually the older generation drinks whisky in traditional places such as room salons or karaoke, but the younger generation enjoys single malt whisky, other spirits and cocktails in clubs, lounges or cocktail bars. Single malt whisky and craft cocktails started to appear around 2010 and diversity is increasing. 

Where do you think Korea ranks in terms of bar scenes?

Though Korea is in Asia, Korean bar culture doesn’t have much influence on or exchange with Hong Kong, Singapore, China, etc. In the 1990s Korea was one of the leaders of Asian Flair bartending culture, but after that we do not have a close network with other countries. But now Korea is looking toward more global trends than Asian bar culture and becoming more diverse. Japanese single malt whisky and classic bars have had a big impact on Korean bar culture, and Europe and American craft cocktails and cocktail renaissance influence is growing.  

Do economical shifts affect cocktail consumption?

Korea’s bar market share still isn’t large enough to be influenced by economic shifts. Trends are a bigger issue. The rise in consumption of single malt whisky and vodka means spirit imports are on the rise. The Korean bar market is still on the rise and has a long way to peak out. Uniquely, the Korean bar scene is supported both by single malt whisky and cocktails, unlike most countries. Due to such circumstances the bar market has grown rapidly for the past 10 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Korean bars are more sensitive to trends than the economy. And single malt whisky and craft cocktails are back as the hottest trends now.

What are the challenges the city’s bartenders/bar owners face?

The Korean cocktail market is warming up rapidly but still has a long way to go to really heat up. The biggest reason is that the diversity of imported beverages is still at the beginning stage. Consumers’ demand for diversity and new styles of cocktail is high but infrastructure is still weak. The public is sensitive to trends but easily bored at the same time. The need to be different every day is a challenge. To successfully manage a bar business, one must choose carefully between being a trend bar or being premium, high-quality bar.

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