Korea's first single malt whiskey produced in hills of Namyangju

Korea's first single malt whiskey produced in hills of Namyangju

The founder and CEO Bryan Do, left, and master distiller Andrew Shands, stand in front of casks at the Three Societies distillery in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province. Courtesy of Three Societies

By Hwang Dong-hee

Whisky’s best days in Korea appeared to be behind it in 2020 when the amount of imports hit its lowest mark in 21 years. But Bryan Do saw an opportunity when he noticed that the single malt whiskey market was still expanding.

Teaming up with a master distiller from Scotland, Andrew Shands, and some others, he set up a distillery on a hillside in Namyangju, a location he thought perfect to capture Korea’s unique tastes. Early this month, Three Societies produced its first bottle of single malt whiskey ― for the first time in the country.

Out of 1506 bottles released in this first limited edition, many have already been sold both here and to customers in five other territories, including Singapore and Hong Kong.

Do, the company’s founder and CEO, told The Korea Times that his short-term ambition is, in three years, to export his whiskey products to Europe, including to Scotland and Ireland, where the liquor was born, when the products obtain legal whiskey status there.

“This is not the finished product at all. It’s just the beginning, something to show that how well whiskey can age in Korea,” he said. “Our taste is good now, but when it matures more, it will be even better.

“It will be a very proud day for us when we can re-export to Scotland. And I think we can be competitive in the market because it is ‘Korean.’ Many people are interested in what Korean whiskey is like. So I think we will have a fairly good following.”

The entire production process ― from mashing, fermentation and distillation to maturation ― have been carefully carried out to meet the high standards of international customers.

“Korea has such a good standing in the international arena for many different things, from cars, smartphones, of course, to K-pop and K-dramas, and also K-food. So I think now is a great time because you can ride on the high wave,” Do added.

Korea's first single malt whiskey produced in hills of Namyangju

Casks are stacked for maturation at the Three Societies distillery, Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province. Courtesy of Three Societies

Under the direction of Shands, a 40-year Scottish whiskey veteran, Three Societies follows traditional production methods but adds Korea’s unique “spicy” flavor to the whiskey, Kim Yu-bin, the company’s marketing director, said.

“When it gets hot, the casks expand and absorb the spirits; when it gets cold, the casks contract and release the alcohol. In the repeated process of expansion and contraction, the spirits mature much faster,” the marketing director said. “Although the recent edition has only been matured for about a year, Andrew Shands, our master distiller, said that we have the quality of a whiskey that is about 4 to 5 years old.”

“In the long term, we are researching different ways to pair our whiskey with ‘hansik’ or Korean food. We plan to cooperate with hansik chefs and try out different combinations.”

Korea's first single malt whiskey produced in hills of Namyangju

Bryan Do, left, and Andrew Shands stand in the distillery, Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province. Courtesy of Three Societies

In line with its historic start, Do named the whiskey, “Ki One,” which has two different meanings in Korean: a beginning and to hope or wish for.

Starting with this first edition, he plans to release two other limited editions before the general product launch in 2023, because in Europe, particularly Scotland, whiskey needs to be aged more than three years to be labelled as “whiskey,” unlike Korea and other countries, where one-year maturation is enough for the name.

Single malt whiskey is a type of whiskey that only uses barley, and is then made from a single distillery.

Do reckons that high and unfair taxes for whiskey constitute the main reason why Korea has not yet locally produced single malt whiskey.

“If you make alcohol here, all other spirits get big discounts if they’re made in Korea, even if the ingredients are imported. But whiskey doesn’t get any discounts because, when the law was introduced, it was known as a kind of ‘Western alcohol’ for the rich,” said Do.

Also, according to the company, Korea’s law only recognizes a whiskey evaporation rate of 2% per year during maturation, which is the same as Scotland. But in reality, due to Korea’s seasonal characteristics, the evaporation rate can be up to 10 percent per year. Thus, Korea’s natural climactic conditions actually work to create a disadvantage, as they conflict with the law, which is unfairly based on Scotland’s climate.

Korea's first single malt whiskey produced in hills of Namyangju

Bryan Do pours whiskey extracted from a cask for a tasting. Courtesy of Three Societies

A graduate of UCLA, Do fell in love with craft beer and whiskey in 1996 when he was studying in the U.S., and has been home brewing as a hobby ever since. He has traveled an unusual path from being a reporter at Arirang TV, a PR account supervisor at Edelman and an executive at Microsoft. After that, he started his own business for craft beer, The Hand & Malt Brewing Company, in 2014.

When he first wanted to start his own craft brewery, many were skeptical.

“When I went to meet real estate agents, I would give out my old Microsoft business cards because I didn’t have my own then. Everybody said, ‘Are you crazy? Why are you giving up this job?’ So I could say that society itself was against it,” Do reminisced.

“My mother was very against it. You can imagine Korean mothers, when their sons have good jobs and good pay, and suddenly, they don’t want those jobs anymore. But my father, a business man, has always told me, ‘Why are you making the richest man on Earth richer? Make yourself rich.’ Bill Gates was still the CEO then, when I worked at Microsoft.”

After The Hand & Malt’s success, Do sold the company to AB-InBev in 2018 to distribute his beer all over Korea for a good price.

“Back then, it was difficult to get distribution everywhere unless you had a lot of money. So I thought (AB-InBev) would be the best partner to reach my vision. I was sad, but I felt like I was giving my baby to wealthier parents who would raise him better than I could.”

Then he returned with his entrepreneurial spirit to another passion: single malt whiskey.

“While I was at The Hand & Malt, I always wanted to have my own distillery. And then, one day, I just decided, ‘I think I can make single malt whiskey.’ I have the experience from craft beer. So let’s try it! One friend introduced me to Shands. I sent him a plane ticket, he came to Korea for the first time, and fell in love with Korea immediately. So he said, ‘Let’s do it!'”

Korea's first single malt whiskey produced in hills of Namyangju

Casks made of Korean wood, filled with spirits from local barley and yeast sit in place for maturation. Courtesy of Three Societies

Do describes it as though it were like graduating from brewing beer to distilling whiskey, as many people in the business follow a similar path.

“The biggest difference is that you have to have a lot of money and a lot of patience. Beer can be difficult and very fast. With spirits, you have to wait until it matures in the casks,” he said.

Under the “Korean Project,” he plans to use colors of Korea in his future products ― made of local barley, with Korean yeast, in casks made from Korean oak trees.

“I want to make the drinking culture in Korea healthier than it is now,” he said. “I think the image of Korean drinking culture is currently a little bit harsh. Many people drink a lot of soju just to get drunk. But if people start to appreciate what they are drinking more, there will be many more stories to tell. I hope our Korean whiskey can contribute to that ― to enjoy a good whiskey with friends over great conversation.”

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