This ain't Bryan Do's first tango with malt.
The founder of Three Societies Distillery, makers of Korea's first-ever single malt whisky, was also the creator of his own craft beer company The Hand and Malt Brewing Company (now sold to AB-InBev). With two alcohol companies under his belt now, Bryan has had the unique position of shaping the flavors and character of Korea's craft alcohol scene in different ways.
Recently, Three Societies Distillery launched their first highly-anticipated flagship releases Ki One Batch 1 and Ki One Batch 2, the former aged in American virgin oak while the latter aged in both American virgin oak and bourbon casks. Both were admirable debuts, if we do say so ourselves!
We recently had the honor of interviewing Bryan Do himself to learn about his journey building the Three Societies Distillery and shaping Korea's first single malt. Along the way, Bryan shares what exciting new releases we can expect, some Seoul bar and restaurant recommendations, and finally, some life lessons about taking (controlled!) risks.
Let's get started!
88B: Prior to founding Three Societies Distillery and Hand & Malt (one of Korea’s first-generation craft beer brands), you’ve had a diverse set of experiences in journalism, PR and software product management. You also held a second job as a bartender at HopScotch – a bar you opened with your friends in the 2010s. It looks like you’ve been really adaptable, with such colorful career experiences that took you from the States to South Korea and Singapore!
Could you share how you became inspired to venture into making craft alcohol? What is it about this industry that keeps you wanting to stay in it in all these many shapes and forms?
Bryan: My love for craft alcohol came from my University days, I used to crew at UCLA and one day after a competition we all went out to a local bar near UCLA, I remember I wanted to reward myself so I didn’t get the usual Bud Light but got a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and was blown away by the flavorful taste. Afterwards I bought a “brew in a bag” kit from Cosco and made my first ever craft beer in my house. I remember friends tasting it and saying it was “ok”?!!!
Fast forward about 20 years and I had recently moved back to Korea from Singapore and met some friends who home brewed and it was very popular then and I was making beer at my house more and more often. Then a high school friend moved to Korea and he wanted to start a restaurant and I agreed to fund it and be the “beertender”. I would work my day job at Microsoft and then go to work at the bar at night.
Prior to making whisky, Bryan Do founded the Hand & Malt Brewing Company, which he later sold to AB-InBev.
I really enjoyed seeing people’s faces light up like mine did when I had my first Pale Ale so I always wondered what if that was my beer they were drinking? One thing led to another and I decided to hang up my suit and put on some work wear and start making beer. The joy I got from seeing people’s face from the sheer joy and wonder of craft beer kept me going. I learned about single malt while in Singapore and remember the same joy I got from drinking single malt whisky as I got from craft beer so that was the same impetus for me.
I was going to exit from the craft beer scene and I wanted to give back to Korea for all it has given me. I wondered why no one was making single malt whisky in Korea and after doing some research and seeing that I could overcome the obstacles I decided to make the plunge into the distilling world.
"I wanted to give back to Korea for all it has given me. I wondered why no one was making single malt whisky in Korea and after doing some research and seeing that I could overcome the obstacles I decided to make the plunge into the distilling world."
88B: Ki One Batch 1 received a phenomenal response when it was released early this year. Fans even camped outside your distillery three days straight, braving temperatures of -6° degrees just to secure a bottle of your single malt. We heard you even had to open an aging warehouse for your queuing fans to stay warm.
How did you and your team feel when you saw a long queue of fans camping outside the distillery for the release of your single malt? Has there been a particular interaction with fans of Ki One that has struck out to you over the years?
Bryan: Andrew and I were quite surprised by the fan fare for our whisky. When we saw this, we knew we had to work even harder to make whisky that Korean’s would be proud of. There isn’t a particular interaction but we have an ardent group of supporters that come for all our launches. We are always happy to see them and sign their bottles. These supporters are the ones that keep us going when the going gets tough.
88B: Have you witnessed any major shifts in Korea’s drinking culture since the time you have been a bartender in the early 2010s? In your view, how has the perception of premium craft alcohols (such as single malts and craft beers) changed amongst Korean drinkers?
"There has been a seismic shift in Korean drinking culture. Of course there are still binge drinking and soju bomb shots, however, many people have leaned towards more appreciation of their liquor rather than using it to get drunk."
Bryan: There has been a seismic shift in Korean drinking culture. Of course there are still binge drinking and soju bomb shots (especially on social media these days) however, many people have leaned towards more appreciation of their liquor rather than using it to get drunk.
More and more people are enjoying their drinks aroma and flavor profile than before. They know more what to look for in a good drink, and are more hesitant to binge drink especially if it is a premium craft alcohol.
88B: Could you take us through a day in your life as the CEO of Three Societies Distillery? Which part of your work do you enjoy the most?
Bryan: Well we have just finished harvesting our barley so I no longer go to the farm but I go straight to the distillery. Usually I will check up on marketing and sales issues and get thru the email from abroad. If I don’t have any media or government meetings I will go straight to helping production, which mostly consists of tasting whisky!
A day in the life: Some days, Bryan can be found out in the field harvesting barley. Others, he might be found roaming the warehouse inspecting casks for leaks.
We get samples 2 times a week to taste, and Andrew will either blend it or chose a cask to sample and we will give feedback on taste for the profile and how ready it is to sell or keep maturing. I will also go around to the different warehouses to make sure we don’t have too many leaks, which unfortunately we have more during the summer when the casks swell from the heat.
As pioneers in the field of Korean whisky making, Bryan and the Three Societies' team are often in discussions with local government to shape the new future of distilling regulations in Korea. (Image source: Three Societies)
I go back into Seoul around 2PM and either go to meetings or finish up important emails from home. We just opened a new bar in Seoul so after dinner I head to the bar to meet friends or even business associates for a night cap.
88B: The interesting thing about the Ki One Single Malts is that they are fruity, floral and have a distinctive lingering spiciness that reminds us of Korea and Korean cuisine.
Could you share with our readers – many of whom are craft whisky enthusiasts – what techniques or materials do you and Master Distiller Andrew Shand use to achieve this signature Korean spiciness? How much experimentation did you have to do before you were both satisfied with the flavor profile?
"We do not use any additional ingredients or materials but we ferment at a higher temp and also longer than usual, also we cut our spirit high than you normally would to get that spicy flavor."
Due to the different seasons our base spirits always have a slight difference in taste. We had to go through about a months worth of trials to get it perfect but when we did we really liked how the spice popped! We do not use any additional ingredients or materials but we ferment at a higher temperature and also longer than usual, also we cut our spirit higher than you normally would to get that spicy flavor.
88B: In Asia, spirits are often savoured during meals, and whisky is often spoken about in symphony with food. Could you recommend some Korean dishes that are best paired with each batch of the Ki One whisky?
(Image Sources: Three Societies, Maangchi, The Meatwave)
Bryan: Ki One Batch 1 was born from our love of spicy food and actually we love Spicy Pork that is grilled on charcoal, it pairs so well with gochujang!
Ki One Batch 2 has a little more kick so I’d recommend Korean rib BBQ. Korean BBQ has a smoky flavor that would pair well with our single malt.
88B: Due to the dramatic temperature changes at Namyangju, the whisky aging at your distillery matures several times faster than in Scotland or parts of Japan. So even your Ki One Tiger, which had been aged for 13 months, has the maturity of many a well-aged Scotch.
We are curious - are there any challenges to working with such a rapid-maturing climate? The early three Ki One releases, Tiger, Eagle and Unicorn brought us through several cycles of these seasons, each release matured more than the previous yet all from the same batch of spirits distilled on 7th July 2020. At what points did you think “Okay, let’s bottle it at this juncture”? What is your thought process, and how did you feel watching it evolve so much in just a few short months?
Bryan: The challenges we have is that once its ready its ready, we need to bottle it fairly quickly within 30 days or else the taste can change, sometimes for the better or for worse. Also during the summer months because the casks expand so much we need to constantly check in our warehouses for cask leaks!
"The challenges we have is that once its ready its ready, we need to bottle it fairly quickly within 30 days or else the taste can change, sometimes for the better or for worse." - Bryan on how Korea's extreme weather swings creates a narrow window for bottling Three Societies' whisky.
Because our first batches were so young, we knew it was a good whisky but we wanted judges to give us a good feedback before we launched and when we won awards at two of the most prestigious competitions we knew it was ready. We just had to wait for the right time to bottle it as it changes per season. We are lucky enough that mother nature lets us bottle it quicker than other places in the world but also we have to keep an eye on it more often.
88B: You have begun exporting your 2 core releases, the Ki One Batch 1 and Ki One Batch 2 to the States, across Asia. The Batch 1 had been matured in virgin American oak, while the Batch 2 had been matured in both virgin oak and ex-bourbon casks. Given that there are no strict regulations on how whisky has to be made or aged in Korea, that is definitely an area that you can stand out, and also localise the whisky as distinctively Korea.
Looking ahead, what exciting developments does Three Societies Distillery have in store for 2024 and beyond? Would we be seeing whisky that have been aged in native Korean liquor cask, or other cask styles?
Three Societies' Master Distiller Andrew Shand has been studying ceramic and pottery maturation for local traditional spirits, and experimenting with its effects on the distillery's new make spirit.
Bryan: Yes we have so many releases I am personally looking forward to myself. I am not sure if we can release it all in 2024 but there is Korean sherry, Korean malt, collaboration casks we have done with traditional Korean liquors, Korean red pepper, but most of all Korean oak casks. In my opinion they are the most distinctive local whisky so much so, its really hard to even explain it, you just have to try it!
88B: You also have hinted at the future possibility of a 100% Korean-sourced single malt made with Korean malt and casks made from local trees. How soon might this be possible, and how much of a challenge is it to source such ingredients in Korea? What is Korean whisky to you?
In 2021, Three Societies planted their first barley seeds in the ground to create Korea's first single-estate whisky that is now currently in the process of aging. (Image source: Three Societies)
We do have a fully Korean whisky aging currently, and even a single estate single malt that is aging. Because it is an emerging industry we have challenges in getting the quantities of ingredients and casks. There is only one cooper in Korea (literally ONE person), and the local malt we get is very expensive!
88B: You’re a man with many multitudes and many lives, having tried your hand at such a breadth of things (even leaving Microsoft to start your own craft brewery despite your family’s initial worry), many of which have also done incredibly well.
Do you have any life advice for us on how you’ve come so far? Perhaps any guiding philosophy you could share?
"Oh and do something you have a passion for, it will lessen the sting if you do fail, but will make it that much better if you succeed!"
What made me make the huge jump from corporate life to my own business was that I didn’t want to have ANY regrets on my death bed. I don’t want to think… “What if I did…..” I follow this up with a HUGE HOWEVER. Before making daring leaps or giving up on your job, I always want to ask, “Will my current job miss me if I leave… enough to hire me back?”. If you can make your current job really miss your talents then you have a safety net to fall back on because you can always come back to that job. This gives you the option to take bigger risks also. Its never good to just jump away from a security net, always have a back up plan so if everything fails you can always go back and call it a good life lesson. Oh and do something you have a passion for, it will lessen the sting if you do fail, but will make it that much better if you succeed!
88B: For our readers who would be travelling to Korea this year, we understand that Three Societies is open for distillery tours! Could you share what visitors can experience and enjoy during your distillery tours?
Visitors to Seoul can DM the Three Societies team to arrange a tour of their distillery on Wednesday or Saturday.
Bryan: Yes, we will open in August again for tours on Wed and Saturday, foreigners can DM us for reservations. They will learn more about our story and why Korean whisky ages so fast! Also more importantly they can taste 3 different samples of our whisky or gin and also purchase limited edition for distillery only whisky.
88B: Finally, in your view, what is one restaurant, and one bar in Seoul that any person travelling there should absolutely visit?
(Image sources: Bar Pomme, Michelin Guide)
Bryan: For a bar, Pomme. For a restaurant, Woolaeok.
88B: Thank you once again Bryan for doing this interview with us! We're delighted to have our readers across the region learn more about you, Three Societies Distillery, and what's to come!
Read more about Three Societies Distillery and their expressions:
- Review of the Ki-One Tiger Edition
- Review of the Ki-One Unicorn Edition
- Review of the Ki-One Eagle Edition
- Review of the Ki One Batch 1 and Ki One Batch 2