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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

Korea's Whisky Idol Kim Chang Soo Is Not The Main Character, But He Will Prove That Korea Also Makes Whisky

Distillery Spotlight: Kim Chang Soo [김창수 위스키]

Region: Gimpo, South Korea

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles breaks down how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their spirit. Click here to uncover the stories behind more of your favourite brands and distilleries.

Gimpo, North of South Korea. (Image Source: ShortwaveDXer)


"Korea also makes whisky"


That's what the handwritten text reads on the label [just below the pot still illustration], if translated from Korean. Above, in vertical horizontal text, is the name Kim Chang Soo, the man who wrote the line above. 


(Image Source: Hani)


There's a growing desire across the world to prove that whisky can be made locally. As someone who actively tries the lesser known whiskies with a more unique provenance, it is the one commonality I often find. Across the world as more people enjoy whisky, some of whom have begun to ask "Why can't we make our own whisky". This has led to an ever-growing category of world whiskies - Australia, Taiwan, India, Korea; you pretty much hear the same thing. 

There's a certain hard-headed stubbornness; a refusal to be told "no", that the conditions and basic materials found locally can work; will work. It's something I can appreciate, that grittiness. For us, that's enough reason to pony up and pay much more for a 1 year old whisky than we would a solid 15-year old Scotch.

Today, we're fortunate enough to tell the tale of Korea's whisky hero. 


(Image Source: ahopsi)


"If you watch movies or cartoons, there are alot of stories of heroes who suddenly find their master and kneel down, then accepted as a disciple...But again, I wasn't the main character." 


The Man Who Pledged All 102 Scotch Distilleries...And Was Rejected

Is it not the eternal irony that every hero never believes himself (or herself) to be one. After all, is it not the quintessential quality of a hero that they start out much like everyone else but it is the journey they undertake and emerge the other side having become a hero. We admire them because they're uncannily ordinary in every way aside from the courage they demonstrate, which itself is perhaps most rare.

Perhaps that's why locally they call Kim Chang Soo Korea's Taketsuru, the name belonging to the father of Japanese whiskies who set sail to Scotland to learn how to make great whiskies, came back and started Suntory's Yamazaki, and later his own outfit, Nikka Whisky. Kim even translated Taketsuru's book "Whisky and I" and served as the distributor for Nikka Whisky. 

"There are limits to what you can enjoy once. In other words, I thought that by simply consuming and enjoying whiskies, I would not find anything deeper. So I decided to delve deeply until I knew the essence of whiskies. Opening a distillery is actually more out of a desire for the knowledge I want to have. I started a distillery in a way that solved the fundamental question I had about alcohol."


(Image Source: Kim Chang Soo)


Yet Kim's story...might have taken alittle bit more of a detour. And a lot less romantic.




Back in 2014, Scotland had 102 functioning distilleries. Kim had decided after college and having worked in numerous whisky adjacent jobs - bartender, duty free liquor salesman, to name a few; had wanted to learn how to make great whiskies. This was inspired by a book by Park Rok-dam, a Korean expert on traditional liquors, that he had picked up which led him to dabble first into wines and cocktails and eventually whiskies, which captivated him with its aroma and taste.


Makgeolli, a traditional Korean rice wine, that first inspired Kim. (Image Source: Culture Trip)


He concluded that the only way to do so was to head over to where great whiskies were made - Scotland. And so at the age of 28, he gathered enough money, all he had really, and voyaged to Scotland. There he would buy a cheap bike and a tent and would spend the next 132 days visiting all 102 of those distilleries in search of any means to apprentice with them... Have you ever gotten rejected 102 times? Kim certainly has.


Armed with a bicycle, a tent, and a whole lot of heart, Kim lays claim to having visited all 102 Scotch distilleries. (Image Source: Kim Chang Soo) 


"I thought to myself, 'Let's all visit here and ask them to work unconditionally. I'm sure you'll get one.'"


The fact that many distilleries belonged to large corporates and were highly automated, coupled with Kim's lack of a visa and his native language being Korea impeded Scotch distilleries from taking a chance on him. “I wanted to learn how to make whiskey in Scotland, but I was rejected." And so, Kim's dream had come to a grinding halt. While he visited the bars in Scotland, as fate would have it, he would come to befriend an employee from none other than Chichibu Distillery, which at the time was still very much a fledgeling.

This eventually led to Kim receiving a 10-day instructional at Japan's Saitama-based Chichibu Distillery, which gave him the motivation and inspiration that he too could make great whiskies in Korea. As he started sketching out his plans, he would work the next 6 years, of course in whisky-related jobs, to save up the money to start his own one-man whisky distillery. With the help of a friend, the distillery would begin to take physical reality in June of 2020, with its first distillate produced in January of 2021.


(Image Source: Kim Chang Soo) 


"No matter how much you study, you can't learn as much as if you did it yourself. No matter how much you study, you cannot reach a level that is satisfactory forever [without doing]. My friends at Chichibu Distillery gave me this advice. There is no such thing as perfect preparation,"


Korea Doesn't Make Whisky, And For Good Reason

Yet, having heart isn't sufficient in Korea. Kim was well-aware of the challenges that faced him - namely the draconian alcohol tax regime in Korea. In Korea, taxes on the whisky category are prohibitively high as new unknown distilleries would have to expect customers to pony up to try relatively (much, much) younger whiskies compared to other alcoholic beverages available. Even the Korean local craft beer boom could only take place in 2020, after the same brutal tax regime was removed. Kim's knows this all too well. While he believes that whiskies will remain stagnant in Korea so long as the laws remain unamended, that has not stopped him from trying anyway, with the hopes of marketing his whiskies overseas.


(Image Source: Hani)


His answer to how he would succeed was to seek out making the most delicious whisky through constant experimentation in order to produce something that offers a different perspective; he'll spare no effort and expense at doing so. Having assembled the 300 sqm distillery and designed the pot stills himself, he started out with imported barley (which he hopes to move towards Korean barley soon) and opted to purchase high quality Sherry casks from Spain's sherry houses, which he points out costs 10 times that of ordinary casks. In this area, his outfit's small size has actually posed an advantage as his small output does not require a large amount of casks, hence he's been relatively fortunate in being able to get his hands on quality casks he needs.


(Image Source: Better-Tomorrow)


While time isn't on his side, he believes the Korean climate, like that of the many other Asian regions that produce whisky, has the ability to expedite the maturation process significantly. Gimpo, situated in the Northern part of South Korea, where Kim's distillery is based, enjoys the full suite of changing seasons, with significant fluctuations in temperature and humidity through the year. That certainly has helped the other Asian whiskymakers achieve the desired effect of accelerated aging, and should work for Kim as well. 

Visitors to his one-man operated distillery have commented on how the distillery's shelves are lined with cup noodles, an interesting choice of interior decor for sure. 


(Image Source: Kim Chang Soo) 


Korean Single Malt Whisky 01

"I don’t have time or money to go out to eat, so I’ve been working while eating cup noodles. I eat ramen almost every day," says Kim, who pours his efforts into making his whiskies. And yet, when the day is done, Kim isn't. He visits the local bars and retail shops distributing his whiskies himself. He'll also religiously get onto Youtube where he vlogs his adventures in making whiskies in Korea. Whether it was intended or otherwise, his sheer dedication and passion has not been lost on his growing legion of fans. 



When his first bottling (the one I'm about to review) finally hit shelves and bars - fans queued for up to 16 hours to get a bottle at dawn, with the remaining outturn of 336 cask strength bottles of the single Sherry cask whisky, aged for 1 year, 1 month and 20 days (which yes, does not qualify in Scotch or Japanese regulations as being "whisky", but remember we're in Korea), sold out in just 10 days. Secondary prices have quadrupled, with dozens of Korean-language sites posting their take on the whisky with the header "[Urgent Review]".

To ensure fans and perhaps even curious skeptics get a shot at trying what Kim Chang Soo Distillery [working title, until Kim finds the time to properly name the distillery] could produce, Kim reopened a bar that he had previously ran up until the distillery was taking up too much of his time, just to serve his inaugural whisky.


(Image Source: Luxury Design House)


The bar in question, CS Bar, named after Kim's initials, served as almost a sort of research space, where Kim could interact and learn from people into whiskies - bartenders, aficionados, hobbyists, and the like.

As if that wasn't enough to quench the thirst of his fans, an online list of places where you can taste Kim's whisky has been tabulated and widely shared.

“Just because it’s aged for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s delicious. I was convinced that by making 'Spirit' delicious and with the best of other conditions, even a short maturation could turn out to be a delicious whiskey.” Kim retorts. Kim believes that as long as he makes good whiskies, which he cites from positive reviews thus far, those who take issue with his young whiskies remain unimportant. He goes so far as to point out that his whiskies sold out without even any publicity efforts from him, which seems rather unintentional given his multitude of to-do's and lack of time.


(Image Source: Better-Tomorrow)


Despite his efforts, Kim has his critics, who've taken issue with everything from his "unaesthetic" label, which features a stylised drawing of Kim, to it being too young to be labelled as "whisky" by Scotch or Japanese whisky conventions. They've even targeted below the belt, complaining that Kim's small McGyver-ed outfit of a distillery and little experience in whiskymaking, could never produce a good whisky.  


"The words that moved me most was 'How can you do what even a big company can't", 'this is impossible', 'you can't do it'."

"Really? But I think I can do it," Kim reminds himself.


Yet, with all that Kim's gone through to get to this point, it looks like there's no stopping the man on a mission now.

Let's delve into his inaugural release, Whisky 01.



Kimchangsoo [Kim Chang Soo or 김창수 위스키] Korean Single Malt 01, 54.1% ABV, Heavily Peated Malt, 2021/2022 - Review 


Color: Reddish Gold 



Aroma: Fresh, clean, crisp peat, pine cones, spearmint. Yet it is gentle, fragrant super alluring, that sweet light smoke wafting forth. Sweet honey, pancake syrup, very approachable and affable. Yet, at the same time it remains remarkably clean and bright, never cloying. A farm-y quality emerges, top notes of light straw and grassiness, lightly herbaceous, closer to parsley. It's reminiscent of a pine forest in winter time with just a dash of maple syrup.



Taste: Medium bodied, light ash, a spritz of salinity, sea salt, and then a meaty oiliness and fat resembling roast pork belly. Sweeter now, with honey, caster sugar, slightly bitter as is manuka honey. It turns ever slightly more bittersweet, all while retaining a smooth silky texture. The herbaceousness here is vague, mostly fresh herbs, maybe perilla. Evolves into a more gentle umami note of fried honey soy chicken skin.



Finish: Short, crisp. Again a mix of light honey, herbaceous parsley, delicate aromatic soot. Just a touch of saltiness, good lasting warmth. Ending off with umami dried shiitake mushrooms and button mushrooms.


The Future

Where will Kim Chang Soo's journey take him is a question Kim himself doesn't have a firm answer. He often says that it is easier to chase a dream with the motivation of "I have to do this", yet when it becomes a reality, it quickly becomes "How do I pay next month's rent right now?". It comes off as pessimistic, but perhaps that's the kind of pragmatism the whisky world needs. Kim's mentioned plans to break conventional wisdom by experimenting with barley, fermenters, aging time, all to show that good whisky isn't made just in Scotland. That Korea also makes whisky.


(Image Source: Better-Tomorrow)


“My distillery is probably the smallest distillery in the world... Whiskey makers still mostly follow the strict Scottish rules, and I want to break the mold entirely from those standards. Instead of a large facility, it's a really old-fashioned way to create a small distillery that is labor intensive but produces better quality whiskey.”

Yet two years in, Kim mentions that with the mountains of bills he has to pay, running a distillery is not cheap, and even with a popular sold-out whisky, the financial reality remains daunting. When probed about involving investors into his distillery, Kim remains ever so brazen, proclaiming that he is convinced that running his distillery bootstrapped is akin to producing an independent film; if he could succeed with what little he has, he will know for certain he has what it takes to make it big. For him, going it alone is the only way to prove his skills. Only then, is he willing to take his project "commercial". Thus far, he's turned away the cabals of investors, large corporations and even local government support.


Kim Chang Soo Distillery [working title, until Kim finds the time to give it a proper name] (Image Source: ahopsi)


"I want to make alcohol that I can proudly show off wherever I put it. There is only delicious whiskey, more delicious whiskey, and even more delicious whiskey."


(Image Source: Better-Tomorrow)


Ever the true-blue Korean at heart, he won't stop there. "I've built a distillery here, but I feel like I haven't even started yet, because I have a bigger goal," Kim hopes to produce enough whiskies that they can be shipped overseas (he currently has more than 200 casks filled) when they hit the minimum 3-years of age, and then turn his attention to what is perhaps his first love, traditional Korean alcoholic spirits, such as makgeolli and soju.

On the question, what do you want to achieve in 2030? Kim proudly states “I want Koreans to know and drink delicious alcohol."


(Image Source: K Banker)


"I think there may be no end until a satisfactory tastes appears when I taste it."





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