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Korea’s First Single Malt: Three Societies Distillery

Distillery Spotlight: Three Societies Distillery

Region: Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

 

I want to change how people drink... People who one-shot a $3 dollar bottle of soju will think twice about one-shotting a $100 bottle of whisky.

- Bryan Do, Founder of Three Societies Distillery

 

 
Three Societies Distillery is located in a hilly region of Namyangju, a city to the east of Seoul where temperatures fluctuate more drastically through the seasons (Image Source: Three Societies Distillery)

 

It was not always the case that the world enjoyed Japanese whiskies. Although the first Japanese whisky distillery began operations in 1923, it was not until 2015 that Japanese whiskies were propelled into popularity by celebrity critics. Today, we take a look at a brand new distillery that perhaps would mark the start of a whisky Renaissance in the neighbouring South Korea.

“Whisky” and “Korea” are not often mentioned in the same breath. After observing the successes of Japanese and Taiwanese distilleries, Bryan Do, the Korean-American founder of Three Societies Distillery, decided that he could, too, change Korea’s relationship with whisky.

 

Bryan Do, a Korean-American who founded Korea’s first whisky distillery (Image Source: Chosun Business Report)

 

An Asian-American’s unconventional path and early successes

Three Societies is not Bryan Do’s first tango with malt.

Bryan Do is born in America to Korean parents, and is perhaps a model son that many Asian parents would be proud of in several ways. Do has degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and Seoul’s Yonsei University, and was originally working at Microsoft for many years.

All this while, Do was already quietly nursing a passion for brewing craft beers at home. In 2013, Do decided to quit his job at Microsoft and invest all he had into starting his own craft beer company.

 

 
Bryan Do tasting beer at his craft brewery (Image Source: Choi Won-suk / Korea Times)

 

As with many other Asian parents, Do’s mother was a little skeptical. Talking to a journalist, Do said: "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.' .“

 

Hand & Malt was founded as an artisanal craft beer brewery, with its own hop farm (Image Source: SG Magazine)

 

Armed with his father’s blessing, Bryan Do founded his own artisanal brewery for craft beer, The Hand & Malt Brewing Company.

One should bear in mind the difficulty of doing so: The cost of beer production is expensive in Korea. Another challenge is the relatively small domestic market which means that craft beer breweries in Korea cannot benefit much from economies of scale.

 
Hand & Malt’s products came to be a hit amongst Koreans (Image Source: Tripadvisor)

 

Against these odds, Hand & Malt’s beer came to be extremely popular in Korea. Within four short years, AB-InBev, the largest international beer conglomerate, offered to buy out Hand & Malt at a neat profit for Bryan Do. 

Despite his reluctance, Do felt that selling his business was for the best due to the difficult economics of making beer in Korea. Handing it over to AB-InBev felt like “giving [his] baby to wealthier parents who would raise him better”. Do sold his craft brewery in 2018.

 

Korean Single Malt?

However, before long, Do redirected his love for malt and alcohol into single malt whisky. With his prior experience with beer brewing, Do felt like he was graduating from brewing beer to distilling whisky.

 

Founder Bryan Do and master distiller Andrew Shand (Image Source: Three Societies Distillery)

 

Do then reached out to Andrew Shand, who has over 40 years of experience making whisky at prestigious companies the likes of Glenlivet Distillery and Nikka Distillery. Together, they set up a distillery in the hilly region of Namyangju, a quiet city to the east of Seoul, with the goal of creating Korea’s first ever single malt. 

 

 
Three Societies Distillery is equipped with all the facilities to scale up production and capture Asia’s interest in whisky(Image Source: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times)

 

Korea’s relationship with whiskies

Three Societies has high ambitions, but there are a number of challenges it faces. The first, being more intangible, is the cultural shift in the way people change and the second, more concrete, are the laws around alcohol.

 

Soju and makgeolli are alcoholic beverages more familiar to the average Korean.

 

The first is cultural. For decades, most Koreans have regarded whiskies with a sense of Western otherness. There is some familiarity with Korean alcoholic products including soju and makgeolli. On the other hand, whisky has been seen as either an extravagant Western product only enjoyed by the very rich people, or cheap blended whiskies served to corporate executives in “room salons” – shady establishment where discreet deals were made in the company of attractive women.

 

 
Blended whisky had a bad reputation in Korea due to its association with “room salons” (Film: Nameless Gangster : Rules Of The Time, Palette Pictures (2012))

 

The second challenge comes in the form of the Korean tax man and out-dated excise taxation laws in Korea. Bryan Do pointed out that making whisky in Korea is also much more expensive than making other types of alcohol in Korea. Excise tax breaks are often granted to other types of alcohol, but not to whisky- the so-called “Western” alcohol.

Furthermore, whisky requires aging in a barrel, and during this process, angels come and claim a good proportion of the spirit in the barrel- very little of this loss is accounted for under Korean tax law.

Despite these challenges, Bryan Do has a visionary view of Three Society’s position in the whisky world. 

 

Bryan Do and Andrew Shand reckon that whisky appreciation should be taken more seriously in Korea (Image Source: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times)

 

Do observed that the domestic market has potential for more whisky. As the market for single malts takes off in Asia, Koreans have also been developing a taste for high-quality whisky and single malt. According to Do, “people are more health-conscious now, and would rather drink a good quality whisky than copious amounts of cheap Scotch.”

Yet, Do’s sights are really set on the international market. Korea has done a good job of exporting K-Pop and Samsung smartphones around the world. On that basis, the international market is beginning to accord more attention to Korean-made products. “Korea is the flavour of the month, and I am riding that,” Do said to a journalist. Another neat benefit is that sales to the international market would not attract the hefty excise taxation in Korea.

 

A shipment of Three Societies’ Jung One Gin leaving for Singapore (Image Source: Three Societies Facebook Page)

 

On a personal and down-to-earth note, Do shared that he thinks that the unhealthy Korean habit of drinking excessively ought to change. Instead, Do reckons that better appreciation for whisky would paradoxically encourage healthier consumption habits: “I want to change how people drink, as I did not enjoy all the mass drinking I had to do at Microsoft. That was Korean culture and now we see that change. People who one-shot a $3 dollar bottle of soju will think twice about one-shotting a $100 bottle of whisky.

The proof is, ultimately, in the pudding. What would make the first Korean single malt special?

 

Distinctive Korean spiciness

Bryan Do hopes to create a whisky with distinctive Korean characteristics. The primary feature of many Korean dishes- including kimchi and ddeokbokki- is that they are spicy in a particular style unique to Korean foods. Therefore, the whisky made at Three Societies would be slightly spicy.

 

Korean dishes such as Kimchi tend to feature some form of spice from chili or garlic. Bryan Do intends to create a whisky that would complement these flavours.

 

Three Societies did not disclose its “secret recipe” for creating this profile. However, they have shared that they rely on casks sourced from Europe (Spanish sherry casks), America (virgin wood and ex-bourbon casks) and Korea’s domestic market (casks that stored local beers and spirits). One might venture to guess that a bit of peppery spiciness in Three Societies’ whisky would come from the virgin American oak and some of that Korean liquor casks. 

 

Traditional Korean Ginseng liquor- could this be an influence in Three Societies’ single malt? One can only speculate. (Image Source: Korea To Do)

 

Ideal climate for quicker maturation

Bryan Do and Andrew Shand believe that the climate in Korea is potentially better for whisky maturation than in Japan. In Korea, the four seasons are distinct, and this allows whisky to be aged several times faster than in Scotland and Japan.

 

A picturesque view overlooking most of Namyangju (Image Source: Agoda)

 

Further, Namyangju was specifically selected by Bryan Do to be the distillery location. The hilly region of Namyangju where the distillery is located experiences much greater temperature fluctuations than other parts of Korea, and most definitely more intensely than many places in Japan or Scotland. Temperatures in Namyangju could fluctuate between over a sweltering 30 degrees Celsius in summer and minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter.

 
Namyangju was specifically selected by Bryan Do to be the distillery location (Image Source: Three Societies Distillery)

 

According to Do, these wild swings in temperature in Namyangju cause whisky to be matured four times faster than in Scotland. In an interview, Andrew Shand has also quipped that if he were to sell whisky in Scotland, he would first bring barrels of whisky over to Korea for just 2 years of maturation, before selling the “8 year old” whisky back to the Scots. 

How would this affect the flavour of Three Societies’ whisky? We would speculate that the quicker maturation process would enable the spirit to draw out much more flavour compounds from the oak, resulting in a more dry and oaky whisky of the same age as one from Scotland.

 

 
Whisky that had only received four months of maturation at Three Societies has already taken on an amber shade (Image Source: Three Societies Facebook Page)

 

Inaugural release of the Ki-One Single Malt

Three Societies has recently released 1506 bottles of an inaugural batch of limited edition single malt to several Asian markets including Singapore and Hong Kong. This is bottled at 56.2% ABV, was distilled in July 2020 and bottled in September 2021. This expression is named the Ki-One “Tiger” Edition, and features a motif of a growling Korean tiger on its label.
 
The Ki-One single malt is a sneak peek of future releases to come from Three Societies (Image Source: Andrew Shand / Three Societies)

 

Why the tiger? The tiger is the representative animal for Korea, as is mentioned on the official website of the distillery. Perhaps, there could be a secondary meaning in that the tiger is a reference to the “Four Asian Tigers” – the economies of South Korea, Taiwan, and yes- Singapore and Hong Kong (these countries underwent rapid economic growth between the 60’s and 90’s). Let’s hope the spiritual tiger would bring Three Societies all the good fortune it needs in the markets of the Four Asian Tigers. 

Bryan Do has stated that this is not meant to be a “finished product”, but really a demonstration of how well whisky can age in Korea. Unlike Scotches (which must legally be aged for at least three years), this spirit has only been aged for about 13 months in Korea. Yet, the distillery claims that it is supposed to taste like a four-year-old Scotch due to the unique climate of Namyangju.

(Image Source: Three Societies Instagram Page)

 

According to a review by a popular Korean whisky vlogger, the flavour profile of the Ki-One “Tiger” is fresh smelling on the nose with an abundance of fruits. On the palate, there is a distinctive light spiciness reminiscent of Korean foods. This is accompanied by a good amount of caramel, vanilla, oakiness and peaches. Addition of some water opens up more fruitiness with further peaches and oakiness. 

Bryan Do intends to release more editions of the Ki-One in 2023, when the spirit has been aged for at least 3 years. These editions would be released to Europe, including Scotland, where whisky must be aged for more than 3 years to be labelled “whisky”.

 

Jung-One Gin

While we patiently wait for Three Societies’ whisky to mature, the distillery is already bottling batches of gin since the beginning of this year. Although gin production required a sizable investment in distilling equipment on Bryan Do’s part, gin production enables the distillery to achieve sales within a month. 

 

(Image Source: Three Societies Facebook Page)

 

The distillery’s first gin release is named “Jung One” and is made with 11 groups of botanical flavorants. In addition to juniper, an essential ingredient, the spirit is also infused with quintessential Korean plants like perilla leaf, chopi berry, ginseng and pine needles to create a smooth and yet complex product. This release is already being sold within the domestic Korean market, and to several international destinations.

 

 
Gin being infused with botanicals at the Three Societies Distillery (Image Source: Three Societies Facebook Page)

 

Our Take

One thing Bryan Do said that really stuck with us is his wish to change Korea’s unhealthy culture of excessive drinking. This may sound ironic or even an unfair criticism coming from one who ran a successful beer brewery and has now graduated to making high-proof single malt whiskies. Yet the sincerity of this statement is felt by us: good alcohol demands slow appreciation. 

 

Whisky maturing in casks made of Korean Red Oak at Three Societies (Image Source: Three Societies Distillery)

 

If a drinker is able to graduate from drinking cheap liquor in the nightclub to appreciating expensive bottles of single malt Scotch, the drinker ultimately changes his perspective that alcohol is simply intended to get you “high”. We agree that he would certainly think twice before swallowing a shot of a $100 whisky.

  

In an Asian society that emphasises conformity and sticking to tradition, Three Societies also exhibits a kind of boldness and child-like creativity. 

Could you release a 1-year-old whisky and label it as such? They certainly did not let the Scots tell them what they could not do. Further, despite the distillery’s young age, Three Spirits already has a research and development facility – essentially a store of experimental whiskies matured in unusual casks.

Some of the casks used include a cask originally used to store bokbunja – a traditional Korean fruit wine made of wild Korean black raspberry which is moderately sweet with soft tannins. Another cask in the “R&D” facility contains whisky infused with red pepper.

 

 
(Image Source: Seoul Mills)

 

We applaud Bryan Do for taking the brave step of creating the first ever Korean single malt whisky. We are also pretty dazzled by his shrewdness, entrepreneurial streak and visionary outlook on the Korean market for whiskies. This is certainly a decade for Korean exports, and it could very well be a big opportunity for Three Societies. 

We haven’t yet tried a bottle of Korean single malt, but we certainly have very high hopes for these promising new kids around the block. We will be on the look-out for their single malts in the years to come!

 

@charsiucharlie



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