Whisky in Korea
I’m just back from my second trip to Seoul, South Korea, and had a chance to look into whisky options available there.
Whisky remains a fairly popular drink in Korea, and you will find it on a lot of bar menus. However, the most commonly available choices are generally limited to scotch-style blends, with only a small number of single malts (if any). Prices for the standard scotch fare are generally a little higher than you would pay in North America, but not hugely so. The various expressions of the two common “Korean whisky” brands you will find – Scotch Blue (by Lotte Chilsun) and Windsor (by Diageo) – are typically all blends, sourced from Scottish distilleries for the Korean market.
In terms of selection for purchase, you can be well served by checking out the liquor boutiques in the basement of the major conglomerate department stores (i.e., where the excellent food courts are kept). I perused a couple, but was generally disappointed by the whisky selection and prices (i.e., mainly blends, and rather expensive at that). You do a bit better for wine here, but this is again not exactly a cheap option. Of course, across Seoul there are plenty of small stand-alone liquor stores – but these can be hard to find (and may be difficult to deal with if you are not fluent in Korean).
Your best option for price remains the airport duty free. Unfortunately, the main terminal at Incheon was undergoing renovations when I was there (September 2015), and many of the larger duty free outlets were closed – including the one that has the largest selection of liquor. However, a new large duty free shop recently opened in the Concourse terminal. It had the common whisky items for international duty free, at the usual excellent prices. While again somewhat more heavily biased toward blends than typical, there were a good number of well-known single malt expressions (especially the travel editions). Sadly, there were no Japanese or Taiwanese whiskies present on my traipse through. Also, unlike most duty frees, the whiskies were intentionally scattered across the entire store. This requires you to carefully scan every display, aisle and shelf when looking for products – and interact with a large horde of sales associates at every turn.
Another option is the small but well-organized Malt Shop, in the Gangnam district of Seoul. This store has an excellent collection of international whiskies, as you will able to tell from their website. Be advised however that not everything you see on that site is available for sale (even if it is shown as in stock). For example, while I counted 5 miniature 180mL bottles of the Hibiki 21yo on the shelf, these were all marked “not for sale”. According to the sales clerk, they were part of the owner’s personal collection. And none of the other miniature Japanese bottles shown on the website could be found in the store. That said, most of the full-sized malt whisky bottles listed were available.
The website does not list prices, and I found these to be somewhat variable in-store. Some of the commonly available single malt expressions were quite reasonable – especially the mid-range ones, which were often comparable or even cheaper to what I would pay here at the LCBO (e.g. most of the Balvenies, Highland Parks, etc.). That said, most of the higher-end and entry-level malt whiskies were typically more expensive than you will find in North America. As an aside, the listed shelf prices assume a credit card purchase. If you are paying cash, you may be able to negotiate ~5-10% off these prices.
The inventory was certainly a lot better than what I can find domestically at the LCBO. There were about half-a-dozen expressions available for each of the common Scottish single malt brands (e.g. Ardbeg, Balvenie, Benromach, Dalmore, GlenDronach, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Glen Moray, Talisker, Tomatin). In some cases, there were even more expressions than I expected to find (e.g., I counted 9 different examples of Arran malts). Some brands only had a couple of expressions available (e.g., Auchentoshan, BenRiach, Bruichladdich, Glenfarclas, Glenrothes, Highland Park, Jura, Springbank, etc.), although that is understandable in some of those cases.
Of course, what I was really looking for was the selection of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies. 🙂 While there were only two bottles of Kavalan (one Soloist, one ConcertMaster), there were about a dozen or so expressions for each of the Nikka and Suntory lines. Unfortunately, the Nikka ones were largely entry-level expressions (e.g., Super, Gold & Gold, etc.) – including many that I had never even heard of previously. I did however manage to snag the Taketsuru 21yo, which is one I was really looking to find.
Suntory was generally a better mix, with a range from standard Kakubin to the entry-level Yamazaki/Hakushu malts and mid-range Hibikis. Unfortunately, the prices for all the Japanese whiskies were very high, relative to most of the Scottish malts. For example, they wanted ~$300 CAD for the Yamazaki 12yo, ~$400 CAD for the Hibiki 17yo and ~$600 CAD for the 21yo! It’s true that Japanese whisky prices have been rising rapidly lately (and Korea has significant import taxes on Japanese whiskies), but I could typically find those bottles at a quarter of those prices a year ago in Japan. Even the new entry-level Yamazaki NAS “Distiller’s Reserve” was listed at ~$140 CAD. Simply put, Korea is not a place to look for reasonable prices on Asian whiskies – but you can do okay for the Scottish malts.
In any case, the Malt Shop is definitely worth a visit if you are visiting Seoul and have to some free time. Some of the map links for this store on other blogs are incorrect. Here is a confirmed direct link to google maps, using the store’s address.
It is accessible by public transit, right near the Seonjeongneung subway station. You can access this station off either the yellow Bundang Line (station 214), or the light brown Line 9 (station 927). Once there, take the #4 street exit, and head due south along Seolleung-ro for about 100m – you won’t miss the shop.