BOOZE SCHMOOZEYou would think that selling whiskey to Koreans would be a simple job, as easy as selling lemonade to Saharans or meatballs to the Mafia.
For Yang Ki-young, 34, who works at Diageo Korea, a distributor of such whiskies as Johnny Walker, Windsor, Crown Royal and Baileys, life is frantic, particularly as the thirsty and convivial holiday season approaches.
Mr. Yang sells whiskies to bartenders and club owners as well as to wholesale stores. Diageo Korea's hot brand at the moment is Johnny Walker. Mr. Yang also attends weekend promotional parties that his company sponsors and holds at bars.
The whiskey industry in Korea has grown into a 1.6 trillion won ($1.3 billion) market yearly. Korea is now the fourth leading whiskey importer, trailing only No. 1 Spain, then France and the United States.
The thirst for whiskey here has led companies to create a practical 500-milliliter bottle, sold nowhere else. This bottle is drunk in one night rather than being opened and stored. Hence, the competition among whiskey salesmen is intense. Every salesman or whiskey company employee has different strategies to promote their company's brand. An official at the public relation office at Jinro Ballentine, which dominates the whiskey market with a 35 percent share, admits that some of his employee are willing to help set tables at a room salon to gain a waiter's attention. Waiters play a vital role in a room salon, for they recommend a certain brand to the customers.
Diageo Korea, which is second in the whiskey market with a 27 percent share, increased its spending on advertising by 20 percent in December. As a promotional ploy, the company recently held a soccer match for employees of room salons and nightclubs.
Diageo Korea has formed a special team －－ just to focus on the younger Koreans who hang out in bars and hotels in the Apgujeong and Gangnam areas of southern Seoul.
"The company thinks the whiskey market is going to be better at bars, and we're hoping that it will grow much larger in a couple of years as today's younger generation will become older," says Mr. Yang.
Mr. Yang says it was his idea to select bars in the Apgujeong area as potential markets.
To be on his toes in this competitive business, Mr. Yang starts his day at 6 a.m. by running on a treadmill in a health club near his home in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. He says this is a daily necessity for he has to be in shape to walk around many parts of Seoul for an entire day and to drink a lot of whiskey on his sales calls.
Mr. Yang tours at least 10 bars in the Apgujeong area each day, even after work, and tends to at least five wholesale stores in various parts of Seoul and Gyeonggi province.
The earliest Mr. Yang arrives back home is 11 p.m., and in most cases he home at 2 a.m. or later.
In addition, he must take constant telephone calls from bars and wholesalers, sometimes one call every 10 minutes. Yes, he does a lot of phone business when he is in a restroom.
On a recent Friday night, Mr. Yang was having a couple of drinks －－ soju －－ with other whiskey salesmen and the president of a wholesale store in a Namdaemun bar. After a couple of hours there, Mr. Yang left the bar to make his daily visit to bars in the Gangnam area.
Regardless of how popular a bar has become, Mr. Yang treats each place as if it were a first-time customer. He listens attentively to what an owner or manager tells him. Usually they talk about how sales are doing and what brand the bars want more of.
"At room salons, nightclubs and wholesale stores, the orders will be by the box, but at bar, the orders are by the bottle, but still it's a market with high potential," Mr. Yang says.
At times, he even puts his head together with bar owners to figure out how to promote a brand to young customers. On this night, when Mr. Yang visits the Hard Rock Cafe in southern Seoul, he sits with Jason Lee, the floor manager, to discuss the cafe's upcoming Christmas party.
They sit for a couple of hours drinking beer and nibbling on chicken and french fries. Mr. Yang now and then makes a suggestion, such as removing the limbo game from the Hard Rock holiday festivities.
"It'll only bore customers," he says.
After touring the Gangnam bars, he takes a taxi to the Novotel Ambassador Hotel, where he meets up with members of his special team. To lay the groundwork for future sales, the team, including Mr. Yang, stays up until 6 a.m., chatting up the waiters and waitresses in hotel's bar, the Gran A.
"You must tell your customers about Johnny Walker," Mr. Yang says again and again.
When Mr. Yang works with wholesale store personnel or bar owners he strives to develop a personal relationship.
"I try to remember everyone's birthday," he says.
When he visits the S Club in southern Seoul he is always welcomed warmly by the assistant bar manager, Serry Kang. "We have very close ties," says Mr. Yang. He says that soon after he got married he came to this bar with several people from his office. When Ms. Kang greeted Mr. Yang with a big hug everyone joked about ratting to his bride about the attractive Ms. Kang.
"I like Mr. Yang because he's genuine," says Ms. Kang. "Even if he comes here for business, he also asks about personal matters and acts like as a good friend."
Selling whiskey wasn't easy for Mr. Yang when he first started calling on bars last year. "In most cases, owners would give me this odd look because I looked much older than the employees, most of who had long hair, earrings, T-shirts and baggy pants.
"Once I even had to visit Mr. Lee at the Hard Rock for a promotional event at 2 in the morning."
But in time it became difficult for anyone who met Mr. Yang to resist him and his radiant smile. Quickly Mr. Yang realized that establishing a personal relationship was key to selling whiskey, and for Mr. Yang that came naturally.
"It' all about dealing with people. You need to earn their trust and in exchange, you'll trust them."
When he started visiting hippest of bars, Mr. Yang figured out how to get along even better with people. "I dyed my hair so I would look younger. The bartender and other employees have helped me find my younger self. Whenever there's a party held at the bars sponsored by our companies for promotion, I can feel the vibe of youth flowing back in me."
With his heavy workload and the great deal of drinking does on the job, Mr. Yang, after his first day of work after college, signed up for an insurance policy that had a cancer benefit.
"My dad, who was in private business, died at age 61. I was 26. He really enjoyed drinking, whether it was business or personal, and I enjoy drinking as well.
"My father really liked drinking soju, and the first job I landed after graduating from college was with a soju company."
With a sigh Mr. Yang says, "If he were alive, he would have been really happy with me."
In his eighth year in the liquor business, Mr. Yang says he is as energetic and as enthusiastic about his work as new recruits fresh out of college.
"Mr. Yang makes us ashamed of ourselves because he's such a hard worker. But his hard effort also stimulates other employees to work as hard as he does," says Bae Sang-hoon, a member of Mr. Yang's special team.
"I started in this business in 1994, recruited by Jinro, which was the largest alcohol beverage manufacturer and distributor in the country," says Mr. Yang. "Back then the company used to sell all sorts of alcohol beverages, not just soju, but also beer and even whiskey."
But Mr. Yang wanted to do more than just simply push something. He says he needed a the product that he could sell －－ and promote.
Mr. Yang moved over to Diageo Korea in December 1998 for that reason and because Diageo seemed to have a bright future.
"I was thought off as a traitor back then by former colleague and my seniors," he says.
"In those days, it was nearly unthinkable to move to a competitor." But Mr. Yang says he has no regrets because he has more freedom now.
Several years ago when the Diageo was promoting Chivas Regal, the company had a visitor from England. The vice-president of Diageo told Mr. Yang to find some Chivas Regal, since that was the only brand the visitor wanted. Chivas Regal has always been difficult to find in Korea, but by chance, Mr. Yang had a load of Chivas Regal bottles in his car trunk and was working room salons at a late hour. He met up with the visitor, gave the waiter a bottle of Chivas to take to the visitor and watched the man grin broadly.
"It was," says Mr. Yang, "a stroke of luck."
One night last week as he made his usual tour of the bars, Mr. Yang decided to visit a bar that had just opened, a place that he had heard about earlier that day when he was in another bar. When he went the new bar, he met by accident an executive of his own company.
The surprised executive said, "This place just opened its doors. I didn't expect to see you here."
When you sell whiskey in Korea, you learn to do the unexpected.
More in Features
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it
The traveling grandma who's 'alive and kicking it'