Whiskey as elegance in a bottle, well aged
Whiskey seeped into the lives of Koreans as something to spike their beer.
Decades later, the local attitude toward whiskey is about to change, largely thanks to a wine boom in the local dining scene.
Recently, at an unusual “whiskey dinner” organized in Xian, a fusion restaurant in Cheongdam-dong, 24 guests, sommeliers and reporters sampled the offerings of Macallan’s single malt whiskey of Scotland. The meal was presided over by Ian Morrison and Martin Reimann, two representatives of Macallan, who were in Seoul for the occasion.
Ian Morrison is one of two key whiskey makers at Macallan. He is in charge of nosing and tasting the exclusive liquor to maintain its quality, and has been on the job since he was 15 years old ― for 28 years.
Both Mr. Reimann, the company’s Asia-Pacific regional managing director, and Mr. Morrison dare say that Macallan is at “the pinnacle of Scotch whiskey,” with no competitors. If it must be compared, Macallan is the Chateau Margaux of wine.
While clearly aware that Koreans drink whiskey by the shot for the sake of getting drunk and showing off, they are suggesting a relatively novel culture in Korea: whiskey tasting with panache. The seven-course meal was matched with various vintages of Macallan whiskey, even though both Macallan representatives admitted that it was unusual for Scots to match whiskey with food. “For Korea, we wanted our whiskey to stand out,” Mr. Reimann said.
The starter, daikon shrimp salad in Thai chili vinaigrette dressing, was served with a shot of 12-year-old Macallan. Gliding down like syrup, the amazingly aromatic whiskey left hints of dried fruits in the mouth and in the head. When the age matured to 25 and 30 years, connoisseurs started to say “Wow” here and there, while Mr. Reimann and the Korean “ambassador” of Macallan, Jay Lim, demonstrated how to add water to whiskey that was too pungent.
Some diners found the spicy Asian dishes overpowered the exquisite, expensive whiskey’s multiple layers of aroma and depth. The 30-year-old Macallan had a deep woody smoke and orange spice, tantalizingly leaving behind an addictive desire for more.
The extremely rare 1971 served with dessert ― a banana foster with vanilla ice cream ― was probably the best match of the evening. It is pungent only at first taste, transforming into an alluring invitation to a deeper, richer world of vintage whiskey. The sweet caramel sauce over creamy, warm banana and ice cream was a nice finish to the spicy meal. Served at the very end was the 1950 Macallan, which smelled more like antiseptic, and was to be enjoyed on the rocks, preferably Japanese-style with a hand-carved ice ball, or with water.
Managers from Maxxium, the official Korean distributor, explained that at the moment, in Korea, Macallan is sold in upscale bars and hotels, and a bottle of 12-year-old Macallan retails for 90,000 won ($93). On the same night, though, I found a bar in Apgujeong-dong selling it for 220,000 won. The most expensive Macallan product ever imported to Korea is a series called “Fine & Rare.” A bottle of 1926 Macallan ― one of the last three bottles left in the world on offer for 70 million won.
“But, you know what, if you understand the level of exclusivity and refinement, the money might be worthwhile,” said Mr. Reimann, who was quick to point out that serious collectors around the world buy out limited-editions right away when their arrival is announced on the Macallan Web site. For Korean collectors, Maxxium, arranges the importation.
The high price is attributed to Macallan’s particular production method. Single malt whiskey is made exclusively from malt at one distillery, and it is batch-made, not done in continuous production. The casks used in aging whiskey are made from 100-year-old Spanish oak by craftsmen who use no glue or nails. Sherry is kept in the casks for two years until they are ready to be used for aging whiskey. The production procedure is complicated and traditional, and the flavors are multi-layered and intense. Single malt whiskey is highly savored by connoisseurs as well as collectors around the world. Lesser, more affordable whiskeys are blended with grain, and known as blended whiskeys.
Korea’s attachment to spirits goes back generations ― alcohol was often used as an offering in traditional ancestral rites.
Koreans first got a taste of whiskey during the Korean War, when rations for U.S. soldiers were sold on the black market. To this day, bottles of Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal and Dimple illegally find their way from U.S. military commissaries to Korean homes, bars and karaoke joints.
Korea first attempted to make its own whiskey in the 1960s. Over the next two decades leading local distilleries including Baekhwa, OB Seagram, Haitai and Jinro obtained licenses to make whiskey.
By 1988 Korea began importing scotch whiskey, which is 40 percent malt and 60 percent grain blended and bottled in Korea.
Currently, except for four imported brands ― Macallan, Glenfidich, Glenmorangie and Glenlivet ― the premium whiskey available here is the blended type, made in Korea or Scotland.
A true appreciation of single malt whiskey may take a while to catch on in Korea, where the blended whisky “bottled in Korea” has a 70 percent market share. However, Macallan promoters are optimistic. “Education introduces different styles of drinking. Eventually whiskey drinkers can know that ‘less is sometimes better,’” said Mr. Reimann, who is in charge of marketing and promotions throughout Asia.
Just before their Korea event, Mr. Reimann and Mr. Morrison conducted a whiskey tasting session in Tokyo with members of the Nippon Bartenders Association. While Korea has only begun to appreciate single malt whiskey, Macallan sells 30,000 cases annually in Japan.
“In Asia, Japan is the most sophisticated market in single malt whiskey with range and depth. To the Japanese, category and age are important,” said Mr. Reimann. “Their history of whiskey goes back to the 1920s, and leading whiskey makers, Santori and Nikka, long ago learned from the Scots how to make their own single malt whiskey.”
While Korea still tops the world in the sales of 30-year-old Ballantine and Johnny Walker Blue Label, the brand manager at Maxxium, Ham Hyung-jin, observes that the Korean liquor market increasingly caters to Koreans who desire a healthy social life.
For them, when when it comes to drinking, savoring the taste precedes blind inebriation. That explains the explosive growth in demand of the highly sophisticated whiskey tasting, Mr. Ham says.
“In 2003, when we introduced Macallan, we sold a mere 900 cases. This jumped to 2,000 in 2004 and 4,000 in 2005. We’re expecting another 100 percent growth this year.”
by Ines Cho