Tokki Bar to open in Seoul and offer its new gin for its birthday

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Tokki Bar to open in Seoul and offer its new gin for its birthday

Cocktails available at Tokki Bar at Ryse Hotel [DIANE KANG]

Cocktails available at Tokki Bar at Ryse Hotel [DIANE KANG]

 
Tokki Soju is celebrating its one-year anniversary since its launch in Korea with the release of its new Sonbi gin, made with local ingredients from the distiller’s new home in Chungju, North Chungcheong, after it left its birthplace Brooklyn last year.
 
The distiller also opened its Tokki Bar at Ryse Hotel in Mapo District, western Seoul, last month in order to offer its drinks mixed and matched in cocktails and with its American-style Italian food.
 
The bar will unveil Sonbi gin for the first time during its three-day party for its first anniversary starting from June 25 and offer a cocktail made with the gin for 9,000 won ($8).
 
Although the distiller only launched in Korea just last year, the drink has been receiving attention since 2016.
 
“We wanted a name that has a note of something classic and something that shows it’s culturally Korean,” said Douglas Park, CEO and co-founder of Tokki Soju. “With an element of traditional Korean culture on the bottle, we are both creating opportunities for people to talk more about Korean culture overall and also giving the drink a Korean identity, as it's made in Korea.”
 
Sonbi gin [DIANE KANG]

Sonbi gin [DIANE KANG]

The name Tokki Soju itself clearly states its Korean heritage, so the team didn’t want to dilute the image it built for Tokki Soju by using the same name to make the more international drink, gin. Instead, the team decided to make the label, the first thing a customer sees, distinctly Korean with an illustration of a Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) scholar wearing a hat, similar to the image seen on the 1,000 won and 5,000 won bills. It even added an image of Geobukseon, an ironclad warship shaped like a turtle used in the Joseon Dynasty under the lead of Admiral Yi Sun-shin during the Japanese invasion.
 
Sonbi gin was made to easily draw the attention of bartenders and consumers across the world as gin is a more widely-popular drink than soju. Once people like the gin from Korea, the idea is that they will be more open to try out the traditional drink as well.
 
“Before, we focused on marketing the Korean characteristics our drinks have because we were making soju in the United States. But as time goes by, now our goal is to stand shoulder to shoulder with other spirits around the globe,” said Park.
 
The company is trying out the oak-aging technique on its soju as well, and the first 100 bottles, released earlier this month, instantly sold out.
 
“We are trying to add more categories that are more familiar to the international community, and then naturally bring the attention back to our soju.”
 
Oak-aged version of Tokki Soju is now available. [DIANE KANG]

Oak-aged version of Tokki Soju is now available. [DIANE KANG]

 
One of the reasons it moved to a bigger production facility all the way in Korea was to bring up the production capacity for future exports. Now that it's in Korea, its production grew about 40-fold compared to the what it made in Brooklyn.
 
Then the pandemic hit the company, putting a brake on making the whole production process automated as it had planned. Its plan to continue supplying to its existing customers also fell apart as many of the restaurants shut down or closed temporarily in the U.S.
 
Instead, Tokki Soju discovered many new bars and restaurants in Korea to supply its drinks to, to keep their inventory close to zero, while simultaneously developing online channels for direct sales to home drinkers. Not just Korean restaurants, but restaurants that serve Japanese, Chinese and other cuisines, have Tokki Soju in stock all across the country, according to operations director Shim Kwang-seob.
 
“In the meantime, the team is reviewing how to better prepare for the days when the exports to restaurants and bars overseas can get back on track,” said Shim.
 
The company is checking regulations of each country so that the retail price of the bottle can be about the same anywhere in the world. One of the reasons it couldn’t initially distribute its Tokki Soju to Korea from New York is because of the high price tag it would require for a bottle just to break even, due to tax and other costs.
 
To break into the European market and elsewhere in the world, the company plans to take a similar approach when introducing the new drink. The distiller strategically targeted Michelin-starred restaurants in New York as it thought fine dining restaurants, where people actually take the time to listen to information from sommeliers and chefs, would be more fitting than late night bars with loud music.
 
While it aims to spread something Korean around the world, the first bar it opened is made to remind Seoulites of the birthplace of Tokki Soju — New York’s Brooklyn. The team carefully chose every detail to create the Brooklyn-like ambience, from the color of the wood it used to the level of illumination from the lights. Even the food it decided to prepare inside is American-style Italian.
 
The Tokki Bar is a speakeasy style bar located on the fourth floor of the Ryse Hotel, northwestern Seoul's Mapo District. [DIANE KANG]

The Tokki Bar is a speakeasy style bar located on the fourth floor of the Ryse Hotel, northwestern Seoul's Mapo District. [DIANE KANG]

“The members in some way are all connected to Brooklyn, so we wanted to bring out all the fond memories we made in the first bar we ran,” said Shim. It even gave a separate brand to its food, Paolo, in preparation of opening more restaurants.
 
 
The company is also breaking barriers when it comes to making cocktails. Instead of hiring fully experienced bartenders, it welcomes any new talents who want to jump into the world of spirits and cocktails. All the team members are frequent bargoers, and they aim to make an atmosphere in which no one is afraid to try something new. One member made a cocktail with corn, while thinking about a bowl of corn flakes with milk, and one mint-chocolate loving member made a cocktail after it.
 
Although the bar is currently running until 10 p.m. due to the regulations following the pandemic, it plans to eventually open its doors 24 hours, every day.
 
“Anyone is welcome when they feel like a drink and some food, any time of the day,” said Brian Yi, a food and beverage director for the company. “There will be no last order and no break time here. And this is the place where any new thing can be tried.”
 
Tokki Bar serves American-style Italian food widely available in Brooklyn, the birthplace of Tokki Soju. [DIANE KANG]

Tokki Bar serves American-style Italian food widely available in Brooklyn, the birthplace of Tokki Soju. [DIANE KANG]

For those looking for an even more affordable option to still feel the culture of drinks made by the team, another project in the works is ready-to-drink products. The company plans to try out a canned cocktail made with distilled alcohol, and chances are the canned drink will be a carbonated one.
 
Given that many young people use the convenient stores around every corner to buy their daily drinks instead of going to a large retailer, the company started to brainstorm how to appeal to them. Instead of putting more premium drinks like Tokki Soju and Sonbi gin on the shelves, it has decided it will make a series of more affordable options to ease people into the world of its drinks.
 
The company isn’t going to just limit itself as one that provides food and drinks to consumers. It plans to provide a system to those who want to enter the food and beverage industry, with the skills the company has picked up over the years. Given that the profit margin a restaurant or bar gets, even in its heyday, can't compete with what businesses in other sectors make with about the similar time and energy, it thinks helping aspiring restauranteurs through an infrastructure and a system with which they can’t fail to build a sustainable business would be more attractive for some than just giving out investment funds. The company plans to take its first step as early as before the end of this year.
 
The team is even thinking about expanding to new business areas like digital finance.
 
“The more the business grows, the more I’m more focused on [discovering] human resources,” said Park. Park interviewed 200 people to find nine people his team wants to work together with to run Tokki Bar.
 
“If we continue to make a system and structure that any other [aspiring business] wants to use, we think more people who agree with our vision will come find us, and that will save us time looking for them.”
 
BY LEE SUN-MIN   [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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