Putting a spin on local cocktail culture
By Noh Hyun-gi
Koreans are hardcore drinkers, to say the least, and for the imbibing public, cocktails are regarded as expensive and sweet, a drink for those who can’t handle their alcohol.
In truth, cocktails are creative concoctions that can surprise your taste buds, said Brian Kwon, president of bar Mixology. As a mixologist, he has been offering original drinks such as a jasmine citrus martini, which uses jasmine tea brewed in vodka and his own concoction “Herborial” that uses rosemary and basil for a refreshing savory taste.
While mixology bars have been on the rise in cities like New York and San Francisco, Seoul is a tough market to crack with the popularity of soju, according to Kwon.
But he said that this may pose a great opportunity for aspiring mixologists.
“Soju is a great alcohol for a cocktail base - you can make any drink with it. To begin with, it has a detectable taste compared to other distilled liquors. Compared to vodka for example, soju is very sweet,”he said.
Indeed, soju-based cocktails are popular in many bars in the United States. Often paired with cranberry juice, soju is considered a hip and trendy base for exotic concoctions.
“Soju is gaining popularity in the U.S. because there it is a foreign and exotic drink. Unfortunately, the success can’t be translated here. People think it’s weird to make a cocktail with soju,” said Kwon.
He believes soju, paired with Korean fruits can create amazing cocktails. “There are so many great ingredients that will add a unique spin. Pomegranates, ‘omija’ and ‘bokbunja,’ a purple berry, or Jeju Hallabong oranges to name a few,” Kwon explained.
According to Kwon, the easiest way is to muddle (grind the ingredients at the bottom of a glass using a thick stick called a muddler) such fruits and add soju.
Substituting soju for other liquors in popular cocktails is another option. Kwon suggested making a soju martini — traditionally made with gin or vodka — and modifying a screwdriver, vodka-orange juice cocktail with soju and Hallabong juice,
He embarked on a project to use Korean ingredients for creative cocktails but it was not well-received.
“It was really disheartening to see that Koreans didn’t care. There is this belief that a cocktail is a foreign tradition,”he said.
He explained that Korean consumers tend to ignore their own potential. Just like in cuisine, there is a binary view that Korean things are not appropriate for exquisite practices like bartending or fine dining.
Kwon said one can’t mix a good cocktail just by using high quality ingredients. “If every ingredient that goes into the cocktail serves a definite purpose, that’s a great cocktail.”
Working abroad, Kwon experienced variations in taste across cultures. In countries like France, the custom of drinking an aperitif and digestife before and after a meal influenced the popular cocktail characteristics to be relatively strong, dry and simple.
In Southeast Asia, rum is the go-to liquor and tropical sweetness from fruits like coconut and mango are often added.
Kwon thinks Korea is at a starting stage.
“People can be preoccupied with the difference between a mixologist and a bartender but what’s important is introducing a genuine cocktail culture in Korea.”
As the holidays are approaching, Kwon shared tips on serving Korean cocktails at house parties.
He said “Take the Mojito, a widely-loved cocktail made with white rum and add a twist. Muddle mint and sugar with lime juice and add soda water and soju.”