Two things I’ve got to point out at this point. First, I apologize for the awful photos. I was not about to lug around an expensive DSLR camera around on a trip to the best bars in Seoul. Two, I don’t normally lead a jet-setting lifestyle as I seem to have thus far portrayed.
Over the New Year, I was in Seoul, Korea, visiting my mother. Naturally, as any bartender would, I took the opportunity to have a go at some of the well-renown bars around the city. What followed was a three day bender with some lovely lunches and family time squeezed in between.
Le Chambre (Cheongdam-Dong, 84-18)
Le Chambre is arguably the hottest cocktail bar in the city, home to THREE Korea Diageo National Champions. The bar can be found in Cheongdam-dong, a small ward inside Seoul that hosts the hottest bistros, restaurants, and boutiques in the city. Naturally, the prices in this area are astronomical, and you’d best put on your Friday Night Finery should you wish to tour this part of the city. Le Chambre is no stranger to the area. A staircase from the street level brings you into a tiny library-esque room with portraits of the proprietors and a bookshelf. Press the book titled ‘Le Chambre’, and the bookshelf will slide open to reveal the actual bar. I spent my NYE countdown here, and the bar was kind enough to distribute free champagne for all the guests, and a set of starshape sparklers, none of which actually worked. No matter, bartenders are not usually required to have a working knowledge of pyrotechnics. Oddly enough, for a bar that produced three World Class National Champions, the menu was very conservative, with singular twists on classics, such as the addition of smoke on an old fashioned. The guests, all quite young and obviously well-to-do, also seemed more interested in ordering bottles of wine, and in the three hours I was there, I only noticed 5 customers that had any interest in cocktails. In fairness, it was NYE, and the customers all came in large groups, so circumstances should be considered.
Monkey Shoulder (Hannam-Dong, 738-7)
Most of the other bars on my hitlist lay in the north part of Seoul, across the Han River from where I live. The first day of the year saw me at Monkey Shoulder, a bar named after the very cool scotch we all know and love. Funnily enough, there isn’t a steady supplier for Monkey Shoulder in Korea, and the boys here need to rely on friends going overseas to procure their inventory. Koreans, having drunk steadily on every other day of the year, don’t tend to drink on a holiday, so the bar, and every other I visited that night, was virtually empty when I visited.
The only other patron just so happened to be a Admin at the Korean Bartenders Guild, funnily enough. I absolutely loved the venue itself, which was designed with a modern industrial flair; wood panelling and concrete, steel fans lining interrupting the bottle display on one wall, and a star-studded copper bartop. The full range of cocktails we may be accustomed to may not be available there, but they take requests very well, and the Scotch selection is top notch. Also look into their house shot, which I believe is made up of cream and banana, delicious on its own, with a scotch, or the home-made chocolates they provide as bar snacks.
Vault +82 (Hannam-dong 653-94)
A short walk from Monkey Shoulder, Vault +82 (to which Mr. Son from Monkey Shoulder was kind enough to escort me to) has an absolutely stellar atmosphere. The initially cramped entryway drops down into a sub level with a open arena lined with bricks, hedonistically lush leather armchairs at the bar, and a bottle collection that needs to be accessed with a dangerously tall library ladder.
The bartenders are dressed in vintage style collegiate letter sweaters, giving the bar an extraordinarily casual feel, relative to the other speakeasies in Korea, at least. I’m told that the sweaters are a new addition, all new for 2015. On one side of the wall, a projector plays the Godfather III, and jazz music plays in the background. The double height ceiling is netted with Christmas lights, which are, to my dismay, apparently only temporary. My negroni was top notch, but when I ask for a Boulevardier, I’m served an Old Pal. delicious still, but not quite what I wanted at that point in time.
Why Not (Hannam-dong 657-160)
Being on the 2nd floor of a building (that’s 1st floor for you Limeys and Honkies) is already enough to make Why Not unique in Korea. But besides its altitude is its absolutely stunning collections of spirits and liqueurs. Most bars in Korea. to my knowledge, invests its inventories in a varied scotch collection. Why Not has all that, as well as the obscure variants of well known products, such as Galliano Coffee liqueur, which most bars would never find reason to stock. I myself had the good fortune to try Oude Genever for the first time ever at Why Not, though I must confess my cold certainly dulled my enjoyment. The customers at the bar certainly seemed to know how to drink; one gentleman to my left had gone through 6 different scotch whiskies neat, while a couple at the other end of the bar was sharing a bottle of Glenmorangie port wood finish. Though the drinks were certainly past satisfactory, Why Not, in its continuing eccentric fashion, does not allow you to have conversations with other customers. The only justification I can think of for such a rule is to prevent drunk customers from slobbering over an attractive patron. I guess I’ll never know. At this point in time, I was ready to turn in from my second night.
Southside Parlour (Yongsan-Gu, 218 Noksapyeong-Daero)
Day 3 on the bend. Not the first time I’ve been in this part of town; this time was probably the third, by my count, but my first lugging around my suitcase so as to catch my 1am flight. The drinks, as always, follows the American philosophy towards cocktails, that is to expand into new territories outside of the classics. I don’t recall the name of my cocktail, but I did absolutely love the touch of Ardberg giving a lovely depth to this whiskey sour variant. In other news, I tried the food there for the first time, and I was absolutely blown away by their pulled pork sandwich. I dare-say its almost as good as our own Fatty Crab sliders. Almost.
Distilled (Yongsan-Gu, 20 Hoenamu-ro)
I was actually looking for D-Still, which is in a completely different part of town, but since I already gave directions to a friend of mine I ended up going to this place anyway. Not a bad little shop. No pretence, no snootiness. Just a cute little bar ideal for a chat with friends over a drink.
Le Moulin (Yongsan-Gu, 36 Hoenamu-ro)
Just down the street from Distilled, this new little wine bar has a fantastic little setup; winebarrel tables, winecellar-like walls, and a projector playing videos on one wall (I’ve noticed that seems to be a thing in Korea). The cheese and meat platter is decent, though I would recommend going just for cheese next time, as the ham and duck(?) is a little underwhelming. The wine wasn’t bad, but when the sommelier suggested something minerally, I was expecting something like flint or limestone, not haematite. In case you skipped middleschool biology and geology (or latin), what I’m saying is that the wine smelled like blood. Not the wine for some, but I think it really went well with the cheddar.
Speakeasy Mortar (somewhere in Hannam-dong. I had far too many drinks to remember, and they wouldn’t let me tell you even if I did)
First rule of Speakeasy Mortar is NO PHONES. The second rule of Speakeasy Mortar is NO PHOTOS. A tall order for the modern day enthusiast. but provided you can live with that, Speakeasy Mortar is very very cool. The venue somehow reminds me of those little log cabins out in Scandinavia or Hokkaido (not that I’ve ever been in one), and it’s easily the largest speakeasy I’ve come across. I had a lovely Boulevardier and an Old Fashioned, made by a bartender from Dalian, China, of all places. I did feel sorry for the man though, as by this point my drinking companions and I had devolved into conversations so raunchy, it would be unwise for me to put them down in writing on a public forum. I had just finished my second drink when I realized I should have caught a taxi to the airport 20 minutes ago, but the staff was kind enough to call a taxi and provide immaculate directions to the cabbie. I then proceeded to the airport where I purchased 3 bottles of soju and settle in for my red-eye flight with a glass of whiskey from the inflight beverage cart. Productivity: it’s all in the state of mind.