How do you think the 2020s would be remembered 50 years down the road? Dare I be boldly optimistic (maybe slightly jingoistic) to say: I think it would be recalled as a decade of Asian whisky awakening.
Taiwanese distilleries are already on the radar for producing some decent booze. Diageo recently unveiled its Chinese single malt distillery. Japanese whisky has come a famously long way, albeit some serious stocktaking must be done to ensure a more steady supply of age statement whiskies. More recently, we got to taste the first ever single malt made in Korea.
Three Societies Distillery is nestled within the hilly region of Namyangju, about a 40-minute drive from Seoul. It was founded in 2020 by Korean-American Bryan Do. The distillery’s name derives from the team’s Korean, American, and Scottish nationals.
Bryan Do’s early adulthood was spent as a model son that many Asian parents would have been proud of; he earned degrees from UCLA and Seoul’s Yonsei University, and was a Microsoft executive. So, his decision in 2013 to pour his savings into a craft beer-making venture came as a shock to his mother’s Asian sensibilities. Bryan Do’s father was more supportive of the idea of resigning from Microsoft to go into entrepreneurship. The father gave the son his blessings and said, “Why are you making the richest man on Earth richer? Make yourself rich!”
Vindication did not take long. In less than 5 years, Bryan Do managed to sell his craft beer operation, Hand & Malt, to beer conglomerate AB-InBev, making a neat profit in the process.
He returned to malt in 2020 with a wilder ambition. Korea has never produced a domestically distilled single malt whisky, but the successes of the Japanese and Taiwanese whisky-makers meant that Koreans should have a place too. It is a decade for Korean exports; the world already enjoys Samsung smartphones, K-Pop music and Oscar-worthy films like Parasite (2019). “Korea is the flavour of the month, and I am riding that,” remarked Bryan Do to a journalist.
The whisky-making process is led by Scottish Master Distiller Andrew Shand, who has experience from Chivas and Nikka. While malted barley is sourced from the UK, the remaining processes of mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation are all done in South Korea. The result is supposedly a whisky with a hot spiciness reminiscent of Korean foods (think kimchi or ddeokbokki).
More importantly, the intensity of Korean climate is reflected in the spirit. The Namyangju region experiences much wilder temperature fluctuations than other parts of Korea, and most definitely feels the changes more intensely than distilleries in Japan or Scotland. This supposedly makes the whisky mature four to five times faster than in Scotland. For reference: angel’s share causes a loss of 2% per annum in Scotland, but about 10% per annum at Three Societies.
That’s the reason Three Societies says that its one-year-old Ki One “Tiger” Edition should taste like a 4- or 5-year-old whisky. While the Ki One doesn’t exactly qualify as “whisky” under EU and UK standards, there is no issue under Korean law, which does not impose the 3-year minimum aging period.
The Korean phrase “Ki One” means “Beginning” and “Hope,” a fitting name for Korea’s first step into the realm of single malt whisky. I’m not sure about you, but for me this evokes an image of young Mark Hamill staring wistfully into the horizon in the first instalment of the space opera Star Wars: A New Hope.
The spirit is aged for 13 months in virgin American oak casks, bottled at 56.2% ABV with an outturn of 1,506 bottles. No colouring is added, and it is non-chill filtered. I should highlight that it comes in a cute 200ml bottle that retails for about US$80 within South Korea. It is available in five international markets: the US, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong; conspicuously absent are Scotland and the UK, because it wouldn’t qualify as a “whisky” there.
This “Tiger” Edition will be followed by two other bottles called “Unicorn” and “Eagle” that would showcase the evolution of the spirit at different stages of maturation.
Ki One Korean Single Malt Tiger Edition – Review
Virgin American oak casks. 13 months old. 56.2% ABV. Retails for US $80 in South Korea.
Colour: Very dark copper, mahogany.
On the nose: Intense stone fruits and depths of oak all at once. Aromas are surprisingly forthcoming compared to the typical Scotch or Japanese whisky, the notes all come easily.
Opens with a rich and round oakiness intertwined with fresh nectarines and apricots. The initial nose feels almost like a combination of aromas from American bourbon and a cherry liqueur Singapore sling. Definitely feels rather rich and well-rounded with nothing more than a slight alcoholic prick to the nose.
Gradually reveals lighter and creamier notes. Oakiness develops into a lighter note of Korean honeycomb toffee (dalgona / 달고나) and ricotta cream (the sort you find in Sicilian cannoli). Stone fruit intensity turns towards bright and fresh notes of red grapes. I also find light notes of crushed almonds, mild liquorice and a very slight metallic note.
Overall, this is quite pleasant. I don’t fancy the slight metallic note that suggests this is a young whisky. Yet the fruits and oak in the aroma is rich, well-defined, and delicious with some nuts and herbs that improve complexity.
In the mouth: A little shy in the beginning but builds up shortly – this time with brighter tropical fruits, sweet malt, light oakiness and a rather interesting mouthfeel.
Palate opens with a subtle maltiness from puffed barley cereal and a light honey sweetness. Not quite as intense as expected, but it leaves sufficient room for soft fruits to express themselves. Now we have juicy pink guavas and lightly sweet fresh figs. We also start to feel a slow growing pepperiness felt on the mid-palate that is manageable. A fairly well-balanced assortment of flavours without any component pulling the palate too far in one direction.
There is a good amount of body but the mouthfeel on entry is a tad watery for my liking; perhaps a little more aging would help. Yet there is personality here – a slightly tongue-drying sensation similar to eating fresh blackberries that stain your fingers.
My initial impression: this is quite enjoyable, although the nose appeared to promise a little more. That said, 2 minutes of airing improves the spirit considerably. Oak mustiness recedes while more fruitiness gets through. Airing also reveals an unusual honey soy note that is complimented very well by the heat and spice. This sounds clichéd, but: I find this rather smooth, without too much astringency or heat. This one does not pinch too hard even though it is cask strength and was only matured for 13 months.
The finish is a lingering combination of fragrant applewood mustiness, light soy sauce and the fading spice of ginger. The mustiness does add a nice touch of elegance that reminds me of a Yamazaki.
The quality of this release elevates Three Societies from a novelty distiller to one that the international whisky community should start to follow very closely. The solid combination of ripe fruits, light caramel, oak and warmth reminds me of Bimber’s Re-Charred Oak – one of my favourite NAS expressions out there. Are we sure this is a 13-month-old whisky? Well done, really.
I’ve drunk my fair share of young Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies out there that sadly have neither complexity nor approachability. I often find they still need more years of aging to simmer down their temper so that there is room for more pleasant notes to shine.
This “Tiger” has some bite, but is still quite approachable. There is a panoply of well-defined flavours that leap right out at you but do not overwhelm their peers. Heat is also mostly neutralised by the rich flavours in the spirit. The slight dryness at the end adds character and is a nice touch.
I like that all the fuss about the location of maturation aren’t mere platitudes thrown around to market a product. You can quite literally taste the effects of Korean/Namyangju region maturation. Had this been matured in a mainstream Japanese or Scottish distillery, this would have turned out very differently.
With so much flavour going on, I would have preferred a slightly oilier or thicker mouthfeel. That said, I am inclined to let this one slide since this has already far exceeded my expectations. After all, it is a work-in-progress release before a proper 3-year-old expression is released worldwide.
Do note that this is US $80 for a 13-month whisky that comes in a 200ml bottle. But I am mindful of the warped economics and uphill road to developing this bottle of Korean single malt. Poor demand and outdated tax laws have roles to play. Domestic whisky sales have been weak, forcing Diageo to shut down their Korean scotch-blending plant in 2019. It is also costly to produce whisky in Korea; tax breaks are granted to traditional Korean distilled spirits (like soju), while “foreign liquors” like whisky, brandy or rum attract heavy liquor taxes. While Korean tax law recognises a whisky evaporation rate of 2% per annum during maturation (as is the case for maturing whisky in Scotland), the evaporation rate in Korea is actually closer to 10% per annum. It is one thing to hope to “make yourself rich”, quite another to pick a tough terrain to carve out a fortune.
This is pricey for the age and the small bottle. On the other hand, this is a surprisingly complex and enjoyable malt. I cannot say the same for subsequent releases, but if the first Korean single malt is to see the light of day, a higher retail price might be required to make that a reality.
It’s refreshing to see single malt coming out of South Korea. Them mostly only getting recognized by soju in the booze department isn’t something I find appealing. Hopefully more distilleries follow Ki One.
Funnily enough, I think kee on or ki on in Thai means “young shit”.
That Thai lesson cracked me up, John. I see it is a very fitting name in more languages than one.
Absolutely agree that South Korea could have more to show in the booze department. It appears to be a rather conservative society in terms of life paths, career choices not to mention government tax on liquor; hopefully more local malt enthusiasts would be inspired to follow suit. That said, it seems like even in Ki One’s case, it took a foreigner (an American born Korean) to be crazy enough to venture into this business.
Very informative piece, Han! I’m curious to see how the identity and the associated local regulations of South Korean whisky would take shape in the future. Three Societies seems to hold a strong position over that conversation right now. Is the spice something they consciously aim for? Aside from that, has Bryan Do or Andrew Shand given any inclinations as to what character they want their whiskies to have, especially in comparison to other Asian whiskies?
Thank you Jigs – glad my research is of use to you!
Great observations there – I’d add my two cents that the founding team is rather enterprising for claiming the first mover’s advantage for themselves, especially in an industry where you have to wait 3 years for your product to mature. Three Societies would be the only kid on the block to tell you how South Korean whisky should taste!
Early on, before releasing the Ki One, Andrew Shand and Bryan Do actually did mention that they were going for a spicy character reminiscent of Korean foods – however I didn’t quite get that level of spice tasting this. There was also some mention that they might try maturing their whisky in ex-Korean liquor casks (like Korean ginseng liquor) and other funky casks that would not be permitted by the Scotch Whisky Regulations. But as far as I know, they haven’t seemed to have committed to a signature flavour profile at this point of time.