A Tiger, a Unicorn, and an Eagle: what do they all have in common? That’s right – Korea’s Three Societies Distillery.
The name itself should give you a sense that something about the distillery’s story involves three different formative parts coming together. Bryan Do, the founder, is Korean American, represented by the Tiger and the Eagle, while his partner Andrew Shand is Scottish, represented by the Unicorn.
Now, I have previously reviewed on Malt the inaugural release from the Korean distillery: the Tiger, which was aged for 13 months in virgin American oak casks. In the blink of an eye we’re clocking in at 21 months of aging – or, specifically two more seasons, in Korea – which is the basis of the second release: the Unicorn.
We’ve already gone into detail the story behind the Three Societies Distillery, so I won’t wear out my dear keyboard going over it again. Instead, I want to talk economics and trade policy. Now, before you stand up and leave, let me explain why they matter to a country like South Korea!
There are many ways to categorise alcohol: distilled versus non-distilled, different base ingredients, geographical locations, pot still versus column still, and so on. It’s as varied as there are people on this planet. Okay, that might have been an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Here’s another way to think about it, and I find it increasingly pertinent as more countries outside of the UK begin to dabble into making their own whiskies: local alcohol or foreign alcohol. This doesn’t have to do with where it is produced (that’s for another time), but whether or not a specific alcohol hails from a specific country. Korea has Soju and Makkgeolli, Japan has Sake and Shochu, Scotland has – of course – whisky.
It’s pretty apparent that many of these alcohol producers prove to be formidable forces in each of these countries’ economies. Not only do they exert considerable political suasion, but they are also responsible for some pretty important stuff like employment. In countries like Japan, Suntory and Asahi’s business go far beyond alcoholic beverages and have spread their interests across many facets of society far removed from fermenting some alcohol.
Or, take a look at Taiwan – which has now become one of the major whisky producing regions – where Kavalan Distillery was held back for a long time because the government themselves wanted to monopolise the lucrative alcohol market to raise tax revenue with their own Taiwan Beer. To these folks, alcohol isn’t just good times and quality craft; it’s also a whole lot of economics and policy.
Given how big these alcohol businesses are and the significance they have nationally, you can expect that they are given a whole lot of protection, which is where the trade policy comes in. As globalization would have it, every market directly interacts with one another; consumers in Japan absolutely love America’s bourbon, drinkers in America can’t get enough of Mexico’s tequila, the world is head over heels for Japan’s whisky. The wonderful thing about the world we live in today, is that – for the most part – if we like the produce of another country, we can get our hands of it without travelling abroad and lugging a couple of bottles all the way back.
Who could argue against having more options? Local businesses can. When foreign products start to give local produce a run for their money, you might imagine governments begin to feel the heat to protect their own kind.
This can take the form of authoritarian banning of certain products outright, but more commonly entails tax and tariffs on international imports. This itself can stretch from clear taxation of certain countries’ products to something a little more discreet, creating tariffs for any products that just so happen to fall out of a highly narrow definition that seems vaguely identical to some sort of national product.
Here’s an example: Japan’s Shochu, whilst now mounting a comeback, had suffered decades of decline that was painful to watch. This affected the entire economy of one of Japan’s largest islands, Kyushu (in fact, the third largest of Japan’s five main islands) given that most Shochu makers were concentrated in the region. Would you be surprised, then, that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) found that Japan had taxed Shochu much more favourably compared to foreign spirits, having classified them as dissimilar to what would fall under “distilled spirits?”
Let’s take a look at another example: the whisky scene in Korea, or rather the lack thereof. Somewhat two faces of the same coin, Korea has a highly favourable tax regime for local Korean specialty spirits (even if the ingredients are imported), which sounds perfectly reasonable… that is, until you consider Three Societies Distillery’s endeavour to create a localized Korean born and bred whisky. Despite the distillery being Korean, with whisky production in Korea and gradually moving towards fully using Korean ingredients (barley, oak, yeast, the works), the distillery’s produce is taxed far more harshly, simply because whisky is considered a “western alcohol.” Distillery founder Bryan Do highlights this as a key reason why Korea lacks a whisky scene.
As you can see, what we’re able to consume isn’t purely a function of taste; rather, the invisible hands of economics and trade policy have a big part to play in what’s in your glass.
Now let’s get to trying Three Societies’ new Ki-One Unicorn which has undergone 21 months of ageing “through the four seasons of the peninsula” in virgin oak, bottled at 56.6% ABV.
Three Societies Distillery Ki One Unicorn Edition Korean Single Malt – Review
Virgin American oak casks. 21 months old. Retails for about US$100 in South Korea.
Colour: Maple syrup gold.
On the nose: Deep yet mellowed; melted brown sugar with vanilla pods, honeyed, with light touches of cinnamon. It opens up gently with great pacing. As it airs, more stone fruits, berries, and fruit jam show up: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries. Bright, yet more closely resembling cooked fruit.
In the mouth: Great warmth is the first noticeable aspect, building up with a good weight and a texture similar to maltose candy. Notes of honey, caramel and baking spices come through with the same jammyness consistent with its aromas: bright stone fruits in the form of jam and cooked fruit, except here there are added dimensions of sweet grapes and ripened peaches that come across as an ester-heavy fruit bomb. Underneath this lush layer of fruit jam, there’s a maltiness of flaked oats.
The texture doesn’t let up in the finish! It continues to maintain its heft and body, not even remotely breaking apart. As it recedes, the fruit jam continues, while the peaches and grapes begin to fade, replaced by a deep oaky note with a light acidity that keeps it crisp.
This was a superbly crafted whisky; intense, rich, fruity and rounded, with great textures, heft, length and heat. In fact, it is so rounded that you wouldn’t have guessed that it is only 21 months old. Nowhere are the off notes, hotness, or thinness indicative of youth to be found. That said, the intensity could still use some mellowing, which makes me excited to try the last of the inaugural trio, the Eagle.
Bearing in mind Malt’s official scoring metrics, we have to consider that for its age and small volume this is a pricey expression, especially after factoring in Korean production costs. Yet it isn’t every day that I get to be impressed by a “New World” single malt. At least this hasn’t gotten old for me yet.