Mark Patton is a level three Bourbon sommelier. He runs the Korea Bourbon Club, and quite recently his wife Oh Sook Hyun has opened the Whisky Bible near Yongsan Station.
A major reason for Sook Hyun’s decision to open a high-end independent whisky retail shop has been a seismic progression in the way Whiskey is appreciated in Korea. The modern-day image of whiskey that Mark and Sook Hyun want to put top-of-mind is of a sophisticated and fashionable beverage, on equal footing with wines and high-end Korean liquor.
To do this, Mark and Sook Hyun spend a lot of time working with people to improve their noses and palates as well as their whisky vocabulary.
As Mark says, “When you’re doing whiskey, I can image a picture in my head. So, if I drink an Islay, I don’t just stop at ‘smoke’ I some grilled fish cooked over coal briquettes.” Both he and Sook Hyun are also great whisky storytellers. Whether you attend a (virtual) whisky tasting or visit the Whiskey Bible, you can learn the backstory of the whiskeys.
Today’s episode is brought to you by The Four Seasons Seoul. Stylish elegance in the very heart of the city
Developing superior whisk(e)y palates, one dram at a time
Alex Jensen: It is already another Friday and Christmas is coming up fast, December 10th. You’re listening to Koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m your host, Alex Jensen. And of course, whenever you hear the word Christmas, you probably think about some of the celebrations. And despite some of the doom and gloom that’s overshadowing celebrations globally this year. There are ways to have fun wherever you happen to be. For some people, that means indulging in something a little special. On that note, we would love to take you on a tour of one of the local havens for whiskey. It’s a new business and we’ve got a great couple with so much passion to tell you all about it. This episode is brought to you by the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, stylish elegance in the very heart of the city.
Alex Jensen: The things I do in the name of podcasting, I’ve come across Seoul a short trip to Yongsan, very close to Yongsan station actually. And down a side street. I find the Whiskey Bible and in here Mark Patton, a level three Whiskey Sommelier as well as Executive Bourbon Steward and his wife Oh Sook Hyun, also Executive Bourbon Steward. Let me say hello to you both ladies first.
Oh Sook Hyun: Hello. Nice to meet you, too.
Mark Patton: And welcome to the Whiskey Bible. Hi.
Alex Jensen: So, first of all, the Whiskey Bible, I should explain what I’m seeing here it looks like a whiskey specialist store. Almost everything on the shelf is either a rye or bourbon or a scotch and you got various strengths, including cast strength and also full proof as well as a couple of extra options for those who perhaps are not whiskey lovers like an Italian brandy and some sparkling wine and even Thai rum. So, there’s probably a little bit of something for everybody. Mark, I was introduced to you through Rod at the KBLA, tell us how this all started here?
Mark Patton: It’s a long story. The short version is we’ve been open now for two months. And this is a project that we were invited to participate in, by some contexts that we have developed in our six years now of running the Korea Bourbon Whiskey Club.
Alex Jensen: And Sook Hyun, did you meet through whiskey or did the whiskey happen after you met Mark?
Oh Sook Hyun: Rainy day we drink a wine after marrying and go to the Kentucky visited. We go to the distillery, so I drink bourbon with very beautiful distillery, I into the bourbon.
Alex Jensen: So, by going to Kentucky after getting married, you fell in love with not only each other but also with bourbon. Is that a fair portrayal mark?
Mark Patton: Right, because we went, we got married in Korea and then took her home to meet family and so forth. And once we met family and registered our marriage in Nelson County, there’s nothing else to do in Kentucky if it’s not horse racing season, so we started, we did some distillery tours and the one that she was really impressed by was Maker’s Mark which is a beautiful I recommend it for anyone. It’s a beautiful place to visit.
Oh Sook Hyun: Maker’s Mark. It’s my first bourbon to, his name is Mark too.
Alex Jensen: Good point. Maker’s Mark I think was probably the first bourbon I drank many years ago. And I was probably slightly too young to be allowed to drink it at the time. But it was something that my dad had on his shelf, and I still enjoy it today, I’d say particularly in cocktails. What was it about bourbon though that you enjoyed Sook Hyun, if you’d come from a wine drinking background?
Oh Sook Hyun: It’s a beautiful bottle. It’s a red wax and very sweet and vanilla and cherry because it’s so very pleasure tasty.
Alex Jensen: Do you feel Sook Hyun that here in Korea when people are used to very strong flavors in their food, sometimes quite spicy or hot flavors, as well as of course the soju thing which allows a certain degree of tolerance for the alcohol flavor which you get very strongly with soju despite being much less strong in terms of ABV than whiskey Do you think that lends itself to a country that can easily get into bourbon and scotch?
Oh Sook Hyun: Korean food is very spicy and sweet and salty. But when you the way the meat or barbecue, it very good to bourbon. Yeah, they pair well.
Alex Jensen: Mark, how long have you actually been in Korea? I know that you’re speaking Korean really well, I’ve heard you and your wife talking before we started recording. So just briefly get us up to date on that part of your story.
Mark Patton: Well, I’ve been in Korea now for 26 years. So, I first came well, a long time ago, I came in as a missionary. But then this time, in 1996, as a university professor, then I worked for three years at a Samsung conglomerate company. And since 2003, I’ve been an independent business consultant.
Alex Jensen: Wow. So, what point of that journey did you think, I’m going to go from whiskey lover to making this my profession?
Mark Patton: Well, that it’s not exact. It’s still kind of a hobby. But we came to that realization at the same time we were in Kentucky and enjoying, you know, tasting bourbon and visiting different distilleries. And the approach that we had learned from going to lots of wine tastings here, let enabled us to look at it and go, “Oh, I understand this. We get it”. I wasn’t a bourbon drinker. I wasn’t into whiskey. When we came back, we thought, well, let’s just we started the club thinking, we’ll just get together with people and try to introduce bourbon because it’s not popular. It’s not well known. But it’s sweet and it’s nice and women should like it. It has a different profile than scotch. And that just over time kept growing and that’s when I made the decision to go back and get some education. So, I can actually stand up with some, you know, background and say, “Yeah, I’m a Whiskey Sommelier”, we’ve been to, you mentioned the Executive Bourbon Steward qualification that’s earned at Moonshine University which is a real thing in Louisville. So, it’s become a real strong secondary hobby. And, you know, it has been kind of encroaching on the other business now for about five years.
Alex Jensen: And how did you build up the club? And who are the members of this club?
Mark Patton: Well, we have mostly Korean members. We started out using Meetup as our platform. So, we still have the Meetup site. But we also operate a Facebook page. We operate the Dram Full Korea group which is a whiskey community connected with other Dram Full groups under an umbrella organization. So, they’re in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, all throughout Asia. So that’s, that’s a connected situation. So, we have expats, we have local Koreans, we have people who’ve been, you know, connected with us, that don’t get to Seoul to come to meetings. But now that the shop is open, they’re like, Okay, well, we’ll buy a bottle. And when I get up there, you know, hold it for me, and we’ll come up and pick it up. So, it’s become this kind of organic network that we’ve built up. And not too long ago, we started doing a YouTube channel as well.
Alex Jensen: And on that YouTube channel, I watched it. Some of the videos or most of the videos that I saw were in Korean, and you’re speaking Korean, but your wife is also speaking Korean. How important is it? Do you think for Korean whiskey beginners to have the opportunity to hear you speaking their language and also having your Korean wife joining you and explaining?
Mark Patton: Well, I think there’s two things there. One is my consulting business, I’m a trainer. And my philosophy with training is if the end result of what you’re trying to learn has to be implemented in your local language, you need to learn in your language. And so, you get the best enjoyment from whiskey if you learn about it in your language. And so as much as possible, we try to be authentic to the Korean language and the Korean experience in explaining things which is a challenge for me because I may not have the nuance of language to explain what I’m tasting in Korean I, you know, I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t go to school here. And so that’s where she comes in because she can then modify what I’m saying and come in more specific, it’s also very important in Korea to see that there are role models, female role models that enjoy whiskey and other spirits, to kind of breakthrough that sort of unsavory history that alcohol has had in the past. And so, we see a lot more female bartenders, bar owners, and now we have a whiskey shop owner. So, it’s, is it we’re really, you know, moving forward in terms of the evolution of the market becoming much more equal in that aspect.
Alex Jensen: Yeah. Sook Hyun, I was thinking as Mark was speaking there about the flavor profile because with whisky as you said, Maker’s Mark, it’s quite easy to say cherry it applies to both languages, but if you’re trying to think have maybe a stronger bourbon and you’re picking out nail varnish, you might think how on earth do I say that in the other language? How is it for you in terms of your palate has it changed a lot since that first taste of Maker’s Mark?
Oh Sook Hyun: When I drink whiskey, I can imaging some picture in my head. So maybe Ilia drink, just smoke and smoke but I, my picture is some Yeontan, some fish, we cooked ‘Sogeum-eul chyeogajigo gubneun imijiga tteooleuneunde’ (*소금을 쳐가지고 굽는 이미지가 떠오르는데…)
Mark Patton: So, the picture she sees is outdoors with the old-fashioned Yeontan, coal briquette not charcoal like we use now. But the old round thing with the holes with fish on it and then throwing some salts. So, she builds up these pictures in her head of something that she’s experienced here that relates to what she’s tasting.
Alex Jensen: Is that the usual or preferred way to do it? or is everyone different in your experience, Mark?
Mark Patton: Well, everyone’s different and everyone’s taste is different. Everyone’s, you know, what their what they like is different. And so, when we when we’re tasting whiskey, we always ask before we tell, what are you getting? What are you tasting? What are you? What do you get on the nose, and then try to modify that? One of the simple differences that helps people is to when they say, Wow I get smoke, but we’re drinking bourbon. Bourbon has no smoked barley in it, there’s one. But in general, there is no smoking involved in bourbon. And so, we tried to modify that impression say a word so it’s smoke but what you’re getting is from the barrel char so let’s call that Ash. Let’s call that let’s call it something else. And so, then they realize when they go back to a Scotch smoky Scotch then yeah, it is different. So, this is smoke. This is char, this is salt, his is brine, and you start building it up and the same thing works in Korean, you know, is it this fish is it that fish when you’re talking about Ardbeg, it’s, you know, are we are we talking about smoked pork? are we talking about, you know, brined fish and we’re Where are we going?
Oh Sook Hyun: Yeah. Kind of Ardbeg is we, I explained, it’s an easy expression is Byeong-won, yeah.
Alex Jensen: Byeong-won that sounds like I was gonna say that you’re saying a word I know that’s hospital but, why on earth Ardbeg? I don’t, I mean you because of the chemical smell.
Oh Sook Hyun: Yeah, it’s Sodog-yag(소독약), it’s Jod(요오드) kind of that smell. So, I have a pretty Byeong-won by Byeong-won or Sodog-yag, they’re thinking about that kind of smell so they Imaginate, imagine kind of a that taste.
Alex Jensen: I think, you’ve just ruined hospitals or Ardbeg for me one or the other.
Mark Patton: Modify that further because Ardbeg is not just a hospital, it’s the bacon hospital. That’s where you send your pig when you’ve gone to war with your trusty pig at your side and you’ve been both Shut up. You and the pig are laying there in this nicely disinfected hospital smelling of you know gunpowder and bacon.
Oh Sook Hyun: Or buying sugar tasty, we say dalgona (달고나) kind of that word are we using.
Alex Jensen: Everyone knows dalgona now after Squid Game, but where do you find dalgona in bourbon for example.
Oh Sook Hyun: Bourbon Sour mash have too.
Alex Jensen: Sour mash. So, like a mixture sour mash? Yeah. Mark who are the customers who typically walk in off the street here. I know that you’ve got the following through the club. But is that also most of the customers or are there people just strolling past here and the slightly less developed part of Yongsan, very close still to the station and all the new skyscrapers but it might be a nice surprise for people when they’re going past here.
Mark Patton: Well, they do see the interior and they take a look, and we often are mistaken for a bar then they realize that there’s no glassware because of the lighting and so forth. But there is quite a bit of foot traffic. And over the course of the day, the foot traffic and car traffic changes from sort of moderately wealthy people finishing their morning golf and coming back home to this neighborhood to in the evening, it’s lots of young people. So, it’s surprising how many young couples and young groups come by in the evening.
Alex Jensen: And when I look on the shelves, I can see you know like Johnnie Walker Blue Label which is obviously very highly regarded by many people but it’s not so difficult to find in Korea and Glenfiddich 15 Also, many people love it but Um, what would I find in this shop that I wouldn’t as easily find in, I don’t know, and E-mart or Shinsegae and Wine And More, all owned by the same company as they are.
Mark Patton: Well, let’s see. We have Kentucky Owl which is a very small batch blended and sourced whiskey. They’re a little bit on the pricey side also recently into the Korean market. We’ve got Rossville Union Rye and George Remus bourbon both are from the MGP distillery factory complex. And those are the distillery first attempt at retail. They’ve been the supplier for companies like Lux Row with rebel bourbon, like Bulleit, like Ezra, Old Ezra. So, they supply, you know, large quantities to other companies who then aged and then bottle. But these two products they’ve come out with and so although I haven’t tasted them yet, I’ve been reading about them now for the three years since they’ve been released. And so, we have those on the shelf right now and looking forward to putting together an event around them.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, what would your advice be to someone who actually doesn’t know much about these brands except for what they’re passed by but doesn’t have much of a palette yet to for whisky, but loves the idea of it? I mean, I actually like to ask both of you, perhaps Mark, you can answer for the sort of expert in Seoul who feels like they should know more about whiskey than they do? And maybe Sook Hyun, you can tell us about the sort of typical Korean entry level whiskey drinker, what would your advice be when they come into a store like this?
Oh Sook Hyun: First, I ask that, what do prefer taste, sweet or not sweet? flower? honey? or when you drink it, night to DRAM or with meal? So, I ask some question. And here the answer, I recommended as the first. Whiskey as a climber or a single malt or bourbon with wild turkey or, yeah, kind of a low entry level. Yeah.
Alex Jensen: And then you can go a little more complex. Really, you’ve got this right behind me here, for example, Full Proof 1792, which is 62.5%.
Oh Sook Hyun: It’s very high proof.
Alex Jensen: So yeah, I mean, if someone who’s never drank bourbon for takes a sip of that they’re going to have their socks blown off, right?
Oh Sook Hyun: Entry level people drink want to not that high proof. So, 40 or 43 is a reasonable start line, I think of that.
Alex Jensen: And likewise, Mark, it’s hard to find a profile for certain things like scotch. I mean, some people love the smoky stuff straight away, for example, because they like that kind of food. But something like Ardbeg would not be considered entry level or approachable. First go at a single malt, right?
Mark Patton: Ardbeg in terms of, Isle whiskies are big 10 is considered entry level for that profile. So that would be someplace where you would start if you were jumping into the Kildalton Coast Islay Ardbeg, Laphroaig Lagavulin, those styles that that would be one you would start with, but I would go somewhere else first, I was okay before you jump in there, then you might consider maybe a Speyside peated or a highland peated and so you get used to some peat, or you can go all the way up to wick and get a bottle of old Poultney and get something that’s really salty. And so, you know, build the get something that focuses on some of those individual flavors that are not in your usual McKellen’s and Glenfiddich that people are, they’re kind of ubiquitous and people enjoy. So, if you’re going, you’re saltier, or smokier or more brine, find something that has just that, and kind of showcases that before you get into something that has all of it because you will be overpowered.
Alex Jensen: You can go online and plenty of websites and YouTube channels like yours dedicated in various languages to this there’s a lot of whiskey lovers around the world. But then you try to find that same thing in Korea and it can be tricky. Can you talk to us about the distribution side of it and how you go about sourcing specific whiskies that you want to sell or want people to taste at an event for example?
Mark Patton: That’s a challenging question. We have several different models in the distribution chain in Korea. So first one is the local office of a global company. So, we have DIAGEO is here, Beam Suntory is here, Brown-Forman is here, all three of those companies operate at a different level of intensity in Korea. And I’m not going to criticize what the challenges they have. But you, we get a different amount and different range from each three of those, even though they’re all huge companies, then we have the local importer who might be part of a regional company. But they’re importers and those guys are really working hard to make good relationships within their network and with distilleries around the world and are really busting their tails to bring us everything they can. And they’re always looking for recommendations. And what do you like, I get the impression that they are a little bit closer to kind of what the market wants because nobody’s pushing, they have to pull, they have to go and get it and pull it here where the companies that operate as part of a global company, just get it, you know, they get what they’re sent there from headquarters. And if their company does not look at Korea as a particularly lucrative or viable market, we get bypassed, then there’s what they call the second parallel import which to my knowledge, we don’t have a problem in Korea with fakes. But it was a product that isn’t coming through an official, dedicated importer or the company itself. And so that’s where you get some real good deals, but it’s not consistent and you don’t know when it’s going to go away so that’s kind of a challenge. A lot of Koreans that really get into whiskey have gone to the direct purchase where you order it, you get it shipped here, you pay the taxes yourself, and you’ve got your bottle. That’s fun but it’s also probably the most expensive way to get a bottle of whiskey here.
Alex Jensen: Just going to say mail order seems so appealing when you go online until you realize the local tax situation. Sook Hyun, do you wish as a whiskey lover that there were better options in a country where people do so much shopping online but that you can’t do whiskey online?
Oh Sook Hyun: Yeah, in Korea, we can’t order that online but exported it carrier industry member do very work hard to change their law. So, someday, maybe we can order their online, but you can order the mobile Eopeul (어플) and pick up some area. Yeah.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, that’s one work around. Just to clarify there, you can get the application arrange for it to be like a convenience store, for example, for alcohol which I suppose is not a terrible option. It just requires some planning mark. People like to buy these things on impulse sometimes, don’t they?
Mark Patton: Well, yeah, whiskey can often be an impulse buy. And that’s why part of the conversation we like to have, is why, what are you buying for, what’s your reason? Is it a gift? Is, are you looking for something for dinner? What are you going for, because a lot of times people will come in, I’ve had this experience when I’ve been here helping out, if you will come in with a particular bottle in mind? And even if they see it, sometimes, you know, we’re small, we don’t have everything, but they won’t see what they want. But we’ll start talking about what are you interested in? or they will see what they want to go, what else do you have? And then they’ll buy something that wasn’t their first choice? Because we start exploring what’s the experience you want to have? And we direct them to something else, and they usually have a great time with it.
Alex Jensen: If people want to try to find you, what’s the best way to do that, I guess the YouTube channel is one option. But can you just take us through the various ways of discovering you online for example?
Oh Sook Hyun: Instagram we have in channel And the…
Alex Jensen: What like what is the name of the Instagram channel just for everyone’s benefit?
Oh Sook Hyun: whiskey_bible. Yeah.
Mark Patton: And so, I we have all of our links in a link tree. So, if you go to its what is it? I forget where the period is, but it’s link tree, whatever their plants, their punctuation is Korea Bourbon Club. And so, the Whiskey Bible Instagram is there the Korea Bourbon Club Instagram, the Facebook group the page, the YouTube channel, everything, including an email if you really want to talk to us, you can email us through that site. So, link tree is where everything’s pulled together. And I update that as we add other social media channels.
Alex Jensen: Good to know one final bonus question. I know that this is not a bar here, but if you were to steer anyone towards your favorite secret spot that you’d like to go and drink whiskey and Seoul or perhaps Korea generally, can I ask you both for where you would best recommend someone to go and explore whiskey in the bar setting?
Mark Patton: We’re gonna offend a bunch of people. We got a lot of bartenders who really have been so good to us over the years either letting us host events, or just making friends with us. So that’s a really hard question. Our closest place if you want to try whiskey by weight which is kind of a new concept, if you’ve been put off by you know, a 22,000 won DRAM and want to try something expensive, but want to pay through the nose, right near us is BOLD HANDS and they will sell you whiskey. And it’s, you buy Man (10,000) won worth of whiskey, it might be a little tiny bit because it’s a 900,000 won bottle, but you’ve gotten the taste and the, they measure it out by weight. So that’s an interesting concept. They’re right here in the neighborhood. And they have a really good gin and tonic as well.
Alex Jensen: BOLD HANDS in Yongsan. Good to know. Sook Hyun, I mean, look, if there’s a few bars that you want to give a shout out to, I’m not going to limit you to just one.
Oh Sook Hyun: If you want a very nice night to scene, go to the Rubato in Mapo Station.
Alex Jensen: Rubato in Mapo-gu, okay. Take your recommendations, both of you, Mark and Sook Hyun, thank you so much for welcoming me into your whiskey home. I’d definitely like to come back here and visit perhaps try one of these, ones that I’m looking at here. I mean, when I scan the shelves has various different mixtures at a competitive price. It’s not like just because you’re smaller, you’re bumping up the price compared with say, for example, the Wine And More but then I’m seeing things that I don’t necessarily see there like I don’t know George Remus straight bourbon whiskey Rossville union. I don’t remember seeing that before in Korea. Whistle pig yellow rose, you mentioned Old Ezra before, not just wild turkey and wild turkey Rare Breed but also Longbranch. I mean, the list goes on. And that’s just one side. We could go over to Scotland on the other side, and we find Old Poultney is that how I say it? And big Pete who is not easy to find in Korea. Some people love that combination of the Islay whiskies, you’ve got the Irishman, you’ve got variations of Ardbeg, it really is a nice selection and I’ve just given you a small tour vocally there and I urge anyone who has any passion for this to come check it out for themselves or to just check out Mark and Sook Hyun online. Again, thank you both of you so much.
Oh Sook Hyun: Thank you.
Mark Patton: Thank you so much. And by the way, the day we’re recording is prohibition repealed day this is the day that the US after 13 years of having to hide their booze finally got to drink again. Happy Prohibition Repeal Day.
Alex Jensen: Well then. Plenty of reasons to celebrate this time of year and there’s yet another one by the way, you may have heard Mark before mentioned that link tree, I checked it out it is linktr.ee/koreabourbonclub so that’s linktr.ee forward slash and then all one-word koreabourbonclub. Enjoy. Let me also say thank you once again to our sponsor who made today’s episode possible the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, I wish everybody a wonderful weekend.