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Single malt whisky, what is all the fuss about?

In South Korea, whiskey has long held onto a steadfast position as a popular libation for business and social gatherings.

Mixed with beer as a “poktan” drink or served up on the rocks or straight, the spirit maintained a secure position in the alcohol market that appeared unshakable.

Then the makgeolli boom took off several years ago and the shift from whiskey-formulated “poktan” drinks to soju-based concoctions took a chunk out of the industry pie.

Rather than proclaim the imminent death of the whiskey market, various news outlets started to highlight a new trend.

Sure, whiskey in general might have taken a hit, but single malt whisky was on the rise.

The press put the spotlight on the approximately doubled sales and threefold increase in the number of single malt brands available over the past four to five years.

What made for even greater news was that this movement was attracting younger consumers and women.

Whiskey aficionado Bae Dae-won, who currently acts as shop master for the single malt specialty store The Malt Shop, believes that the emergence of a generation that places value on individuality and the desire to differentiate from the crowd over a herd mentality is partially responsible for this trend.

“A drinking culture focused on savoring aromas and flavors has established itself,” Bae, 34, said.

Bae explained that there is a “less but better quality” attitude towards alcoholic beverages now.

As for attracting a younger crowd, Bae agrees, saying that many college students come for tastings at The Malt Shop.

“During the lunch hour, we get young office workers,” he added, revealing that they also receive many female visitors, but that overall there was still a higher percentage of men.

The Shilla Seoul’s bar and lounge, The Library, which harbors an extensive collection of single malt whiskies, has also seen a transition in their clientele’s age bracket.

According to the bar’s captain Yoo Mi, starting from late 2010 to last year customers have been getting younger, down to their late 20s.

However, the trend has yet to go mainstream says Sung Joong-yong ― who authored a book on whiskey and is currently the assistant director at Johnnie Walker School (an institute established by drinks business Diageo Korea that educates bartenders).

According to Sung, single malt whisky still represents a small slice of the market and while marketing may have attracted trend-sensitive consumers, Sung says he believes it will be hard for single malt whisky to become a mainstream hit. 
Diageo Korea’s selection of six single malt Scotch whiskies (Diageo Korea)
Diageo Korea’s selection of six single malt Scotch whiskies (Diageo Korea)

Bae, however, sees the shift in interest to savoring and slowly enjoying whiskey as a promising sign for the future of single malt whisky.

Bae also does not think that the trend is necessarily sustained by savvy marketing or hype, stressing that consumers taste first before committing to a product and that the “trend is continuing because it has substance.”

Regardless of whose predictions will pan out, one thing seems to be correct: There are more varieties out on the market now and sales have been going up.

So what about single malt whisky has consumers coming back for more? Bae pointed to strong personalities as a primary draw.

“It’s like differentiating between a custom-made suit and ready-made clothes. Single malt is like getting something custom-fit.”

What Bae is referring to is that single malt whisky is made from one distillery and one type of grain, meaning that each brand and variety is a reflection of a very specific place, production method and ingredient, and therefore, in Bae’s opinion, allows customers to find that one brand and vintage that suits their preferences.

“Each single malt whisky is unique and distinctive,” Sung, 42, said. “Bartenders can change their creations depending on what single malt whisky they use.”

A simple series of tastings at The Malt Shop confirmed Sung’s statement. Not only did different brands of single malt Scotch taste radically different, different vintages and bottlings of each brand were also worlds apart.

The Balvenie DoubleWood, which had been aged for 12 years in both bourbon and sherry casks, gave off sweet vanilla aromas, while The Balvenie Single Barrel, which had been aged in a bourbon cask for 15 years, was redolent of gingerbread with heavy and delicious notes of nutmeg.

The Ardbeg Uigeadail married spicy, vanilla scents with a hint of smoke at the end, while the Ardbeg Corryvredan bore almond flavors. Some single malts tasted of apples, others of juicy pineapples and some of the ocean.

With so many different flavors and aromas to enjoy, it becomes unclear as to how one should properly drink single malt whiskey.

The Library’s Yoo revealed that their customers like mixing single malt whisky with sparkling water, while Sung said adding water or drinking it with ice are common ways to enjoy it.

However, to properly savor the vast array of fragrances and flavors of single malt whiskies, Sung recommends sipping it and letting it rest in one’s mouth “like wine.”

A nosing glass (a glass with a narrow mouth and slightly bulging sides) or a wine glass, according to Bae, are appropriate to use when tasting whiskies.

First Bae recommends noting the color of the whisky, stating that a darker, stronger hue reveals that it has been aged in a sherry cask and a lighter, golden hue points towards a bourbon cask.

Of the casks, Bae said that sherry casks tend to impart dried fruit, leather and dark chocolate aromas while bourbon casks give off hints of pineapple, coconut and vanilla.

After noting color, then one can note the viscosity of the whisky to determine its alcohol strength before noting scent, mouthfeel and finish.

“You can add a little water which enhances the scent, but it also weakens body and finish, so add it carefully,” he advised.

Sung suggested pairing fruity, floral and lightly peated single malts with fruit, nuts and cheese; and heavily peated whiskies with bleu cheese, salami, smoked ham, steak and seafood.

“Heavily peated whiskies go well with seafood, because the aromas of peat are associated by some with the scent of the sea,” said Bae.

By Jean Oh (