Where to find Korea's best bartenders
When my friend Jenny and I walk into Bar Rouge at the JW Marriott Seoul on Friday evening, a smiling young woman greets us and immediately asks which publication I’m from.
“Oh, Lord. Do I have ‘journalist’ tattooed on my forehead or something?” I say, turning to Jenny, who starts laughing at me.
It turns out that it’s Media Day at Bar Rouge. The Gangnam lounge is celebrating the fact that two of its star bartenders have recently taken top honors at the Diageo Reserve’s World Class Korea bartender competition.
So what was going to be a laid-back night with girl talk over Friday night cocktails turns into a fun, inadvertent interview at the bar.
Bartenders Andy Seo, 39, and Terry Kim, 28, who won first and second place at the Diageo Reserve respectively, bring us their signature drinks.
'Trip to Mexico'
First is Andy Seo's championship-winning cocktail. It's made from hallabong (a citrus fruit from Jeju Island), cucumber, lemon, egg white and jo-cheong, a traditional Korean starch syrup and tequila.
It’s ironic that a cocktail that takes its unique flavor from very Korean ingredients is called “Round Trip in Mexico.” Andy explains.
“I want people to feel like they've been to Mexico and back after they drink it,” he says. “Plus, the tequila is Don Julio Blanco, which is from Mexico.”
The cocktail looks like beer, tastes smooth and deep and has a subtle scent of hallabong.
“The only reason bartenders use oranges in their cocktails is because they’re cheap,” says Seo, referring either to oranges or his vanquished bartender rivals, I can't be sure.
“I always wanted to try the hallabong in a cocktail because it has a softer, lighter taste than the orange, which is very strong.”
Andy, who joined the Marriott as a bartender in 2000, is heading to Rio de Janeiro to compete in the Diageo Reserve World Class 2012 Global Final from July 8-12.
More than 50 bartenders will be flying in for the event from all over the world to battle it out for the mixology crown.
“There’s no prize money,” he says.
Not even for the global championship? He shakes his head.
“Why do it then?” I ask.
“It’s all about the fame,” he says. “After all, you’re here right now because of it.”
Actually I’d be here anyway, but he doesn’t seem to believe me when I say so.
Terry Kim placed second at the Korean competition with his cocktail, called DJ Terry, made with cherry tomatoes, pineapple, lemon, basil, honey, dry vermouth and tequila.
It’s a delicious fruity drink that tastes more like a new blend of juice than cocktail.
“It seems so healthy and peppy,” says Jenny, a research analyst at a foreign financial firm who knows her cocktails. She likes this one the best. “I think it’ll be a hit with the ladies.”
Terry is mischievous and looks too young to be able to drink legally, let alone be a veteran bartender who placed second at Diageo Reserve.
However, he may be on track to be the next global champion bartender -- in past years, several regional runner-ups have gone on to win the world title.
Bring on the spice
After the first two drinks, we convince Andy to let us try one of the spicy margaritas we’ve heard are good at Bar Rouge.
Andy is unwilling, saying they're too spicy.
The margaritas are made with an infusion technique that leaves spicy Korean red peppers in the tequila for days then mixes it with a spicy syrup made from more ground peppers.
We risk it.
Each sip leaves a series of small shocks running up and down the tongue.
“I’ve sent many an adventurous customer to the bathroom with those,” he warns solemnly.
Bar Rouge, Lower Level, JW Marriott Seoul, 19-3 Seocho-ku, Seocho-1-dong, Seoul, Korea (서초구 서초1동 19-3); +82 2 6282 6763; 6 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday; www.jw-marriott.co.kr
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