Ingredients like mezcal and high-quality tonic water are missing from South Korea's bars because they’re technically illegal to import into the country—but one man is trying to change that.
It's always a sad thing to see your dreams crushed. But it's a sad and bizarre thing to see the Korean government personally destroy your dreams, videotape the destruction, and send you the evidence.
I'll back up.
It's hard to imagine that Charles H., a glittering speakeasy inside the new Four Seasons Seoul, could have any problems. There are bottles of Billecart-Salmon on ice, towers of ginseng-infused sprits, a secret karaoke room in the back. The bar staff work diligently in immaculate, crisp white jackets. The place is stunning.
While everything may appear to be in place, things are missing. Things world-class bars want, like mezcal and high-quality tonic water. Those things are missing because they're technically illegal to import into South Korea right now.
"Cocktails really started in Korea six years ago," Christopher Lowder told me. Lowder is the American expat heading all 12 of the beverage programs at the luxury hotel, including Charles H.
Lowder explained that in Korea, you need an importing license to get your hands on any foreign bar item, from syrups to bitters to vermouth. If your importing license lapses, that product falls into a legal grey zone. No one can import the product anymore, and it's no simple task to get a new license.
"It's about six months of paperwork back and forth between the government, and you have to get the producers on board," Lowder said.
"I brought new tequila into this country, the first-ever 40-percent blanco tequila—everything else is sold underproof—and you have an importing document," he said.
"You need a letter from the distiller to the Korean government, so you have to sync some poor guy in Jalisco with this bureaucrat and they don't speak anything near the same language.
"Rums—forget about it, because all of the rum guys are on island time."
Once (or if) the paperwork goes through, a product gets shipped to Korea, where it then faces extensive chemical testing by the Korean government. The tests flag anything that could be potentially hazardous to the population's health, but they tend to be extremely sensitive.
"Mezcal is still illegal because they measure it and it has too much methanol—which is natural and its the way that they distill and it's OK," Lowder said. "In the eyes of the Korean government, if it's above a certain percentage, it gets rejected."
When Lowder tried to get high-quality tonic water into Korea, it was shot down because it contains small amounts of quinine.
"Technically, if I were to drink ten gallons of tonic water in a sitting, it's potentially hazardous to my health," Lowder said.
While the rest of the international cocktail community is happily playing with a bounty of craft tonic waters, Korea is stuck with one kind—Canada Dry.
"The good and bad news is that every single person is drinking the same shitty tonic in this country, so there's zero demand," Lowder said. "They're all living in Plato's Cave—is there a world outside?"
So what happens when an import gets rejected by Korean customs?
"They destroy it," Lowder explained.
This is as dramatic as it sounds. The Korean government doesn't want to assume the cost or responsibility of returning a shipment, so they just get rid of it.
"They destroy your liquor, and to prove they didn't drink it they send you a video," Lowder said. "I wish I could make it up. It's insane."
Given the obvious obstacles, finding people who want to take on this importing challenge is a struggle. Additionally, an importer must be convinced that a product—if it makes it through the paperwork and testing—will sell. Why risk all of that time and money on something as obscure as pisco?
Fortunately, Lowder has the power of the Four Seasons behind him.
"I manage 12 bar programs in this hotel. I can guarantee depletion for anyone who can play ball as long as we can find the capital necessary to pay an intern to do six months of paperwork."
Lowder has found what he calls "some angels" like Mike Soldner at Winston's Imports to work with and is effectively changing the landscape of the Korean bar world. Together, they've nearly doubled Korea's American whiskey selection and helped legalize imports like pisco, 100-percent agave blanco tequila, fruit cup liqueur, and sherry.
You can see the sincerity on Lowder's face when he's talking about the import dilemmas. He doesn't want to bring amaro to Korea because it's trendy; he's just cares about doing a good job.
"It's not so much as a customer demanding more. For me personally, I want to make sure that it's nice, right?"
Lowder's passion for hospitality developed early in his life. He started working in the food and beverage industry at the tender age of 15 when he got a job as a cook in Baltimore. He went on to study East Asian culture and languages at the University of Delaware, earn scholarships to continue those studies abroad, and ended up living in China for two-and-a-half years working as a translator.
Missing the controlled chaos and creativity of the hospitality world, Lowder moved to New York and found a job doing cocktail prep at Momofuku. In just a few years, Lowder was managing a team of nearly 40 bar professionals at The NoMad Hotel, earning him spots on lists like Zagat NYC's 30 Under 30 and America's Best New Mixologists by Food & Wine.
The accolades were rolling in, but Lowder wanted to find a way to combine his varied skill sets. He jumped on the opportunity to join the Four Seasons Seoul's opening team and moved to Korea with his wife in August 2015.
"When I moved here, in my naiveté, I had a whole menu drafted of things I wanted to do," Lowder said. "And when I got there they were like, 'Wait wait wait, we don't have any of that.'"
And so the learning experience began.
Lowder's efforts battling bureaucracy have paid off. Charles H. has garnered international attention and has been steadily racking up awards.
Whether or not it's his intention, Lowder may be the most instrumental tastemaker in the Korean beverage world, reshaping what it means to drink in Korea forever. This became clear during a recent interview with a local Korean journalist.
"Point blank, she said, 'Anything that you say we should drink, Korean people will drink.'"
But Lowder is wielding his power gracefully.
"On one hand I could say, 'Drinks at Charles H., of course!' But that's irresponsible."
So, what should Korean people drink?
"You should drink what makes you happy."