It’s one of Seoul’s most Instagrammable haunts: Jean Frigo, a cozy café by day, cocktail bar by night, hidden behind refrigerator doors in a nondescript fruit shop. Bartenders are busy shaking up signature libations: piña coladas with fresh peach and pineapple, spiked juices, mojitos laden with mint. Post up here and you might not resurface until 3 in the morning.
Just a few years ago, a bar like this could have never existed in South Korea’s capital—which is surprising, given the city’s infamous nightlife and deeply embedded drinking culture. Koreans drink twice as much as Russians, on average, and four times as much as Americans, but have only recently embraced spirits other than their native soju.
This country is just as renowned for innovation and tastemaking as it is for imbibing (see: K-pop, K-beauty, K-fashion), and once the cocktail trend took off, it took off hard. In just the last decade, Seoul’s bar scene has evolved from a fairly uniform roster of dimly lit whisky dens into one of Asia’s most imaginative and celebrated drinking scenes.
Leading the charge are upscale, speakeasy-style bars merging highly-calibrated interiors with serious drinking (and, almost always, an entrance fee). The devil is in the architectural and decorative details—that barstool you’re sitting on is as carefully curated as what’s in your glass.
But Seoul’s coolest cocktail bars are way more than just good looking. They create immersive, high-concept drinking experiences that, at their most potent, can be utterly transportive. And while we can’t physically visit Korea right now, when travel opens up, these bucket list-worthy bars will be the ideal place to say geonbae.
In Seoul’s fashionable Gangnam district, the portrait of a white rabbit marks your descent into a tipsy storybook fantasy inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Here in the basement of an unassuming flower shop, guests lounge on Victorian furniture in the swanky drawing room, and cluster discreetly behind brick corners and sectioned-off drawstring curtains. The theatrical cocktails are the best part—like the “Cheshire’s Tail,” a gin concoction served in a genie-lamp glass and shrouded in cotton candy.
This is Seoul’s OG speakeasy, the trendsetter that launched a thousand copycats after its 2014 opening. Descending into a tiny library, thirsty patrons gain entry by selecting the correct tome off a bookshelf. Once inside, high ceilings, lush drapes, and intricate chandeliers create a Gatsby vibe for classic cocktails. According to owner Lim do Han, the goal was to create a place to “see and be seen,” which accounts for the high-profile clientele and Korean celebs lounging about on the monogrammed sofa chairs.
Pussyfoot is an extravagant bar concept that riffs on the nostalgia of old-timey train travel. The upstairs seating gives the illusion of a moving vintage train car: landscapes roll past on monitors resembling windows, while elegant baggage carriers and compartments are embossed with the names of railroad tycoons. “Passengers” pick their poison from a Prohibition-inspired cocktail menu, where classics like the Penicillin are served with quirky origin stories. But the don’t-miss drink is the Ramos Gin Fizz, an old-school sour of gin, heavy cream, egg white, and lemon juice. In its heyday in New Orleans, it required up to 20 “shaker boys” to get the frothy consistency right (but today, there's a machine for that).
Behind an unmarked door in the basement of the Four Seasons Hotel, Charles H. pays tribute to the American cocktail writer Charles H. Baker Jr. The lavish design recalls 1920s New York—a formative period for Baker—with rare touches like rich mahogany furniture and an apothecary cabinet filled with antique decanters and snuff bottles. Distinct Korean elements are worked in as well, including glass mosaic floors and a tapestry braided like the hair of imperial wives. Intricate whisky flights, often paired with chocolates, are their signature thing: The Manhattan flight lets you taste three different versions of the whisky cocktail made according to different time periods and potencies.
One of Seoul’s best-kept secrets, this tiny late-night watering hole is where bartenders go to unwind after their busy shifts. Located in the Hannam-dong district, just a stone’s throw away from Pussyfoot Saloon, Whynot opens on weekends at 3 am. From there, its sleek leather high-tops and sofas fill up quickly with industry folks and in-the-know locals hanging out until the sun comes up. What draws them in aside from the hushed after-hours vibe? A ridiculously well-stocked bar and expertly-made drinks.
One of Seoul’s most well-established drinking lairs, the industrial-chic Factory is especially beloved by women whisky drinkers. That’s thanks in large part to the excellent service of the two female mixologist-owners serving perfect Old Fashioneds and sensory-led whisky tastings from behind the bar. “We wanted to normalize women drinking alone in bars and create a welcoming environment,” says whisky master and owner Park Si Young. “In the past, women would often stand in whisky bars and feel uncomfortable. We wanted a place where they could feel at home to talk and learn about whisky from other females.”
Hidden in a hanok, or traditional Korean house, in one of Seoul’s oldest neighborhoods is a new style of speakeasy with a warmer, brighter, bistro-like vibe. Cham, which means “oak” in Korean, is a nod to the hanok’s original wood fixtures, paired with leafy plants and exposed brick. Mixologists skip the tight button-downs and ubiquitous bowties in favor of flowy shirts and sustainable-material aprons. They’re also embracing modern cocktail-making techniques with a focus on regional craft spirits, bitters, and herbs—allowing Koreans to discover bold new flavors from their homeland.