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Having lived in Seoul for some time you become accustomed to good restaurants and good bars. When my long time friend and architect Will told me that I needed to go with him to have “the best cocktail he has ever had,” I wondered if it was hype? Will has never let me down, so I knew I must at least give it a shot. Before entering the bar Will warned me that the cocktails were expensive, approximately $20 U.S. but that he would buy the first round, certain that after tasting it that a second round would be well worth the price. We were greeted by the master behind these cocktails, Sung Min Park. After my first sip I had no problem spending the money.

Sung Min recently opened a bar in Seoul called Still, and we wanted to chat with him about the inspiration behind it. He is also the bar manager at Le Chamber which ranked 25 in the Top 50 Bars in Asia contest. If you visit Seoul, you need to have a cocktail prepared for you by Sung Min. We hope you enjoy the interview.

1) Can you tell us about your childhood and how that influenced what you are doing now?

I spent my childhood in a very nature friendly environment. I was born in Seoul but moved when I was little. The town I grew up had a lot of farmland, rice paddies, and vineyards. When it was time for harvesting, my family would gather and cook grape jams or ferment wines. It was like our annual event. Thinking back, I feel like that was the beginning of my career.

2) You opened a new bar called Still. What was your inspiration behind Still?

As the bar name shows, I was inspired by the American Stillhouses. I consider it more humble and natural compared to Europe’s distillery. I wanted to create a place where everyone can get close to each other through drinks and have fun. It’s cozy and private inside. To create impressions of a stillhouse, we used copper pipe, and there’s no sign outside, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it would be hard to find the entrance.  

3)You have won best bartender in Korea as well as ranked top 10 in the world. Please tell us about some of those competitions. Which one are you most proud of?

Participating in competitions helped my career tremendously. Being a bartender in a country with such a small cocktail market has limited competition. I used the contests as a way to truly challenge myself and test and hone my skills.  In the beginning the competitions served as a way to assess my skills. Then as I trained and pushed myself, I began wanting to compete on a global level. I believe that training made me who I am today.

When I won Diageo’s World Class Korea in 2013 and 2014 I wanted to challenge myself for the bigger stage. After practicing with new recipes I was able to finish second place in Global Don’s of Tequila by Jose Cuervo 2015. I would say World Class Competitions made me grow as a bartender. Don’s of Tequila, on the other hand, invigorated me to spend the rest of my life growing and excelling in my craft.

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Photo: Still Bar

4) How did you become interested in mixology?

I’ve always enjoyed creating and working with my hands with such things as cooking. When I was a student, I had a part time job at a café. On the menu were cocktails (very simple ones now come to think of it. like gin & tonic, mint frappe, etc.) which fascinated me. Another time I visited a cocktail bar and felt such an  energy, that memory was unforgettable. After that I started working at bars and in the cocktail business.

5) What are 3 of your favourite bars?

Night Jar in London, U.K. – this is the very first bar I visited on my first trip to London. It is a world famous bar so I had lots of expectations. Just by sitting at the bar and drinking cocktails I felt all of my expectations were fulfilled. Their variety of ingredients give the customers new flavors, scents, and experiences. They also have jazz performances each night which is reminiscent of the prohibition period.

Kang Ga An in Kyoto, Japan – I visited here very recently. They have an impressive bar, located inside a 340 year old temple. It might sound unacceptable to Asian culture because it’s a bar inside a Buddhist temple. The irony it creates makes this place surreal. They also have well decorated Japanese gardens that makes you feel as if you’re inside a Japanese fantasy animation.

Bar Orchard in Tokyo, Japan – this is a bar in Ginza. Most of the bars in Ginza are very classical. This bar is owned by a couple, and differentiates itself from the conventional style. New/creative ingredients and (Japanese) delicacies truly surprise its customers. If I can recommend you a one place in Ginza, it would be Bar Orchard: excellent service and friendly atmosphere.

6) Do you or did you have any bartender role models?

I don’t really have a role model since I taught myself a great deal about bartending. But if I have to choose one, it would be Manabu Ohtake, winner of the World Class Global 2012. He is charismatic and humorous. I think he has an incredible attitude for a bartender. He is very passionate with cocktails and very knowledgeable as well. And of course his drinks are very delicious.

7) How do you come up with a new drink? Do you think of the alcohol first? Can you walk us through your creation process?

To come up with a new drink first I need inspiration or a story. To me everything can be inspiration. Traveling to new places, meeting new peoples, encountering new cultures and ingredients…everything can inspire me to come up with a new idea. This is actually the most difficult part.  After that I decide with alcohol, sour, sweet, bitter, and something that can give it a wow.  This is a fast process. I try not to think too much though, because I think it can interfere with the creative process and good ideas.

8) When we first started drinking at Elbon The Table where you previously worked, it was mainly westerners that would frequent your bar. Have more Koreans become interested in mixology?

Within a couple of years, the cocktail bar industry in Korea has had exponential growth. As the good bars started to appear more and more it became very natural for Koreans to visit these bars lately. As you know, Seoul is a rapidly changing city. I don’t know how long this bar-visiting trend will last? But I believe this trend will last longer than we expect as long as the good bartenders greet customers with great cocktails and good services.

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Photo: Still Bar

Located: Gangnam Gu, Cheongdam Dong 85-7

강남구 청담동 85-7
Seoul, South Korea