When we covered the opening of Four Seasons Seoul in 2016, the luxury hotel featured an Italian wine bar that closed during the pandemic. This past year, the doors to the venue reopened under a new name and concept: OUL. With an exciting redirection, the luxury hotel’s bar now celebrates its locale. Exclusively serving Korean fare and spirits (including their own garlic and ginger vodka), as well as thoughtful, culture-focused craft cocktails (like the Kimchi Highball) and compatible Korean food, OUL offers a tour of the past, present and future. Locals and visitors alike can discover something that’s unique to the country’s take on spirits. To learn more about the relaunch, menu concept and burgeoning Korean spirits industry, we spoke to the property’s creative director of beverages, Alyssa Heidt, and OUL’s lead Bartender, Violet Park, who led development of the cocktail menu.
Can you give us a little insight on what the bar’s new concept is and how it was decided?
Violet Park: None of the luxury, international hotels have a Korean bar or restaurant, so we wanted to do something unique and also attract millennials with more affordable prices. In Korea, people don’t actually know we have this much range of Korean alcohol besides makgeolli. We have many traditional drinks and good wines and gins, so we want to promote Korean spirits.
Alyssa Heidt: During the pandemic, our guest base in the hotel was 90% Korean, and now since we’ve reopened and the travel restrictions are more relaxed, it’s 70% foreign. When this bar opened it was primarily targeted toward the Korean market. Koreans love to eat food and drink together. It is very seldom that you find just Koreans drinking. You always have some food. That was the basis of OUL, to make it a food-friendly bar, where you can feel comfortable ordering some food and drinking cool Korean spirits. What I’m seeing from a foreigner’s perspective is that this is a very good entry point for our guests to become more familiar with Korean spirits and traditional Korean food as well.
Tell us about the menu development.
AH: The way the menu is organized starts with the past. It has very traditional drinks in the front and progresses into more modern-style drinks.
VP: Traditional cocktails include Sikhye [a sweet rice drink] and Sujeonggwa [an apple, cinnamon drink usually consumed as dessert] because they are traditional drinks, not alcoholic drinks, but we made them stronger. We added Korean whisky and bitters so its familiar to Koreans.
AH: 100% of the things in the bar are Korean, we don’t carry foreign vodka or foreign whisky. We’re not working with large brands, we’re working with very small producers and people who are very local. We’re supporting a lot of that growing business now where there’s this return to craft in the spirits industry in general.
And the food was conceived as bites that the drinks can pair with?
AH: We take traditional food, a lot of times it’s inspired by street food or food that you can find in the markets, and then we put a luxury twist on it. For instance, Tteokbokki [spicy rice cakes]. You get it on the street or from an auntie, but this is lobster Tteokbokki so you get nice pieces of lobster. It’s in a really beautiful presentation and it’s a communal dish so you can eat and share.
You talked a bit about how this was a nice entry point for foreigners who are coming to discover Korea and Korean spirits. Do locals also come to OUL?
VP: Yes, young people—especially in their late 20s and mid 30s—like to come here after work to have a drink. Our menu is not as expensive compared to other bars so they love to come here.
AH: A DJ spins every night so you can just have a bottle of makgeolli and chill out, order some food.
We’ve talked about makgeolli. And most people are familiar with the spirit soju. But can you tell us about some of these other spirit categories?
VP: There are other Korean spirits like cheongju and yakju. Cheongju is similar to sake but sake is made in Japan and cheongju is made in Korea. Usually Korean spirits are made from rice. So cheongju is a bit light and floral, and then a little sour so it’s very good for before you eat something. Yakju is similar to wine, very floral and light.
AH: Cheongju is essentially that clear liquid that rises to the top of makgeolli. Makgeolli is cloudy white and then once you let it settle, they skim off the top and that’s cheongju. Traditionally it used to be reserved for nobility. Back in the day, this was supposed to be the most pure of drinks.
Do you feel like there’s a movement to craft here?
AH: Absolutely. [There is Bryan Do] who is making Ki One whisky [the first single malt to be made in South Korea]; his previous company was a beer company, Hand and Malt. He really jumpstarted the craft beer industry in Korea. After that, there started to become more and now there’s a bunch of nice, local Korean beers. Ciders, too. [There’s one] made by a cute company called Dancing Papa. They’re doing a lot of really cool stuff with cider. It’s something that I would like to see because there’s really great fruit here in Korea.
Do you do any special programming or events?
AH: We feature one artisan per month, and it doesn’t have to be a liquor artisan. It can be somebody who’s involved in a Korean craft like making kimchi or making glass or pottery. [One] month we had a kimchi queen. We’ve created a dish that’s inspired by her—a stir fry dish with pork and soft tofu with her kimchi—and to complement it, traditionally, you drink makgeolli. We made a makgeolli sour in the style of a New York sour, topped with bokbunja instead of red wine.
OUL is currently open Tuesday-Saturday from 6pm to midnight. Visit here for menus and hours.
Hero image by Josh Rubin