Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Transitioning from probably London’s best-regarded cocktail bar to downtown Seoul came as something of a shock to Lorenzo Antinori – not least because he arrived at the end of February. “It was incredibly cold: like -8°C, snow everywhere,” he says. “I’m from Rome and we don’t have snow or that kind of cold. We actually have a saying that when there’s snow in Rome a Pope died.”
Culture shock is part of the world of the international bartender. But the culture shock in Seoul, where Antinori heads up the Charles H bar at the Four Seasons, is more intense than in many places. “The language barrier is real,” Antinori says. “You never ask: ‘How was your day?’ It’s something people don’t like to be asked because if the day wasn’t good they don’t like to say it. In Korean culture saying ‘No’ or saying negative things is kind of a taboo.”
The next surprise was the availability of ingredients. “I was talking with my F&B director, planning the menu, and things like raspberries in winter were not available,” he says. “It’s fascinating, but at the same time a real shock. I thought nowadays in 2017 you could get your hands on almost anything at any time, but here in Korea it’s not like that.”
Besides fresh ingredients, a whole raft of liquids that bartenders in the western hemisphere consider back bar basics have yet to become legal. “Angostura was legalised four months ago, while there’s only one mezcal in Korea, and I’d not heard of it,” Antinori says. “But we’re in a phase now where things are changing and there are so many importers that are helping us to raise the bar scene and bring new products into the country.”
Charles H is named for the globe-trotting cocktailophile Charles H. Baker, and Singapore’s Proof & Company, parent company of 28 Hong Kong Street and Junior but also a potent force in the world of Asian booze consultancy and training, consulted on the launch. Antinori joined earlier this year after Chris Lowder left the Four Seasons for a gig with Proof, and is relishing the chance to overcome the challenges of Seoul’s ingredient culture and work with local produce and products.
There is more to Korea’s liquor scene than soju. Antinori creates drinks with makgeolli (a product a little like a cloudy rice beer) as well as apple brandy, and is working with a local distillery to develop a rice-based gin. “There are certain ingredients that we use: local teas or roots or herbs or flowers, as well as some techniques that belong to Korean traditions, like preservation or fermentation,” he says. “Each drink needs to have a connection to the land, to the location where we are.” Kimchi, white soy sauce and a welter of local fruits are all on the menu.
Although he speaks four languages, Antinori did not originally plan a career in hospitality. “I studied law at university – and my mum is still crying about that, because a lawyer in the family is more useful than a bartender,” he says. “After that I moved to Australia to try and find the meaning of life, and when I came back law wasn’t very interesting anymore.”
Part-time gigs followed, including the rite of passage for any Italian, knocking out spritzes and highballs at an Italian restaurant, before Antinori decided to move to London and parlayed a stint washing glasses at Rome’s Hotel de Russie into a job as a bar back at the Savoy’s American Bar. “I spent two years at the American Bar and then two years at the Beaufort Bar, and graduated from bar back to senior bartender,” he says. “Those four years were very important to me.”
In 2015, Antinori joined Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths as head bartender at Dandelyan in the Mondrian hotel. “I was very lucky, working with Eric at the Savoy and then Chris Moore at the Beaufort Bar and then Ryan and Iain,” he says of his enviable CV. “They’re not just great professionals but great friends of mine and I was really blessed to have the opportunity to learn from them and work with them. If I were to offer anyone who wanted to be a bartender advice, it would always be to work with the best, to learn from the best.”
Yet, despite such mentors, and despite the efforts of home-grown Korean talent like Taeeun Yoon of Alice, London to Seoul was a bigger leap than it seemed. “Coming from Dandelyan and the Savoy, two very different styles that helped build up my creativity, I had a very clear vision, but some things were not possible to translate here in Seoul as consumers had a different palate,” Antinori says.
While sweet and sour or tropical style cocktails are starting to give way to American whiskey, and the stereotype of a bar full of suited and booted businessmen pounding soju – or blended Scotch – need no longer apply, even a garnish using seasonal fruits can still cause quite the stir.
The Japanese bartending tradition has been hugely influential in Seoul, Antinori says, and it’s a mixed blessing. “Don’t get me wrong! It’s beautiful - when you see a bartender really crafting a cocktail with beautiful movement, it’s amazing, but in Charles H we get 120 guests a night so we’re doing drinks quick and delicious,” he says.
Korean workplace culture, like Japan’s, is very hierarchical and status-conscious, and that can present challenges in a 21st-century bar, Antinori feels. “The head bartender is the senior position with all other bartenders like apprentices,” he says. “To a degree I agree, but this old-fashioned way of seeing a bar team as a hierarchy I think blocks creativity.”
One of the goals he’s working on with his talented local team at Charles H is helping bartenders develop their own personalities and express themselves behind the bar as a London or New York bartender might. Despite the challenges, Antinori says, “There are good bars, good people here. Korea deserves much more attention, especially with so much interest going to other parts of Asia.”