Looking for a secluded spot with a mix of perfectly crafted cocktails, suspender-clad bartenders and a hidden entrance? Seoul’s top speakeasy bars fit the bill while providing a unique experience you won’t forget. These cocktail bars mimic the hidden, illicit bars that arose during the 1920s Prohibition Era in the United States when the government banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. While Prohibition might not have happened in South Korea, Seoul’s bar scene has stepped up to interpret this fast-growing global trend. Even if the term “speakeasy” has become more of a cliche in recent years, we’re raising our glasses to these hidden-away bars that are well worth the search.
Two neon red Chinese characters are your only beacon into this establishment. Descend into the basement, pass the punching bag, and tap the bell. Behind the nondescript door, you’re welcomed into a dark, ambient lit room with rich leather couches and scenes from classic American gangster movies like Scarface and The Godfather. While martinis and gin and tonics are the specialties (and most popular choices), the friendly bartenders here are specialists at catering cocktails to your personal tastes. My result? An amaretto sour flavored with angostura, egg yolk and apricot seeds, followed up with a classic whiskey infused with actual cinnamon smoke.
The two words that come to mind when you step into Le Chamber: exceptionally posh and sophisticated. But then again, it’s to be expected when you have world-class bartenders Lim Jae-jin and Eom Do-hwan taking the cocktails to the next level in this Cheongdam-dong speakeasy. Part of the experience, of course, is getting into the bar. With Le Chamber, the library-esque entrance is shaped like a bookshelf, and only if you pick the right book will the door open. Once inside, you’re greeted with luxurious leather seats and glistening chandeliers. Posh indeed. Fair warning: this bar features a ₩10,000 cover charge,
Step inside this wonderland inspired by the 1865 Lewis Carroll novel and you’ll find yourself instantly transported into a world-class drinkery that the author himself probably wished he’d been able to visit. To go “down the rabbit hole”, you must follow the white rabbit into a basement flower shop and enter through a discreet white door (sadly not a looking glass). The otherworldly atmosphere features subtle hints to the Carroll classic in the decor and the whimsical cocktails that range from simple to complex.
From the outside, Volstead, unlike other speakeasies on this list, is not hard to find (there’s a sign) yet still remains pretty unassuming. Located on Itaewon’s main street, you’ll head down into the basement to find a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere complete with vintage posters and old retro-style furniture. Named after the 1919 National Prohibition Act that sparked the creation of speakeasies, Volstead serves up well-priced cocktails like the unusual Lynchburg Lemonade and classic tonic.
Tucked inside the basement of the glitzy Four Seasons Hotel, Charles H dials up the art deco glamour of 1920s with exceptional hospitality and high-quality ambiance. It’s named after the globetrotting American author and cocktail expert Charles H. Baker, who wrote about liquors from various cities around the world during the Prohibition era. To pay homage to their namesake, Charles H’s menu even features concoctions discovered by the cocktail connoisseur himself on his world travels. The one and only quip I have about this bar is the ₩10,000 cover charge, which is slightly unnecessary since the cocktails are already pretty pricey. But if you have the means, it’s a necessary evil to enjoy a place as sinfully decadent as its drinks.
Once you manage to find the heavy wooden door to this Hannam-dong joint, just knock and wait for the doorkeeper—who will first peek at you through a peephole—to give you the approval to enter. You’ll then step inside to one of Seoul’s most authentic speakeasy bars which has a selection of over 300 whiskies and little to no wifi signal. (It’s intentional as photo-taking is also prohibited.) So sip your scotch, enjoy the ambiance of this bygone era and chat with the friendly bartenders who are well-versed on all things cocktails.
Do you know of a speakeasy bar that wasn’t covered on our list? Let us know in the comments!