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A Korean Bar Reconsiders Korean Drinking

At New York’s Reception Bar, Katie Rue’s thoughtful soju and non-alcoholic cocktails are challenging Korean drinking stereotypes.

On a quiet block of Orchard Street occupied by fabric vendors and galleries shuttered for the day, the sound of a trumpet comes from an open door. Inside, a jazz trio plays in a corner while a lone bartender unhurriedly stirs a drink. Late-afternoon sun streams through Reception Bar’s circular windows, young couples cluster on blush leather banquettes, and Katie Rue, blunt-banged and perched on a stool, initiates applause as the music fades out. Intimate yet airy, Reception Bar, which Rue describes as a “New Korean cocktail and elixir bar,” is a far cry from the chaos of 32nd Street’s Koreatown, just a couple miles north.

As a Korean American, much of the drinking I’ve experienced in Seoul and Koreatowns across America centers around soju (a starch-based distilled liquor) drunk straight—chilled and sometimes with great ceremony—to cut through copious amounts of fatty, meaty or spicy anju (drinking food). Koreans eat hard and drink hard, perhaps as a response to outsize societal pressure to excel, even at partying. Nights out can last into the wee hours, filled with a table of empty green bottles and more pork belly than a body can handle.

Eight months ago, Rue launched Reception Bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side as an alternative to such hard-hitting nightlife (the bar opens at 1 p.m. and closes no later than midnight), and as a place to tell her own Korean-American story, which begins with her parents emigrating from Korea as kids in the 1970s and eventually meeting in Los Angeles. Growing up in the suburban La Mirada neighborhood before its current Korean community became established, Rue didn’t feel a direct tie to mainland Korea like some first- or second-generation immigrants might. In 2013, she moved to New York to work as an options trader in tech, but she quit to focus on creating a place that would engage her Koreanness and Americanness in equal measure.

“I wanted to have a physical space personify me and this culture, which I felt like didn’t exist,” she explains. At Reception Bar, there is no overwhelming grilled meat smoke or litter of screw-top soju caps. The atmosphere is muted and meditative, and the menu is divided into two sections, one dedicated to soju-based cocktails, the other to non-alcoholic elixirs, each highlighting Korean flavors Rue grew up with like buckwheat and artemisia (mugwort). And though the base spirit for these drinks is static—Rue and her beverage director, Sergio Dimoff, use infused Jinro 24 for nearly every drink—their architecture often mirrors that of classic cocktails.

The Martini 100, whose bekseju base (a glutinous rice spirit infused with ginseng and 11 other herbs) promises a century of life, is a restrained spin on its namesake. Instead of gin, the Insam Bee and the Yuja 88 feature juniper-infused soju for respective takes on the Bee’s Knees and French 75.  “Soju doesn’t have to be just a cheap thing to drink, it can be a great vehicle to bring out a lot of levels of flavors,” says Rue. At Reception, the cocktails are a medium to express everything from black sesame and taro to Korean green pepper and artemisia.

Often, the drinks subtly reflect aspects of Korean food culture. The briny, refreshing Salty Bracken is built upon soju infused with bracken or gosari, a wild mountain green served as banchan or in bibimbap. The Toasty, a float-like cocktail, features Noona’s nurungji (the toasted leftovers from a pot of cooked rice) ice cream, topped with rice orgeat and a garnish of burnt buckwheat. Plum wine, made effervescent with a CO2 machine Rue rigged herself, gets mixed into the frothy Plum Dreams with egg white, artemisia-infused soju, honey, lemon, and eucalyptus bitters.

Perhaps most representative of Rue’s project are her non-alcoholic (NA) “elixirs.” Each drink is based in the practice of hanuihak, traditional Korean medicine, which is rooted in the country’s deep Confucian history and treats food as medicine, assigning specific healing or cleansing qualities to particular ingredients. For instance, buckwheat, featured as carbonation in the lightly savory Buckwheat Bubbly, is thought to improve blood flow. The Jeju Shield, served hot or cold, plays on the artemisia tea Rue’s grandmother would give her when she was sick. Korean green pepper, Jeju honey, lemon, and ginger reinforce the herb’s purported immunity-building properties. In these drinks, Rue often plays up bitter flavors as a contrast to the sweetness often associated with NA cocktails. It’s also simply a departure from the notion of excess. “I want to pull this bar out of nightlife,” says Rue. “I didn’t want the flavors of this place to be fetishized.”

In the course of building Reception Bar, Rue collaborated with many Koreans and Korean Americans, including Ockhyeon Byeon of the nearby Round K, whose coffee she carries, Hannah Bae of Noona’s Ice Cream, and designer Miran Jang, who helped conceptualize the space. These relationships not only helped Rue to interpret her complex identity, but also clarified that her background is both shared and unique. Ultimately, Reception Bar has become a quiet manifestation of this background—and a place where anyone is welcome to share in it.

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Irene Yoo is a writer, chef and producer based in Brooklyn. She runs Yooeating, a Korean-American comfort food popup that highlights Korean home cooking, street food, and drinking culture in relation to other cultural cuisines and comfort foods. She has contributed to Food52 and Food Network.