Anybody who’s ever visited Korea knows that this country is no stranger to alcohol. Korea has a rich heritage of fermentation and imbibation, with thousands of family recipes passed from generation to generation. I’ve previously written about how some of these are being rediscovered, but it’s going to be a while before you can expect to order a bucket of ehwaju (이화주) in a bar and get a couple spoons to eat it.
Still, there are many traditional Korean alcohols that are widely available in grocery and convenience stores. If you’ve been here long enough you’ve probably tried them all, but you might not know everything you thought you did about them. Here are seven that are easy to pick up anywhere in Korea.
Considering it is consumed more than any other liquor on the planet, the best-known Korean liquor is soju.
Soju is consumed from small glasses that are often mistaken for shot glasses. They hold just a little bit more than can comfortably be swallowed in one mouthful, and unless someone at your table shouts “One shot!” it’s recommended to just sip from the glass.
These days soju isn’t quite considered the craft drink that makgeolli is becoming, but more the thing you reach for when you want to get drunk fast and don’t care about your headache tomorrow. A harsh spirit sold in little green bottles for alarmingly low prices, it scares off most foreigners I’ve known.
Although soju will probably never vanish from the tables of work parties, it is being used in new, innovative ways. There are many soju cocktails out there, most commonly strawberry soju (딸기 소주) and yogurt soju (요거트 소주). It’s also common to mix soju with beer–an unholy combination known as “somaek (소맥),”or to drop a shot of soju into a beer, which makes what Koreans call “poktanju” (폭탄주, bomb liquor).
You’ll also probably encounter somaek, which is a mixture of beer and soju–pretty well the easiest way to ruin a glass of beer.
But soju isn’t all bad. Although the main brands of soju are harsh, there do exist good brands of soju. Best known is Andong Soju (안동 소주), a traditional family recipe using real rice for fermentation. It is best known for its 45 percent alcohol content, yet it still tastes more natural than mass-produced soju, and in the morning you’ll be feeling fine. A more reasonable variation is produced by the Andong Soju people as well, 느낌, whose alcohol content is down to around the 20 percent of the main brands but still has the natural aroma of a craft soju made with fresh ingredients.
Baekseju used to be my go-to drink at Korean meals, mainly as a stand-in for soju. It has a full flavour, infused with ginseng and numerous other herbs, including licorice, omija, ginger, and cinnamon. It’s good for you, and at only 13 percent alcohol content you’re not going to black out after half a bottle.
You drink Baekseju from a bowl-shaped cup similar in size to a soju glass.
The name literally means “100-year alcohol,” advertising its health benefits. Mixing baekseju with soju creates a drink called “osipseju (오십세주)” or “50-year alcohol,” and also seems to imply that soju is unhealthy?
Baekseju entered into mass production as recently as 1992, introduced by Kooksoondang Brewery as a traditional Korean alcohol. Although it’s unclear how much it differs from the traditional drinks on which it’s based, it was essential in Korea’s rediscovery of its traditional alcohols.
Made from black raspberries, bokbunjaju is moderately sweet and pleasantly sour. I had never encountered it in Korean social situations, but discovered it on my own in convenience stores, wondering what that one bottle with the raspberries on it was. I’ve enjoyed drinking it on Christmas, and once or twice I experimented by mixing it with vanilla ice cream.
Only more recently, I discovered what it’s most commonly used for. Like so many foods and drinks, it promotes “male stamina.” For that reason, it is popularly considered a drink for honeymooners. It is produced in the Jeolla region, as well as Jeju Island, the most popular honeymoon destination in Korea. The name in Chinese, 覆盆子, means that it will make a man so energetic that he will knock over the chamber pot when he urinates.
So…I guess I should think twice about turning up at any parties with a bottle of this in hand?
Plum wine (매실주)
I was first introduced to Korean plum wine from a homemade stash, but it is widely available across Korea. My favourite variety is Seoljungmae (설중매), which comes in a wide-mouthed green bottle. Most distinctly, it still contains full plums which sit at the bottom of the bottle. At first they look like olives, but they’re regular, sweet plums (미실, maesil) that I don’t think you’re supposed to eat. The bottle even comes with a small white strainer intended to keep the plums out of your glass, but I always enjoy eating them once I’ve finished my glass. Many commercial brands come without the plums, but I don’t even see the point of this.
Plum wine is supposed to be served in soju glasses, but since I like to add the plums from the bottle, I prefer it in any kind of flat-bottomed tumbler, whether one of the ubiquitous Coke glasses at any Korean restaurant or, if you’re feeling classy, in an Old Fashioned.
There is also a slightly more expensive “Seoljungmae Gold,” which comes complete with gold flecks. Makes a good gift, but I’d rather drink it without the heavy metals.
Sansachun is another kind of yakju (약주), lauded for its medicinal properties. It’s fermented from sansa (산사), a fruit plant closely related to the rose. Like baekseju it was introduced recently, but seems to have a much longer history before being updated for modern consumers. I’ve always considered it more of a girls’ drink, but I’m confused by the recent introduction of a fizzy Sansachun that is more marketed toward girls. There’s also a special bottle labeled “The Lovely Wedding Sansachun” which seems to be for weddings.
Sansachun is served in a wide-mouthed glass similar to a Baekseju glass, giving its fragrance a chance to breathe and waft and get in your face.
It’s very sweet in flavour and somewhat thick, almost syrupy, and its strong flavour makes it hard to pair with foods. Instead, it seems that Sansachun is intended for before meals, as an appetiser.
You can find the brand Cheongha (청하) in quite a lot of convenience stores, but to the best of my memory (which isn’t that great), I haven’t had any kind of cheongju before.
Cheongju is a clear, filtered rice wine. The name literally means “clear liquor,” and it bears a strong similarity to Japanese sake. So if you’re afraid of something harsh and strong like soju, you’ll be in for a surprise.
There is also beopju (법주), a more traditional version of the drink most commonly associated with Gyodong (교동) in the city of Gyeongju (경주). The name literally means “law liquor.”
It is most commonly served on the first full moon of the lunar new year, a celebration known as Jeongwol Daeboreum (정월 대보름).
Of course I’m not going to forget makgeolli.
For the last few years, makgeolli has been the most beloved Korean alcoholic beverage, as I’ve reported many times. Makgeolli is the quintessential drink, the one that’s the most conducive to exploring Korean culture.
Milk-coloured, opaque, and chalky, makgeolli hides its true nature until you try it. The first time I tried makgeolli, I thought it was a kind of pea soup until I discovered it was ice-cold and sour. Makgeolli is served in large metal, wooden, or ceramic bowls, but there’s no shame in drinking it from paper cups.
Makgeolli is also known as nongju (농주, farmer’s liquor) and takju (탁주). It’s also very similar to dongdongju (동동주), another rice-fermented alcoholic drink served in a similar manner, although it’s very rare to find bottled dongdongju in stores.
Makgeolli’s history stretches back to at least the fourth century. Traditionally, makgeolli was a farmers’ drink, but in more modern times it’s considered a good drink for a rainy day. I only recently learned the reasoning for this: it’s often paired with bindaetteok (빈대떡) and jeon (전), which are themselves considered rainy-day foods (and the reason for that is because the sound of those foods frying resembles the patter of rain). Makgeolli is also a popular mountain-climbing drink, and you’ll always see elderly hikers camped out off path or at the peak enjoying makgeolli together.
There’s a growing number of makgeolli brands across Korea, certainly offering more variety than any other one alcohol, even beer. There are more bars and restaurants where you can order microbrewed makgeolli, and more brands are available for purchase in stores, especially if you travel around the countryside.
If you stop by grocery stores with large enough selections, you might see various other liquors that are being introduced to the market. No matter what you may find, it’s still only the tip of the iceberg.