In the land of soju (소주), maekju (맥주, beer), and dongdongju (동동주, a type of makgeolli), a revelation was introduced in the 1990s to the Korean drinking scene: Bekseju (백세주). Almost 20 years later, the drink has become a staple option when asking people what their choice of alcohol is for the night.
Bekseju (sometimes the Romanization is spelled Baekseju) is known for its unique peachy gold color and its ginseng fragrance. The distinct bouquet does not come from ginseng alone, but from the combination of the flavors from other traditional medicinal herbs also used in making the drink such as boxthorn (구기자), maximowiczia typica (오미자), acanthopana (오가피) , and licorice.
Bekseju literally translates into “100 years old wine”. The brewing company Kooksoondang that makes Bekseju doesn’t really offer an explanation for the name, but the assumption is that since Bekseju is made with a variety of traditional herbs that have been used for centuries, the drink will also be that of historical importance. (The title of this post is a common excuse for Bekseju enthusiasts when drinking.)
Bekseju has several varieties:
Some find Bekseju a bit too sweet for their taste. Bekseju Dahm (백세주 담) has a clean dry finish without the original Bekseju’s sweet aftertaste. I personally think this version pairs better with lighter fish dishes and vegetable dishes, while I prefer the original for heavier meat dishes.
A stronger, 15% alcohol version is called Kangjang Bekseju (강장 백세주). The percentage of herbs and medicinal plants is much higher than the original Bekseju and tastes like it. It also has a very refined and subtle finish and pairs well with haute cuisine.
Although Bekseju is usually served chilled, there are times when you need something teeth-chattering cold, like in the hot humid summer months. In the “Bekseju Village” (백세주 마을) restaurants run by the company, they serve ice cold Bekseju in pitchers to quench your thirst.
If you’ve been in Korea for a while, you’re probably aware that Koreans likes to mix their drinks. Pouring soju and maekju (beer) together into a glass results in somaek (소맥); and in the same vein, people started to mix soju with Bekseju, resulting in the whimsically named 50seju (오십세주, 50 years old).
This concoction resulted in the company releasing an actual product with that name, although unlike its origin, it’s not made with a mixture of soju and Bekseju. And for some reason, I’ve never seen anyone order it, but people still make and drink the soju plus Bekseju version of 50seju all the time!
For those who find soju too strong or “alcoholic” to enjoy or those who just aren’t keen on Korean beer, Bekseju is a nice alternative to pair with a Korean meal. The fragrance does not overwhelm but blends in harmoniously.
But beware. Because the drink goes down smoothly, you might find yourself drinking quicker than usual and Bekseju kind of catches up with you. Drink wisely!