What traditional liquor do you know that smells like rubbing alcohol, can be used to clean a table, is as cheap as water, comes in a lovely green bottle, is drunk in copious amounts and is the world’s best selling liquor? SOJU!!
Korea has historically always been a rice producing country, so naturally like they fermented cabbage to make kimchi, people started fermenting the rice and making alcohol! There are a lot of different types of alcohol in Korea. So many in fact, that we couldn’t possibly put all of them in a video. To be honest, I really don’t think that I know all of the different alcoholic beverages that are available. Thus, this video (and blog) is about the major types that can be found easily here in Korea.
Beer – 맥주
The first and probably the most familiar for people outside of Korea would be beer or 맥주 (maekchu). There are two main beer breweries in Korea, Hite-Jinro and OB. The three beers that we included in the video are Hite, OB Golden Lager and Cass (also an OB beer). These are not the only varieties of beer that these two companies produce. But generally, for some strange reason, they all seem to taste very similar and leave a wicked hangover. While they are popular, I really think mostly it’s due to availability and the inexpensive price compared to imported beer. This is not to say that there aren’t microbreweries in the country. Microbreweries have in the past few years become extremely popular due to young people not liking the taste of the typical Korean beer. Not that I’ve tasted it, but it’s been said that North Korean beer is actually better than South Korean beer. To put it simply, I’ve known several people who have discovered a passion for home brewing as a result of drinking Korean beer. But if you ever end up in Korea, it’s probably something you’ll end up drinking, and most people drink it with dinner.
Makoli – 막걸리
The second alcohol we reviewed was my personal favorite, makgeolli 막걸리! (It can be spelled several ways) It’s made by fermenting a combination of wheat and rice mixed with water and is a thicker off-white alcohol as it’s not distilled. Because of this, the sediment usually settles on the bottom you should shake or stir the liquid before drinking it. I recommend stirring as sometimes if you shake it it explodes when you open it like soda. Trust me though, you want to drink it mixed together and not seperated! While we got the cheap convenience store makgeolli, there are restaurants where you can go get “homemade makgeolli” that’s still served traditionally in giant bowls with gourd-like scoopers and in a lot of different flavors. In the video Richard called them buckets – but really they are just large metal or wooden bowls. Also, in the restaurants they serve the makgeolli with pajeon 파전 or korean style pancakes filled with veggies (and sometimes seafood). We actually drank some of this at our wedding dinner because it’s just that good!
Soju – 소주
The next two are more fruity wine/soju style drinks if you will. The first is Maehwasu 매화수 which is a sweet plum soju. It’s color has a hint of pink and the label is covered in pink flowers. Not surprisingly, it’s totally marketed towards women. They claim it’s good for the skin, but I seriously doubt that any alcohol is good for the skin. I don’t typically drink it anymore, but when Richard and I first started dating, we would drink it sometimes when we went out for dinner. To me it reminds me of a plum liquor mixed with rose water. It may be just me but I think it has a bit of a floral smell/taste. The other fruity drink is Bokbunjajoo or 복분자주. It’s made with bokbunja or black raspberries and is essentially a pretty strong sweet red berry wine. While you don’t really see it very often in restaurants, I’ve seen it in basically every convenience store I’ve ever been in. Also unknowingly, I drank this “wine” when I first came to Korea and wanted to have a “classy dinner” in my apartment. Looking back I find it all rather amusing, and when others found out I totally got called out on it. But, I still like to drink a little bit of it from time to time – though mostly now I just use it for cooking.
And now for.. green bottled SOJU!!! Actually, neither of us are really fans of the stuff. But, it is Korea’s number one most beloved alcohol! And, you can find it in some liquor stores in the USA – I know, I saw it. While Koreans would probably lambast me for my description at the beginning of this blog, I was actually quite serious. Like a really cheap vodka it does smell and look like rubbing alcohol. I have also seen several restaurants refilling their table cleaning spray by pouring in soju bottles. At less than 2,000 won at a convenience store it’s price is comparable to water or soda. The bottles are actually quite the lovely shade of green. I’m always temped to diy them into some cool vases – but then what would I do with the soju? Richard and I don’t typically drink it at dinner unless we’re eating with Korean friends, but while we’re eating dinner it’s very common to see large quantities of empty bottles in the middle of the table – even if it’s only 2 people. And shocker, it has several times been the best selling liquor in the world. I guess there’s some positives to be really ridiculously cheap. Oh, and the alcohol content while higher than the rest of the liquors we talked about, is still fairly low.
For a few other insider notes while across the board for Korean alcohol you never really pour your own glass or leave an empty glass, you really have to make sure that you follow the proper etiquette when it comes to soju. In some ways I think Soju the one beverage that is almost as beloved as kimchi. They’ve in turn created a lot of fun variations and cocktails to go along with it that while they mask the taste are still quite potent! A tip from experience – though they taste great, never start drinking pitchers of soju-ritas with friends. Also an interesting bit of culture is that many female celebrities have actually become “soju girls” and their sexy advertisements are posted throughout restaurants and bars across the country – A modern Korean pin-up if you will. Speaking of modern soju pin-ups, Psy is actually helping the process of bringing soju to the USA – though I don’t know how pin-upy he would be..
Sorry if I just regurgitated the video in text format, but I’ve said a lot of what I know about Korean alcohol. Maybe in some future video we’ll cover korean drinking games, but for now we’ll stick with just Korean alcohol. While I don’t go out and drink it as often (and generally prefer imported liquor/beer) Korean alcohol strangely has a special place in my heart. It reminds me of when I first came to this foreign place and tried to find myself. It reminds me of great meals I’ve had with Korean friends, of late nights sitting outside of the corner store and talking, of weekends dancing and experiencing Seoul’s nightlife, of the first day that I met my future husband. But that really is another video..