South Koreans are among the world’s heaviest drinkers, so after my post last week about Korean teas, this week is all dedicated to some of the country’s hard liquor! The Korean Peninsula has a long history of producing alcoholic drinks that stretches back thousands of years and range from the milky rice wine, makgeolli, to fruit-based drinks and the fermented horse milk introduced by the Mongols in the 13th Century. Many indigenous drinks were thought to be lost during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th Century, but are being now being rediscovered both at home and overseas due to the spread in popularity of Korean television series worldwide, in particular Japan and South-East Asia.
I had never tasted any of the drinks before and purchased the three drinks I’ll be writing about largely out of curiosity (and also to qualify for free shipping with the rest of my Asian groceries). Soju, Korea’s most famous and popular spirit, is the first I’ll be experiencing, followed by makgeolli and the black raspberry wine, bokbunjaju.
Soju is Korea’s most famous drink and one of the most popular spirits in the world. Originally made from just rice, after regulations to prevent food shortages following the Korean War, many grains and starchy vegetables are also used and only the highest quality Andong-style soju is made purely from rice. The drink has its origins in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the process for making arak was spread across Asia by the Mongols (in the area around Kaesong in North Korea, the former capital, soju is also called arakju). Soju is made by fermenting grains, distilling the result to a high alcohol percentage and then diluting it again to around 20-25% alcohol. It is ubiquitous in South Korea thanks to its affordability (often costing less than bottled water). Its popularity abroad is largely attributed to its low cost, prevalence in Korean popular media and its low alcohol percentage as the demand for less alcoholic drinks increases in Europe and America: soju has a neutral flavour, so often makes a good alternative to more potent vodka in mixed drinks. Despite the lower alcohol content, soju has a reputation for leaving you with a very bad hangover so is always drunk with salty and spicy Korean drinking snacks (or anju) such as braised pig’s trotters, spicy chicken feet or kimchi pancakes. Andong-style soju, at twice the alcohol content but made from higher quality ingredients through a traditional process is, according to some, often worth the extra money to avoid the next day’s side effects.
In Korea, drinking soju comes with a strict and rather complicated etiquette that emphasises the hierarchical levels of respect that run throughout Korean society:
The brand of soju I’m trying is Chamisul Classic, one of the most popular brands in South Korea and made me Hite-Jinro, who are also the biggest soju exporters, producing a Jinro branded that you might be able to spot in the spirits section of some larger supermarkets (my local Waitrose stocks it in the Peak District, so it’s likely easier to get hold of than you think). A brief look on Jinro’s English-language website informs me however that it doesn’t think too highly of Jinro soju compared to the flashier information available about Chamisul (reportedly pure and clean tasting, isul, is Korean for dew).
I’m not a particularly keen spirit drinker so the initial smell of the soju, similar to vodka, was quite off-putting. The lower alcohol content made it much easier to drink than vodka as it lacked the burn of the ethanol. The taste was surprisingly mellow. Besides the taste of the alcohol, it was slightly sweet and earthy but left very little aftertaste in mouth – my tasting partner compared it to the flavour of boiled potatoes with their skin. I’m convinced that soju is a good accompaniment to spicy Korean food thanks to a cleansing quality, and indeed it is almost always drunk with something to eat too. Whilst it wasn’t exactly to my tastes, soju certainly wasn’t unpalatable and with its lightness and clean flavour, I can see why South Koreans are able to drink quite so much of it, and why its becoming a popular choice for cocktails too. I’m now interested to see how different brands compare. First I’ve got to try the other drinks: makgeolli and black raspberry wine.