The Wonderful World of Korean Food: Liquors and Wines

Soju (riNux/flickr)
Traditional Korean drink is made chiefly from rice, other grains, sweet potatoes, etc., usually with kneaded wheat malt. They are classified according to purity, percentage of alcohol contained, whether or not distilled, and materials used. There are largely five types: yakju (refined pure liquor fermented from rice), soju (distilled liquor), takju (thick, unrefined liquor fermented from grains), fruit wines, and medicinal wines from various seeds and roots. Each type has dozens of varieties.

Famous cheongju is a yakju and popular makgeolli is a takju. Acacia, maesil plum, Chinese quince, cherry, pine fruits, and pomegranate are some of popular materials to make fruit wines. Insamju is a representative example of medicinal wine, made from ginseng.

Well-known examples of cheongju are beopju, sogokju and baekhaju.

Makgeolli and Dongdongju
A milky liquor with low alcohol content, the traditional commoner's beverage enjoyed by farmers and laborers, but by business people as well. They are served at drinking houses around universities, at festivals, picnic areas, or anywhere people might enjoy a mild drink with a fermented flavor.

Comparable to vodka but less potent, soju is the most popular traditional Korean liquor among the general public. Soju was originally brewed from grains; today is mass-produced mainly from sweet potatoes.

A distilled liquor brewed from wheat, millet and Indian millet. It is given the scent and flavor of the crab apple, which is called munbae. Its brewing skill is designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property by the Korean government along with that of dugyeonju (azalea wine) from Myeoncheon, Dangjin-gun, Chungcheongnam-do and Gyodong Beopju from Gyeongju.

Traditional Drinking Etiquette

Koreans offer glasses of liquor to each other as a gesture of camaraderie. When someone offers you an empty liquor glass, you are expected to hold it and receive a fill-up, drink it empty, and in likewise fashion return it to the person who offered it to you. This drinking tradition helps promote close ties around a drinking table.

It is a rule of courtesy for juniors to pour liquor for their seniors. The juniors have to keep paying attention not to leave a senior's glass empty. When a senior offers a junior a glass, the junior should receive it with two hands and drink with head turned aside, not facing the senior. It is also the custom to cup the right sleeve with the left hand when pouring drink for a senior.

In the past, Korean drinking houses used to prepare special soup to cure the hangovers of customers who had drunk the night before. This beef-bone broth fortified with dried outer cabbage leaves and clotted ox blood, called baejangguk, is still a morning-after favorite.