By Hong Kilju and Aisylu Akhmetzianova
Photos = Kim Sunjoo
Video = Lee Jun Young
The silky and milky makgeolli (rice wine), dark yellow yakju (clear liquor) and crystal clear soju (liquor). All of these traditional alcoholic drinks of Korea are poured into glasses with a ringing sound.
Seven Honorary Reporters held a glass with one hand under their sleeves around the wrist according to Korean drinking etiquette. Every time they took a sip, admiration burst out.
On April 1, they visited the Sool Gallery near Anguk Station in Seoul’s Jongno-gu District on April 1 to try traditional Korean liquor, which is normally difficult to access. The seven were selected based on their interest in booze and experience with Korean drinks.
Though hailing from Russia, Serbia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines, all of them had one thing in common: love of booze. Their average drinking limit was two bottles of soju, a volume equal to 14 shot glasses. As residents of Korea, they said they like soju, beer and makgeolli as much as the drinks of their homelands.
Neo Hui Ying from Singapore, who attended the session from Busan and left for Seoul early that morning, said, “After trying fresh makgeolli in Korea, I was so fascinated that I decided to learn more about makgeolli.”
Isidora Simeunovic from Serbia, whose family runs a rakija (traditional Balkan liquor) brewery, said, “The soju and beer I’ve tried so far were all low in alcohol content and lacked flavor,” adding, “I felt Korean booze had much more to offer so I applied for this event.”
Mung Xiu Ying from Hong Kong said, “It’s easy to find kimchi classes in Korea but few opportunities to learn about the history and taste of Korean alcoholic beverages.”
The Sool Gallery is an interactive center run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corp. to promote the value of traditional Korean booze like takju (cloudy alcohol), yakju, cheongju (clear alcoholic drink), distilled liquor and fruit wine.
Six traditional alcoholic beverages designated Intangible Cultural Assets — munbaeju (wild pear liquor), Andong soju, Myeoncheon dugyeonju (liquor made from azaleas), Hansan sogokju (alcoholic drink with sweet taste), and the Geumjeongsanseong and Songmyeongseop versions of makgeolli — were prepared for the tasting session.
The selection of the samples considered production regions, and though they are all famous high-end brands, the drinks are hard to access in daily life due to lack of distribution channels. The Honorary Reporters said they had never tried five of the six drinks before, being familiar only with the Geumjeongsanseong drink, the leading makgeolli of its kind in Busan.
The session began with makgeolli with low alcohol content and moved on to cheongju and distilled liquor. On tasting Songmyeongseop makgeolli, Sofia Ananina from Russia said, “This is very different from other sweet makgeolli I’ve tried before.”
After tasting Myeoncheon dugyeonju, Titi Aiyanyo from Nigeria, in search of a drink for spring, said, “I can definitely feel the fresh flowery scent from this. I finally found the perfect booze for spring.”
Mung said of the same drink, “Though it’s a distilled liquor, it’s silky with a great scent like wine.”
While tasting munbaeju, the seven tried to guess the source of the unique scent with a solemn face. When the traditional liquor sommelier said the source was a pear, the participants said they had guessed it was that and took several more sips.
Finally, after tasting the potent Andong soju, they seemed surprised over how gently it went down their throats, saying it was different from other soju types that they tried.
After the tasting session, the participants said their attitudes toward traditional Korean liquor had changed.
Simeunovic said, “I wasn’t a fan of soju, but after trying a high quality one, I became one.”
Neo added, “I used to think that Korean alcohol was just soju and beer, but now I realize that there’s so much variety,” adding, “While living in Korea, I’m going to try them all.”
Before the session, Ananina said, “The purpose of drinking Korean booze seems to be getting drunk instead of savoring it,” but also changed her mind after the session.
“Unlike the mass-produced alcoholic beverages I see at convenience stores, the ones at the tasting session were rich in flavor probably because they went through traditional brewing methods,” she said. “Even the soju was traditional and special.”
Korea’s traditional liquor is made from domestic agricultural products and receives official designation only after the Cultural Heritage Administration approves of its traditionality after evaluating its history, taste, brewing technology and condition.
Sool Gallery Director Nam Sun Hee said, “Traditional liquor is one of the foods that our country’s people can best understand because it’s made from rice, which is familiar to Koreans.”