Did you know that Koreans are the biggest alcohol lovers? You can call these people Russians of the Asian continent! Koreans love all kinds of liquors whether it's imported or native to the country. South Korea does have some real good, unique spirits of its own, including Korean styled beer, soju and makgeolli. Despite the dramatic influx of foreign liquors, domestic ones still stand firm thanks to the loyal customers.
This post is dedicated to informing travelers about the most common, not-to-be-missed spirits of Korea. Korea has one of the most interesting drinking cultures as well, so keep these following tips in mind for your best drinking experience of Korean alcoholic beverages when travelling to Korea.
First things first. Soju, soju, soju! Soju is a clear, colorless distilled alcohol that contains ethanol and water. Soju is THE most commonly consumed liquor in South Korea, with almost 3.4 billion bottles sold in 2016 which equals to 84.7 bottles of soju per person. The biggest soju brand in Korea is Jinro (or Hite-Jinro, same company). Fun fact, Jinro soju is the No.1 best selling liquor in the whole entire world and of course the majority of the liquor is consumed within South Korea.
As you can tell by the crazy amount of soju consumption, the spirit is one of the best representations of the country and always inevitably mentioned when introducing Korean culture and its alcoholic beverages. The history goes up to the 13th century, when it was traditionally made from rice, wheat or barley. This national liquor is contained in the signature green bottle regardless of the manufacturer and you will see these green bottles basically wherever you go.
You might not understand why soju is so loved, but you'll find yourself drinking it in a couple of days. It's like a Korean vodka, it's cheap, high in alcohol content and strong enough to make up tipsy real quick. You can't help making a frown on your face when drinking but you can't stop. Soju is not the most tasty spirit but it has its somehow addictive, lovable side to it.
The unbeatable best-selling soju brand in the country as well as in the world is Chamisul, literally meaning "real dew" in Korean. Manufactured by Hite-Jinro, Chamisul offers two different options, the original (classic) and the fresh. The original Chamisul has 20.1% of alcohol content whereas the fresh has 17.8%, with relatively more fresh and smoother finish.
Only 100% natural ingredients are used and impurities and other residual grains are purified through bamboo charcoal filtering, providing a clean and fresh flavor.
The second best selling soju brand in Korea is called Choum Churum, manufactured by Lotte. The brand is doing real well considering that it was launched in 2006 whereas Chamisul was launched in 1924. The name literally means "Like the first time" in Korean and the company says that the name implies the brand is ambitious to turn the soju market all around and provide a whole new generation of soju like it's the first time soju is ever introduced to the market.
The slogan of the brand is "Smooth soju" and it sure is a lot smoother than the original soju and not too harsh in taste. Choum Churum does have that ethanol-ish smell to it, just like all the other sojus do, but wouldn't burn your throat too much.
Like Mango Lingo which will be mentionedn soon, the mango flavored beer by Hite-Jinro, adding a little bit of fruitiness to a liquor is so in right now. The soju market is also going through a lot in that sense. Soju is definitely the country's favorite alcoholic beverage however some people have been reluctant to have it because of the harsh taste and smell. Most fruit sojus have only 13~14% of ABV, which is much lower alcohol content than that of the original soju. The popularity of fruit sojus has been on the rise, mainly consumed by young women or those who are not that good at drinking strong shots.
The range of fruit sojus seems almost endless including flavors like yuzu, grapefruit, apple, blueberry, peach and a lot more. Hite-Jinro offers fuzzy-fruity soju as well, called Isul Tok Tok with pineapple and peach flavor. Don't expect too much from it though, since it only has 3% of ABV and barely tastes like the real soju. Soju is apparently going through one of the biggest makeovers at the moment throughout its whole history and it's a good one!
The most classic anju for soju is samgyeopsal or all kinds of K-BBQ. Again, Koreans, the soju fanatics created a word for it too, called Sam-sso. The prefix "sam" refers to "samgyeopsal" and the suffix "sso" refers to soju. The spirit goes well with most Korean food and is most commonly consumed with samgyeopsal, bossam, jokbal or Korean styled sashimi. It takes away the greasiness of food with that crisp, fresh taste.
Cass and Hite are the most common, dominant beers in the market. Cass is an American adjunct lager styled beer manufactured by OB (Oriental Breweries) which was established in 1933 whereas Hite is Euro pale lager styled, manufactured by Hite-Jinro, established in the same year as OB. Both beers have a strong carbonation and offer a very crisp taste.
Although the consumption of the beers has been on the wane due to the huge influx of imported beers, Cass and Hite still take up the largest market share in South Korea, supposedly because of the reasonable price and omnipresence. They are the most commonly consumed beers in South Korea and you'll be able to see them in almost every single restaurant and store. Ironically though, the beers are the most dominant yet the least praised beer brands in the country. They are sometimes criticized for having not much flavor, taste or aroma to it.
Max, also manufactured by Hite-Jinro, is an American adjunct lager styled beer with rich cream and malty flavor. The beer has more flavor to it, compared to Cass or Hite, and therefore has been one of the most popular domestic beer brands. Sometimes criticized for its metallic-ish smell, Max is still pretty good with a decent carbonation and creamy head. The beer is largely available on draft in restaurants as well.
Kloud is manufactured by Lotte and was launched in 2014. The beer is a German Pilsener styled pale lager beer. The name Kloud is a compound word of Korea and cloud, which refers to the cloudy foam of the beer. The beer is made by an original gravity method as the slogan implies, "The real beer, no water added". The taste is relatively hoppy and bitter.
It's a pretty good option if you're going for a Korean beer since it offers a decent, malty aroma with a fluffy medium-sized head.
There have always been liquors made of fruits but the traditional fruit liquors go through fermentation and aging process. The new trend of Korean liquor market is adding a little bit of fruit juice to create a fruity, sweet flavor. This beer right here is called Mango Lingo and it contains 2.3% of mango juice thus barely tastes like the original beer. It has 2.5% of ABV and doesn't have that malty, metallic beer taste. If you are not a big fan of beer and looking for a sweet, almost like a soft drink beer, give it a go.
To give you some tips to enjoy your beer like Koreans do, have it with Korean Fried Chicken as the anju. Anju is a term for a food that is consumed with liquors and the best anju for a Korean beer is hands down Korean Fried Chicken.
You might already know the glorious reputation of Korean Fried Chicken. A number of Koreans enjoy their Maekju (beer in Korean) with it and since it's been so sensational that it earned a name for the combination as well, called Chimaek(or Chimac). The name is a compound of Chicken and Maekju and there are a number of Chimaek(chimac) places all around the country.
Look around when you're eating at a K-BBQ restaurant, you'll see some people mixing beer and soju and create "Somaek". Another terminology that is essential when getting to know the drinking culture of Korea. Somaek is a compound of words, soju and maekju (beer) and extremely popular regardless of age group. Generally speaking, the younger generations tend to prefer somaek and older people just straight drinking soju.
Hite-Jinro once offered a promotion where you can apply for a "somaek license" since balancing the proportion is key when making somaek. It's claimed that the best proportion is 40:127 (soju : beer) and the somaek glass is also designed based on it. Korean people are sure pretty clever and fun when it comes to drinking!
Another tip when drinking in Korea, especially if there's someone older than you, you don't want to drink before the older person drinks. It's also recommended that you use both of your hands when the person fills up your glass and turn your head slightly to the right when drinking. These are considered the basic courtesy when drinking.
Makgeolli (pronounced more like makkoli) is an alcoholic beverage native to Korea and has a slightly sweet and sour taste. The history of the liquor is believed to go all the way up to the ancient times and the first time it was mentioned on the record was during the Goryeo dynasty. The name Makgeolli means "roughly filtered" in Korean which is actually the best description of the liquor. This traditional alcoholic beverage has a milky, off-white color to it as it's made of rice and "roughly filtered". You need to shake well before having it cause the sediment is usually in the bottom.
Makgeolli was perceived as the spirits for the older people especially the farmers in the rural area but has recently been earning popularity from the younger generations as well. According to some people, makgeolli is claimed to leave you a horrible hangover so don't way over-drink it just because it's pretty tasty. The ABV of the liquor is only 6~7% but still kicks in pretty strong.
If you order makgeolli at a restaurant or a pub they would usually give you a metal kettle along with metal glasses that almost look like a rice bowl or something. The makgeolli glasses are usually a lot larger than most of liquor glasses. Makgeolli is traditionally served in a wooden pot with a ladle and glasses.
Makgeolli today is most commonly available in plastic bottles which is kind of a shame cause having it the traditional way is so much fun!
Some of the most famous makgeolli manufacturers include Kuksundang (국순당) and Seoul Changsu Makgeolli (서울 장수 막걸리). The brands are commonly available in a convenience store for around 1,300 ~ 2,000 KRW. Since the beverage contains rice grains in it, you need to keep it cool in a fridge or it might go bad. The shelf life is also pretty short, for about 14 days when kept cold. You wouldn't die even if you had apparently expired makgeolli, but the taste changes dramatically and becomes super sour and pungent.
The most classic, traditional anju for makgeolli is Korean traditional pancakes such as pajeon or bindaetteok. The liquor has always been consumed with Korean pancakes and this generation is also following the footsteps of the tradition. There are a lot of Korean styled pubs that sell the lovely combination of makgeolli and pajeon so make sure you do not miss out on that one!