Soju and Beyond: A Guide to Traditional Korean Rice Alcohol
If you’ve ever gone out for Korean barbecue or watched Anthony Bourdain’s excursions to Seoul, you’re familiar with the requisite green bottle soju and fizzy, mild beer drank between mouthfuls of grilled meat. But there’s a quiet renaissance underway on the peninsula that is reviving traditional rice brewing, a centuries-old practice that fell by the wayside during Korea’s tumultuous 20th century.
There are three umbrellas that these rice brews fall under: takju, yakju, and soju. (Yes, “ju” means “alcohol.”) All three generally come from the same brewing process: Rice is fermented with a wheat cake called nuruk, a fermentation starter that contains yeasts and molds, and lends traditional brews their characteristic funk (think natural wines).
The first straining gives you takju, a cloudy brew that ranges from 6% to 16% ABV. If you let the sediment in takju settle and siphon off the clear liquid on top, you get yakju, a premium brew, the kind of drink that the aristocracy would save for holidays and guests. Take yakju, distill it, and you’ve got soju. Soju is clear and bright, and can range from the high teens to just over 50% ABV.
So if you’re headed to Korea—especially with the 2018 Winter Olympics coming up in PyeongChang—get ready to drink, because this is your list of essential Korean rice brews. Pick them up in the duty free or a local soju seller near you.
Takju is also called “makgeolli,” though most drinkers use the term to refer to the watered-down brews between 6% and 8% ABV. Farmers drank makgeolli to quench their thirst out in the fields—in recent years, it became popular with college students as a cheap way to imbibe. Makgeolli is rustic, goes down easy, and its creamy texture makes it a natural companion for spicy foods. Tradition, or maybe sentiment, dictates that you drink it on a rainy day with pajeon, savory scallion pancakes.
Note: Due to their volatility, you’re unlikely to find takju brewed in Korea for sale abroad—instead, look for makgeolli at your local Korean grocery store and try to get a draft (unpasteurized) bottle if you can.
Yeonyeop Saeng Takju from Midam
Midam is a small brewery, mostly a one-woman operation, up in the mountains north of Seoul. The woman who runs it ferments this takju with dried lotus leaves, which lend notes of black tea and mild acidity, says Julia Mellor, founder of the Sool Company, a Korean alcohol consultancy. “Midam is one of the few breweries that brews entirely in earthenware jars and does each stage by hand,” she says. “Her lotus, pine flower, and straight 'seoktanju' are all rich and complex, but personally, for me, it is the lotus takju that really shines.”
Homo Ludens from Sansoo Brewery
Sansoo is a relative newcomer to the traditional brewing scene, started by a medicinal doctor a few years ago. Takjus tend toward sweetness, which can sometimes make pairing a challenge, but Sansoo’s takju Homo Ludens made waves for its bracing, dry flavor profile when it debuted in late 2015.
Ihwaju from Kooksoondang
Ihwaju is the only brew on this list that you have to consume with a spoon—it has the texture of pudding (a tart, boozy pudding), and makes for a great digestif or dessert. In ancient times, ihwaju was a dessert alcohol for the aristocracy, though it’s all but disappeared today, explains Myeong Wook, deputy director of the government-sponsored Sool Gallery in Seoul. A few breweries are keeping it alive: This ihwaju from Kooksoondang is extra creamy and reminiscent of yogurt and pine.
Song Myeong-seop Saeng Makgeolli from Taein Brewery
Song Myeong-seop is a national treasure—that’s actually part of his job title. He was designated as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" by the Korean government for his work preserving traditional brewing methods. His makgeolli, which he makes every Monday and Thursday, is crisp, slightly effervescent, and unsweetened. It also has a dedicated following, and you’ll find his signature green, red, and white bottles at most makgeolli bars in Seoul.
Neurin Maeul Makgeolli from Baesangmyun
Neurin Maeul, which means “slow village,” was a key player in the movement to re-introduce aspartame and additive-free makgeolli to the general population. Like all takju, this mildly sweet brew changes as it ages over the course of its shelf life, but Neurin Maeul has gone the extra step to describe the “spring” (1–3 days), “summer” (4–6 days), “fall” (7–9 days) and “winter” (10+ days) stages as it gains strength and loses effervescence. Neurin Maeul has several neighborhood breweries around Seoul where you can order food and try makgeolli fresh from the brewing vessels.
Haechang Makgeolli from Haechang Brewery
Haechang has been around since 1927, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that a couple fans bought the brewery from its retiring owner and took aspartame out of the recipe. “This new Haechang became a sensation among makgeolli connoisseurs,” says Jisung Chun, a Korean liquor sommelier. “It’s milky, with a hint of sweetness, but mostly dry and finishes with a pleasantly slight bitter spiciness.” Haechang releases its makgeolli in a range of ABV levels and textures, so Chun recommends buying several to compare and mix for fun.
Just like takju, yakju can vary in color, flavor, and mouthfeel, from sweet and heavy golden, to green apple tart and light. Yakju is served in small cups not much larger than a shot glass alongside long meals meant to be savored and enjoyed.
Jahuihyang from Jahuijayang
“Jahuihyang” means “drunk on fragrance,” and true to its name, this yakju’s flavors are floral and light. It’s based on an old recipe for seoktanju, which was said to be “so delicious it’s a shame to drink it,” explains Lee Hyun-joo, director of the Sool Gallery. “You get notes of the chrysanthemum they brew it with, as well as well-ripened fruit, yellow melon, and savory grains.”
Sogokju from Hansan
Unlike other drinks on this list, Hansan isn’t a brewery—it’s the village that kept the sogokju tradition alive. Today, says Chun, the homes that made their sogokju moonshine in secret are a collection of over 60 micro-breweries. Sogokju is a heavier, sweet drink, and Chun’s favorite is brewed by Woo Hee-yeol. “It starts out heavy sweet, almost like caramel, then the middle note is a hint of soy sauce saltiness, and it finishes with a tingly spice at the back of the throat. It’s like sherry, and absolutely lovely to try with salted caramel or with Gorgonzola cheese.”
Poongjeong Sagye from Hwayang Brewery
Elegant and complex, Poongjeong Sagye is a drink that deserves to be savored on its own, just a glass or two, before you start pairing it with food. “It’s brewed by fermenting rice cakes, which makes it softer than just fermenting steamed rice,” says Myeong. “It has a delicate soft sweetness that comes from the flavor of the rice itself.” Mellor agrees: “This brewery does everything right, starting with making their own nuruk from mung beans,” she says. “Their yakju is arguably the most balanced and consistent yakju available, and its versatility lends to multiple food pairings.”
Unlike industrial soju, which is produced by distilling the cheapest grains out there, then watering it down and throwing in some sweetener, traditional soju is fermented, filtered, and distilled—making each bottle is a time-consuming process. If you’re looking to gift Korean alcohol, ship it anywhere, or store it for more than a year, soju is your best bet. Most takju and yakju are unpasteurized, meaning that flavors will change and eventually degrade over time even when refrigerated (and their bottles are likely to explode on airplanes).
Hwayo from Kwangjuyo
Korean ceramics brand Kwangjuyo turned its sights towards traditional soju over a decade ago—their soju, Hwayo, helped traditionally distilled soju gain a wider audience, and today it can even be found in larger Korean grocery stores and restaurants in the States. Hwayo carries with it a lingering, faint grain-like sweetness, not unlike the feeling after eating a Botan rice candy, and a hint of melon. It comes in 53%, 41%, 25% and 17% ABV, with the 41% ABV bottle aged in oak barrels.
Leegangju from Cho Jeong-hyeon
Cho Jeong-hyeon is a brewmaster based in Southwest Korea who has spent decades researching, refining, and promoting Leegangju, a Joseon Dynasty-era soju that is both aromatic and soothing. The soju is aged with pear, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and honey in earthenware jars for at least a year. The resulting infusion is a clear, gold-tinged fragrant drink with extra heat and balance from the spices. “The 25% ABV Leegangju has a soft mouthfeel, while the intensity of its heat gradually dissipates and leaves an afterglow of good feelings,” says Lee.
Moonbaesool from Moonbaesool Distillery
Moonbaesool traces its roots back to Pyongyang of 1,000 years ago. It’s brewed from millet, and though pear isn’t introduced at any point in the process, it gives off the fragrance of pear blossoms. “There are many different options for good quality soju, but many are infused with secondary ingredients to enhance the flavor,” says Mellor. “But Moonbaesool is an example of a clean and crisp soju that has a strong grain aroma and character.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.