In the long history of Korea, no serious person has ever said ‘I drink soju for its clean, refreshing taste, not for its mind-altering properties.’ Thankfully there is more to Korean alcohol than the demon in the green glass bottle and his bland, boorish friend Cass. So much more. Going beyond the usual convenience store suspects opens up a world of interesting Korean drinks. For keen beverage enthusiasts, here’s a quick tour of some of Korea’s better but lesser-known drinks.

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Let’s start with the obvious. Makgeolli is almost as widely available as soju, if not as widely consumed. Traditionally served in a kettle and drunk from bowls, it’s the ultimate peasant drink, quickly and easily made from a mash or rice, wheat, and water. In fact, an alternative name for makgeolli is nongju – farmer’s liquor.

At first sip makgeolli has an odd taste: milky, earthy-sweet and slightly bubbly. But by the end of the first bowlful the tongue accommodates, and makgeolli’s gentle, warming buzz caresses the brain. Getting makgeolli-drunk is the relaxing, bucolic opposite of a blinding soju bender. Be warned though, this cloudy, sediment-heavy brew hides a powerful hangover behind its gentle taste. Drinking a kettle of makgeolli under the wooden ceiling beams of an old pub is one of Korea’s greatest traditional pleasures. But you can enjoy it in sleek modern bars too, as makgeolli is currently undergoing something of a renaissance among Korea’s trendy, urban drinkers.

Baekseju

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Baekseju means ‘100-years-wine,’ not because of the lengthy fermentation process but because the drink’s supposed health effects will help you live for 100 years. Baekseju is a clear rice wine (unlike makgeolli it is strained of sediment) flavored with all sorts of herbs and spices, such as ginseng, ginger, licorice, and cinnamon, which give the drink a rich flavor more comparable to gin than the vodka-like soju – though at less than 20% alcohol it’s much gentler on the tongue. Baekseju’s health benefits may be dubious, but it’s a very pleasant beverage. And if you think living to 100 is too much for your retirement savings to handle, you can try osipseju – ’50-years-wine.’ Just mix equal parts soju and baekseju in a glass. But you probably shouldn’t.

Cheongha

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A lighter, smoother alternative to soju, cheongha is a brand of clear rice wine that has all the sediment drained out, but without all the added flavors of baekseju. Think of it as soju lite (even the green bottle and label look similar). It has a gentle, slightly sweet taste, and is not as alcoholic as soju. Koreans usually drink it straight in small glasses, but try it on the rocks with a slice of lemon and you’ve got yourself a very tasty drink.

Daepo

Daepo

For something a little unusual, Daepo is a rice wine flavored with dandelions. It’s smooth and sweet, but not disgustingly so, and with an alcohol content of around 13% it’s easier on the liver than soju too. They say it’s healthy, and it must be. It has flowers in it.

Bokbunja

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Bokbunja is made from black raspberries and looks like a dark red wine, though it tastes sweeter, like a weak port. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about bokbunja is that it manages to unite the two great marketing angles found in Korean cuisine – it’s good for your health and good for a man’s stamina. Mix it with some baekseju and side of dog soup, and you’ll live forever and make love all night. It’s just science, people.

Maehwasu

maehwasu

Moving to the sweeter end of the scale we find Maehwasu, a brand of plum liquor marketed at women who don’t like soju. It can be sickly sweet for some, is a little weaker than soju (around 14%), and it causes bad hangovers. And it really is made for the ladies; the bottle has pink flowers on the label. Thirsty bros beware – there’s no manly way to drink this stuff. Just go with it.

Andong soju

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What if I told you there was a form of soju twice as potent as the regular stuff, made with quality ingredients according to traditional methods long abandoned by the big distilleries? Well, there is. Andong is a city in North Gyeongsang province that is considered the heartland of traditional Korea, and there they make soju the old-fashioned way. And with an alcohol content of around 45% it’s almost strong enough to send you back in time. But how does it taste? Well, it is still soju, but is has a slightly smoother burn. Think of it as cheap vodka, which is pretty much what it tastes like. Wait, there’s an idea for a cocktail: combine kahlua, milk, and Andong soju, and you have… a White Korean.

There are far more types of alcohol in Korea than one article can hope to cover. And with drinks like makgeolli and baekseju there are endless regional variants that make use of different grains, different processes, and different fruits and herbs for flavoring. There is a whole world of Korean alcohol beyond soju and bad beer just waiting to be sipped, swigged, or slammed. For the adventurous drinker there is literally nothing to lose – except sobriety.

Photo credits: Jon Åslund | DongSoo Kim | Kuruman | Robert Helvie |Eggnara|Travelthayer | JinroRichard Whitten of SeoulSync

About The Author

Richard Whitten

Richard was born in Sydney, Australia, and lived there his whole life until moving to Seoul. Though he's lived here for four years now and is happily married, he hasn't quite lost that 'Wow I'm in Korea!' enthusiasm.