Traditional Alcoholic Beverages: the Essence of Korean Tradition and Culture
Alcoholic beverages have been a key component of countries’ cultures and traditions since the beginning of time. Much like beer in Germany, wine in France, and vodka in Russia, makgeolli and soju are the representative alcoholic beverages of Korean culture.
Rice is the key ingredient in Korean alcohol, stemming from the country’s long history as an agricultural nation. The types of traditional alcohol are divided into takju, yakju, and soju, and differ according to filtration and distillation processes. Takju (unrefined alcohol) and yakju (refined alcohol) go through the same fermentation process and are made with the same raw ingredients, but are extracted during different stages.
When rice-based alcohol is processed, it separates into two parts: a clear part on the top and grainier part on the bottom. The clear top liquid is extracted first; this is called yakju (약주). The remaining substance is filtered with water and is called takju (탁주, also called makgeolli). Soju (소주), one of the most frequently-enjoyed drinks, is made through the distillation of takju or yakju.
Korea traditional alcohol has a long and proud history, and still plays a huge part in Koreans’ modern social life.
Meanings of Korean Traditional Alcohol
Through good time and bad times, traditional alcohol has been a steady component of the Korean legacy. It is a central part of ancestral rites where one pays respect to his/her forefathers. It is also drunk during the first full moon of the lunar year. Alcohol consumed during this time is traditionally called ‘ear-brightening alcohol’ and is said to allow drinkers to hear only good news and not suffer from any ear-related ailments during the following year. Alcohol is even an integral part of weddings, where the bride and groom exchange drinks as a symbol of their marital vows. On various occasions, younger Koreans pour alcohol into older people’s glasses in order to wish them good health and longevity. Alcohol continues to carry these same, deep-rooted meanings, despite Korea’s modernization.
All-time Favorite Drink: Soju (소주)
Used both to celebrate and commiserate, soju is by far the most-consumed Korean beverage. It’s relatively cheap with a high proof, but in recent years has been reduced in alcohol content from 25% to 16% in order to cater to a wider range of consumers.
Koreans pour and receive alcohol using two hands or one hand supporting the other. It is considered courteous to wait until someone’s glass is empty before pouring more alcohol; Koreans, therefore, do not top off their friends’ drinks as may be common in other cultures.
As a sign of respect when drinking with an elderly person, Koreans drink with their heads turned to one side instead of facing the person directly.
The pojangmacha (a small tented restaurant or street stall in Korea) along the streets provide a unique place to enjoy soju. Relatively cheap soju and delicious street foods make customers forget the daily stresses that seem never to disappear in the competitive modern world.
To Koreans abroad, soju and kimchi bring back strong memories of their country. Both are gaining increasing popularity overseas with soju even being included in the 2008 edition of the Merriam-Webster’s English dictionary, defined as ‘Korean vodka distilled usually from rice or sweet potato.
Makgeolli (막걸리) : the Rising Korean Star
Makgeolli is a milky-colored type of takju made by fermenting a mixture of steamed rice and water. It has an alcohol content of 5% to 7% and is a so-called ‘healthy drink’ containing: 10 essential amino acids, vitamin B and C, dietary fiber, lactic acids, etc. Some studies have shown that makgeolli helps prevent high blood pressure and heart diseases and suppresses the growth of cancer cells. At 46 kcal per 100 ml, makgeolli is seen as a healthy drinking option.
The taste of makgeolli can vary according to fermentation, types of rice used, and manufacturing methods. Some kinds of makgeolli put a spin on the traditional recipe by adding various ingredients such as mountain herbs, pine nuts, pears, black beans, grapes, black cherries and more.
Until the 1970s, makgeolli was Korea’s number one alcoholic beverage. In recent years, Makgeolli has been making its comeback, heralded by young people as today’s ‘well-being alcohol’ and being increasingly featured at international events. Some restaurants offer ‘makgeolli cocktails’: a delicious combination of strawberries, kiwis, peaches, or grapes mixed with makgeolli (made with rice, beans, barley, or ginseng).
In Japan, the smooth taste and low proof of makgeolli have attracted some enthusiasts in recent years. When coupled with its beneficial effects on the skin and low calorie count, it is no wonder that makgeolli is receiving enthusiastic responses from young women. Moreover, makgeolli boasts two different tastes. The top part of the drink is clear with a light fresh taste and the opaque bottom part has a thick and rich taste, making for a unique drink like no other.