Discovering Korea’s Traditional Liquors

Infamous green bottles of soju, sold dirt cheap almost everywhere in Korea have become synonymous with an intoxicating night out on the high streets and back alleys of Korea.

I discovered that Korea actually boasts a long, rich history of traditions surrounding liquor. But this history remains largely eclipsed by the blazing popularity of ‘green bottle’ soju and ‘plastic bottle’ makgeolli.  But for me, this all changed when I met Veronica on her most fabulous Brew Master tour.

The Brew Master

Veronica lead us through the charming streets of the Bukchon Hanok Village to the private home and studio of Mr Kim.  His family have been brewing traditional liquor for generations.

Mr Kim graciously explained the origins of his liquor, weaving folk tales and stories of noble women throughout.  All while presenting us with a dizzying array of liquors to taste.

Eating soju, dressed in noble style hanbokThe first was actually a solid liquor, served in a little bowl and eaten with a spoon.  As the story goes, it was popular among noble women visiting their friends in all the finery of traditional Korean hanbok to enjoy a solid liquor, thus removing the need to visit the lady’s room!  A brilliant idea!

Fermented rice is the key ingredient of all traditional Korean liquors including soju and makgeolli as well as the lesser known takju, seju and many others.  He went on to explain how different liquors are made from various stages and layers produced throughout the fermentation process.

Of the many liquors we sampled, several stood out.  I thoroughly enjoyed the soju infused with chrysanthemum and surprisingly, I enjoyed the 70% alcohol liquor, although I was nervous to try it!  But the absolute star of course, was his special artisan soju that has been named an Intangible National Treasure by the city of Seoul. The subtle yet complex flavor was exquisite and worlds away from the soju I’d sculled with my spicy barbecued meat.  If I had more time and training, I would no doubt be able to distinguish all the overtones and undertones as with a fine wine.

All the liquors we sampled were available to purchase and I regret not taking the time to do this.  Now the liquors are only a memory.  I would have loved to be able to bring them home and share them with friends.

A Sumptuous Feast with Homemade Makgeolli

After leaving the Brew Master’s home, we wandered back through Bukchon Hanok Village. We arrived at a traditional Korean restaurant, down a small alley way on the outskirts of Insadong.

We removed our shoes, as is customary in traditional Korean restaurants, and took our seats at the low table.  The dishes began to appear and were so plentiful they could barely fit on the table.  It became like a game of Tetris trying to make everything fit!  As plates were emptied, they were often replaced by fresh plates of new food, or a bowl of piping hot stew.

If you are able to eat only meal in Korea, this would be an outstanding choice!

But of course, we were not here just for the food but the traditional alcohol.

With this meal we were served generous quantities of home made makgeolli.  It goes without saying that this makgeolli was nothing like the cheap beverage served in plastic bottles.   This makgeolli was made with wild berries harvested in the mountains.  It was delicious and paired so perfectly with the incredible feast we were enjoying.

Final Thoughts

Meeting artisans who are passionate about their craft is highly meaningful to me as I travel.  Being part of their story, even if only for one fabulous night, has been a highlight of my time in Korea.  It can often be difficult to uncover true local artisans who typically don’t have websites in English or the desire for self-promotion.  So, it goes without saying that I was grateful to Veronica for putting together such a special tour and a memorable evening.

More information on the Brew Master Tour can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Discovering Korea’s Traditional Liquors

  1. Your blog is pretty cool! When did you create this? It’s my first time visiting.

    This experience sounds like such a fun and informative adventure. I want to put this place on my list for when I finally visit Korea again.


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