Drinks: Gun bae!

With spring around the corner, some may feel that a celebratory drink is in order, for surviving a harsh winter, for welcoming spring or both.

If the French claim wine as their national alcoholic beverage and the Russians, vodka; then the soju belongs the Korean. Soju is a clear alcoholic beverage distilled either from grain, rice or sweet potatoes. Typically, its alcohol content is 40 proof, but it can go as high as 90 to 100 proof. Generally, it’s only the Andong soju that has this higher alcohol content. It also commands a higher price than most soju (which is relatively cheap) as it is known to be the “Cognac” of Korean soju. It is one of the few traditionally distilled soju and is known for its fragrance and clean taste.

Undistilled soju is known as cheonju. It is said to be similar to the Japaneses’ sake. When cheonju is unfiltered, it’s known as takju or makgeolli. Because it’s unfiltered, takju is cloudy and opaque. It also has a relatively low alcoholic content of only 6 or 7 percent. Sometimes fruits or flowers are added to the soju. Some of these variations include the igangju – the plum ginger wine, omiju, the magnolia wine or the paekhwaju, the hundred-flower wine or the kukhwaju, the chrysanthemum wine. You can sample a variety of Korean drinks from the different regions of Korea, including home-brewed liquor at the Gyeongju Rice Cake and Korean Traditional Drink Festival.

Just like Spaniards enjoy tapas with their cervezas and sangria, drinks in South Korea are usually served with a variety of small dishes, known as anju. They are either savoury and/or spicy. Anju can be something as simple as nuts but also a little more elaborate as a stew, and everything in between like savoury pancakes, friend chicken and tempura. Popular anju include “jokbal” which is pig feets, squid, octopus and pig’s/cow’s intestines. Some of the articles below will suggest that certain drinks should be paired with certain types of anju- such as the fruit wines being paired with fruits; the beer with the fried food and soju with the spicy food, but I feel that you should drink and eat what you enjoy, irrespective of any food pairing rule.

In Korea, drinking can be done in bars, restaurants but also in street stall tents, called pojangmacha that line the streets. These are the Korean equivalent of the Irish watering hole, minus the singing. They are usually quite basic with their plastic garden chairs, and bright neon lights but at the same time, familiar and comforting to everyone and anyone in need of a drink.

Drinking in Korea, does involve some etiquette, such as never pouring your own glass of soju. And When offered a drink by an elder, it is traditionally considered polite to decline twice before accepting. But once you do, don’t hesitate to shout “gun bae!” and bottoms up!

Facts About Korea, published by Korean Overseas Information Service, 2006.
Introducing Korea, Peter Hyun (ed.), 1987.


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