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Maintaining the Tradition of Leegangju(Jo Jeong-hyeong)

Maintaining the Tradition of Leegangju and Stimulating the Taste Buds of People around the World

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Leegangju (梨薑酒) is a liqueur produced in Jeonju in North Jeolla Province. As the name suggests, it is made mainly of pear and ginger for 梨 means pear and 薑 means ginger. The Leegangju is so famous for its flavor that once it was one of the three most prestigious liquors during Joseon times (the last dynasty of Korea [1392~1910]). The Leegangju was brewed also in Haeju in Hwanghae Province in North Korea, but now only Jeonju maintains the tradition of making the liqueur. The undoubted master of the secret of making the alcoholic drink is Jo Jeong-hyeong who was designated as Intangible Cultural Properties No. 6 by the Korean government in 1987 and as Traditional Korean Food Master No. 9 by the Korean Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MIFAFF) in 1996. In 1999 the MIFAFF also awarded him the accolade of being Korean New Intellectual Farmer No. 5.

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The brewing process of Leegangju is as follows: First, make ‘Nuruk’ (a wheat-based source of the enzyme amylase) and mix it with ‘Godubap’ (hard-boiled rice), and from this make ‘Mitsul’ (crude liquor or base). Second, after a week, put it into a ‘Sojutgori’ (a container needed when making ‘Soju’ [distilled liquor] by distilling a brewage) and distill Soju from it with a high alcoholic content. Then allow to cool with the resulting Soju containing 35% alcohol. After this add pear, ginger, ‘Ulgeum’ (tuberous roots of Curcuma longa Linne), cinnamon, and honey to the Soju and let the flavors of the ingredients extravasate for three months. Third, filtrate and ferment the lees. Finally the Leegangju with 25% alcohol is completed. This Leegangju is enjoyed by all as it has a strong fragrance and the refreshing coolness of pears.

Mr. Jo is proud that the brewing process of his home-brewed liquor has been handed down in his family for six generations when his forefather, a senior official in Wanju in North Jeolla Province, brewed the Leegangju to treat guests. However, Mr. Jo actually learned how to make the special liqueur from his mother. The vitality of the Leegangju is the sustained result of his efforts to revive traditional Korean liquors. He studied the fermentology at college and entered Samhak Soju as the head of a laboratory way back in 1964. Since then he worked for the Bobae Soju as a factory manager and for the Hanil Soju as a technical adviser for twenty-five years. In 1980 Mr. Jo obtained his first-grade qualification certificate for brewing.

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Mr. Jo unearthed documents about traditional liquors from museums to develop new products. He also collected traditional liquors going round the whole country, and brewed 200 kinds himself. Based on this effort he decided to go into the liquor business himself. Although his family and some of his friends tried to discourage him not to take this risk, Mr. Jo started brewing liquor in 1990. This was an opportune time as there was a boom for folk liquors after the Seoul Olympics in 1988. He was thus inundated with orders including, fortunately, from department stores.

Now Mr. Jo runs two factories - one in Deokjin in Jeonju and the other in Wanju in North Jeolla Province. The alcoholic products they make are supplied only to department stores and warehouses through sixteen agencies nationwide. They are also exported.

Mr. Jo said that consumers rate the quality of Leegangju. In 2001 it won the silver prize at the best five traditional foods (selected by the Korean government) contest. And it was selected as the President’s gift for Chuseok (the harvest festival [on the 15th of August by the lunar calendar]) holiday in 2005 and 2007. The Leegangju certainly has cause to boast of its brilliant prize-winning career.

Nowadays, Mr. Jo is concentrating on the export of his liquor. Starting with the United States in 2005, the high-quality beverage is now being exported to Japan, China, Thailand, and Australia. For export Mr. Jo developed a glass bottle product containing 19% alcohol in 1996. He decided to present the liquor with low alcohol content being aware that local consumers prefer liquors with a low alcoholic content.

Mr. Jo stressed: “I will focus on improving the qualities of traditional liquors and opening up new export markets. And I hope consumers will like traditional home-brewed liquors more than imported wines so that we can maintain and develop traditional Korean culture.” In this regard Mr. Jo is striving to realize his long-cherished dream to build a scholarship foundation and to open a special brewing college to preserve the tradition of the Leegangju and foster competent students. With the Gocheon (古泉) scholarship foundation using his pen name, Gocheon, he has one million pyeong (a unit of area, a pyeong = 3.954 sq.) of base including the Gocheon foundation, a second factory, a liquor museum, and farm. Mr. Jo has already opened his 100-pyeong-sized Gocheon liquor museum displaying 1,300 devices for brewing that he has collected from all over the country such as Sojutgori, molds for Nuruk, scooped wooden dishes, rice-wine strainers, distilling devices, etc. Intrigued visitors are flocking to the museum. 

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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