Alcoholic drinks can speak to a country’s food culture no less than its signature dishes. In fact, some say the native liquor reflects the characteristics of a country better and makes a more potent impression on people around the world than the cuisine itself. Just think of some famous alcoholic drinks - whisky, beer, wine, and sake - and they will evoke the names of their particular respective countries - the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan.
So what alcoholic drinks can represent Korea? The best answers are cheongju (refined clear rice wine), makgeolli (unrefined rice wine), and soju (distilled spirit).
Fundamentals of Korean Liquor - Cheongju, Makgeolli, and Soju
In olden times, Koreans were used to making alcoholic beverages at home. That is because paying tribute to one’s ancestors is an important part of Korean culture and no table for an ancestral memorial rite can be set without an inebriant. The basic ingredients for Korean liquor include rice and Korean yeast, or nuruk, as well as water. Almost all the traditional Korean alcoholic beverages are made with rice. And nuruk, a fermentation starter to brew the beverages, is made by grinding wheat coarsely and kneading and fermenting the kibbled wheat.
With nuruk, brewing an alcoholic drink is quite simple. All you have to do is cool down freshly cooked rice or rice cake, mix it with nuruk, and put the mixture in a jar with water. The jar contents will then start ripening. With time, one will see them separate into a layer of clear liquid and a solid layer. The clear layer becomes cheongju. It is taken out and some water is poured into the jar with the solid layer to filter the solids out. That is how another Korean alcoholic drink is born. And that drink is makgeolli - the rice wine enjoying growing popularity around the world.
Meanwhile, soju, the last of the three signature Korean alcoholic drinks, is made by distilling cheongju. Although as crystal clear as water, it leaves a zesty taste in the mouth. The traditional type of soju, the distilled one, is rare and pricey because distillation requires many skills and much effort.
Best Accompaniment by Liquor Type
Most Koreans enjoy drinking booze with anju (side dishes accompanying an alcoholic drink). The clear wine cheongju reveals its flavor best when accompanied by namul (seasoned vegetables) or simple meat dishes. When it comes to makgeolli, you can’t go wrong. The coarse yet friendly rice wine mingles well with almost everything - scrumptiously ripened kimchi, oily bindaetteok (mung-bean pancake), and pan-fried fish or meat pancake. Given that Koreans eat cooked rice with various side dishes as their staple, it is not surprising that alcoholic drinks made from rice harmonize with a wide variety of side dishes. Korean farmers, in the middle of fatiguing hard work, traditionally drank a bowl of makgeolli to fill their empty stomachs and gain the energy to go back to work. For the fiery yet fragrant liquor, soju, soup-like accompaniments such as jjigae (stew) or jeongol (hot pot) are perfect.
Poktanju, a Unique Korean Drinking Culture
Another characteristic of Korean food culture is that Koreans love dishes made by mixing various ingredients together, such as bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and beef) and ssambap (rice wrapped with different ingredients in various greens). This is also true when it comes to the drinking culture. The tendency to mix ingredients gave birth to poktanju (a mixed shot of two or more types of drinks), which can be translated into English as a “bomb shot.” Among the various types of poktanju, so-maek, a concoction of soju and beer, is most popular. It is made by pouring a proportional amount of soju into a big glass filled with some beer. Although not as strong as soju, it is more intoxicating than beer, so quick shots of so-maek make drinkers tipsy more quickly. So-maek is indeed a perfect alcoholic drink for passionate Koreans.
Koreans’ love for poktanju is amazing. Like food whose taste differs depending on the cooking ability of each cook, so-maek can acquire a different taste according to the mixing ability of the one who makes it. Concoctors can choose the proportion of soju and beer they like. And those who make a better so-maek shot usually become super stars at drinking parties.
Here’s one of the most popular methods of making a so-maek shot, the so-called hoe-o-ri-ju (tornado shot): Pour a small shot of soju or yangju (western-style hard liquor) into a beer glass. Cover the top of the glass with a tissue and then hold the glass by its top part (covered by the tissue). Finally, spin it in a full circle to form a tornado inside of the glass.
Park Sung Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
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