By Park Rokdam
Director of Korea Studio Sool
Traditional Korean alcoholic beverages have five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and spicy. Usually sporting a golden color, such drinks also have the beautiful scents of flowers and fruit. The development of alcoholic beverages, sool, is closely related with the unique customs and lifestyle of the Korean people.
From ancient times, Koreans traditionally brewed alcoholic beverages at home, usually gayangju (家釀酒), whose name means "homemade booze." Alcoholic beverages were inseparable from traditional holiday customs based on an agrarian lifestyle. People offered booze to their ancestors and nature through ancestral and seasonal rites and rain-making ceremonies. Such drinks also complemented meals for the parents and elderly of a family and were offered to guests and neighbors to share warmth and friendship. Sool was always at the center of the nation's fine customs of promoting harmony with neighbors.
Following the proverb "Myeongga myeongju" (名家名酒) or "A distinguished household has good liquor," thousands of alcoholic beverages set roots in all households for a variety of purposes and uses. Varieties of takju (cloudy alcoholic drinks) such as makgeolli (milky rice wine) were usually brewed in laypeople's homes for farming or entertaining guests. Commoners especially preferred the drink thanks to its savory taste and high nutritional value.
Drinks in the cheongju or yakju (clear alcoholic drinks) category have unique aromas and seven tastes. These were used on important occasions such as the four ceremonial occasions: coming-of-age, wedding, funeral and ancestral rites. For this reason, these drinks are considered to form the core of traditional booze.
Gahyangju (佳香酒) types are brewed with ingredients easily found in human surroundings such as the petals of flowers in bloom at the time like azaleas, chrysanthemum or lilies or fruit peels. These seasonal ingredients created a unique gahyangju culture reflecting the elegant taste of Koreans by season.
Yakyong yakju (藥用藥酒) is a fermented type of alcoholic beverage made with medicinal ingredients that produce unique flavors. This showed how Koreans did not regard sool merely as an alcoholic beverage based on personal preference. Domestic distilled liquor is commonly called soju. This type of drink can be categorized based on criteria like the main and complementary ingredients used, brewing method, use of other ingredients and number of brewing cycles.
Depending on purpose, these drinks can be also classified as sokseong juryu (quickly brewed drinks, 速成酒類), or those made within 10 days of brewing; danyang juryu (single-brewed drinks, 單釀酒類) that are brewed only once; jungyang juryu (drinks fermented multiple times, 重釀酒類); honseong juryu (mixed drinks, 混成酒類) made of soaking ingredients in soju; and honyang juryu (drinks mixed with wine, 混釀酒類) that are similar to fortified wine in which booze is mixed with wine and other distilled drinks to raise alcohol content.
Most traditional sool in Korea consists of yiyangju (yi meaning "two") or twice-brewed drinks. It is made of mitsool, the primary mash, and one or two additions of deotsool, a combination of grain, yeast and water added to mitsool. Most of them are made with carefully washed rice.
Grained rice is used to make rice cake or rice varieties such as baekseolgi (white rice cake), gumeongtteok (rice cake with holes), injeolmi (sticky rice cake), gaetteok (rice cake with green leaves), mulsongpyeon (white rice cake boiled and cooled quickly from water), beombeok (boiled rice mixture) or hard-boiled rice. Nuruk and water are added to the rice mixes for fermentation. Mitsool and hardboiled rice are then added to the mixture for further fermentation. Though the same rice is used but the taste, smell and ABV of each drink can differ depending on what type of rice mixture is used ranging from juk (porridge) and tteok (rice cake) to hardboiled rice.
The taste and smell of domestic traditional booze are different from those from the West. A drink's aroma mostly depends on the raw materials of the alcohol, ingredients, when it was brewed, and type and quality of the nuruk used. Other factors include the skills of the brewer, overall brewing environment and maturation process. Koreans strongly tend to prefer a taste and smell created by nature, something produced from the harmony and interactions of the main ingredients of rice, nuruk and water.
Korean traditional booze has complicated scents that cannot be clearly defined. This is because the smells of natural fruits and flowers are created in the fermentation process, not from rice, barley or wheat-based nuruk used as the main ingredients or leavening agents. Such fragrances are usually mixed with two or three kinds of scents instead of just one.
Since rice is a leading ingredient that suits the human body, traditional Korean sool is less harmful to health and causes no hangover than drinks made with other ingredients. In-season flowers or medicinal ingredients can also be used to make special drinks. The biggest difference and strength lie in traditional sool's health benefits and its ability to evoke natural changes and seasonal sensations.
Having restored over 850 types of traditional sool since 1987 including seoktanju (fermented rice drink), Park Rok-dam is dubbed Korea's "godfather of traditional alcoholic beverages." He has served as director of the Korea Studio Sool since 2006.
Translated by Korea.net staff writer Yoon Sojung