Soju, Rice Wine and More: An Intro to Korean Spirits

Courtesy of Geonbae

By Justine Sterling Posted June 26, 2015

Aside from the occasional shot of soju, most Americans know little about Korea’s boozy offerings.

Thanks to chefs like David Chang, Bill Kim and Roy Choi, Korean food is no longer a mystery to Americans. Kimchi is commonplace. Bulgogi is so well known it’s showing up in tacos. Kalbi is a cookout staple. But Korean spirits are a different story. Aside from the occasional shot of soju, most Americans know little about Korea’s boozy offerings.

Oiji, a new NYC restaurant from Bouley and Gramercy Tavern alums Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku, is hoping to change that with an impressive list of Korean spirits overseen by GM and beverage director Max Soh. Here, a few Korean spirits and bottlings available at Oiji that you should definitely try.

Makgeolli: Unfiltered Rice Wine
Traditionally drunk by Korean farmers on their breaks, this spritzy, milky, funky beverage is one of the country’s oldest liquors. It’s made with fermented rice, yeast and water and typically comes in at about 6-8% ABV.

Bottle to try: Seng Makgeolli
The bright green plastic bottle might make you think Mountain Dew, but Seng is actually a deliciously refreshing, nuanced drink. Opaque and delightfully effervescent, it has an earthy honeydew flavor. At Oiji, it’s served alone and also in a take on a Paloma with tequila and cold-pressed grapefruit syrup.

Cheongju: Rice Wine
Made similarly to sake, Korean rice wine is made by fermenting polished rice for about a month, then filtering.

Bottle to try: Chung Ha
The most popular brand of rice wine, this one is clean, crisp and almost savory. At 14% ABV it’s a great alternative to sake and terrifically versatile in terms of pairings.

Commonly compared to vodka, soju is, these days, primarily made from sweet potatoes. That’s because the Japanese outlawed distilling soju from rice wine in the early 1900s when they annexed Korea. It wasn’t until 1999 that the ban on rice-based soju was lifted. Now, a few high-end distilleries are going back to the old ways and making super-smooth soju from rice wine. At Oiji, Soh is determined to reshape how people think about soju by offering a few bottles of the good stuff.

Bottle to try: Hwa Yo 23
Silky and earthy with a subtle heat, the 23% ABV soju is nothing like the harsh sweet potato-based soju people have become accustomed to. In Korea, it’s traditional to leave the spent bottles and glasses on the table throughout the meal in order to prove how much you’ve drunk. Let’s just say the 23 makes it easy to fill a table.

Bottle to try: Hwa Yo 41
The kicked up version of the 23, the Hwa Yo 41 (41% ABV) tastes like fresh wheat and sweet grass. The higher alcohol level means it is perfect for cocktails. At Oiji, it’s used in place of gin in a Negroni. It’s also fantastic with tonic water.

Fruit and Herb Wines
Korea produces a large amount of fruit and herb wines. Though many are actually infused rice wines, some are fermented from the fruits themselves.

Bottle to try: Seoljungmae
If you’ve been in an Asian market, you’ve seen these green bottles with floating spheres inside. It’s plum wine and those spheres are plums (which can totally be eaten after you’ve consumed all the wine). Crazy easy to drink, it’s sweet-tart like a sour candy.

Bottle to try: Bekseju
Made with 13 different mountain herbs including ginseng and licorice, this gingery spirit is a great aperitif. In Korea, it’s advertised as having health benefits akin to red wine.

Bottle to try: Bok Bun Ja
This deeply red spirit is made with fermented wild mountain raspberry juice. It tastes a lot like a non-sparkling lambic and makes for a great dessert drink.

Related: Ray Isle's Sake Buying Guide
5 Korean Ingredients Everyone Should Have
6 Umami-Packed Cocktails

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