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Folk liquors revived

Korean traditional liquor, Hongju fresh from the still (left); moju, a traditional hangover drink (right) Korean traditional liquor, Hongju fresh from the still (left); moju, a traditional hangover drink (right)

These days everyone knows about soju and makgeolli, but when it comes to Korean alcoholic beverages, those two are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Institute of Traditional Korean Food held a traditional liquor exhibition on Friday, March 30, offering around 50 different types of folk liquor for the public to sample. The institute runs many programs to educate food professionals on Korean cuisine. All liquors were made by members of the institute, including both masters and students of the craft.

The drinks were made with a variety of ingredients, ranging from apple and azalea to yogurt and ginseng. Alcohol content ranged from 76% all the way down to 1.5%. The drink with the lowest alcohol content was moju, a thick greenish liquid originally invented in the Jeolla region as a hangover cure. The drink with the highest content was hongju, which was also the only red-colored beverage offered. Hongju was being distilled right in the room, dripping one drop at a time from a distillation apparatus known as a soju gori. Each batch makes dark red liquid which slowly gets lighter over time as its alcohol content dissipates.

Kim Ji-young, a student at the institute, produced three of the liquors offered. All three created using different fermentation techniques, her contributions included cheonggamju (blue persimmon liquor), sunhyangju, and yujaju (citron liquor).

“I used citron peels and pine needles to make the yujaju,” she said. “It’s hard to make it with a good taste. If the temperature gets too high it goes sour.”

Kim Ji-young offers free samples of her yujaju.Kim Ji-young offers free samples of her yujaju.

Most of the drinks prepared for the event came from cookbooks dating back to the Joseon Dynasty. Back then, every household had its own recipes for alcoholic drinks. If one particular drink was especially good, it earned the attention of aristocrats, eventually reaching the king, at which point it was named and its recipe recorded in the royal archives.

The oldest recipe available there was ehwaju, dating back to Goguryeo (918-1392). Unlike the other liquors which came in a glass bottle to be poured out into a cup, ehwaju was in a bowl, and tasters would use spoons to sample the yogurt-like liquor. It was originally created for royal women, who had poor health due to their luxurious lifestyle and unhealthy diets.

Ehwaju looks like butter, but it's actually a yogurt-based alcohol.Ehwaju looks like butter, but it's actually a yogurt-based alcohol.

In Joseon households, distilling liquor was a woman’s job. Techniques and recipes were transmitted from generation to generation from mother to daughter-in-law.

Many of these liquors have been produced for centuries, but the family inheritance of many of them was broken in the 20th century. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, making Korean liquor was punishable by imprisonment. Then during food shortages in the 1960s, the Korean government passed a law prohibiting the distillation of rice and grains. Many of Korea’s folk liquors ceased production for decades before their eventual revival.

Most of the drinks offered at the event are still not commercially available. However, with all the attention given at the Institute of Traditional Korean Food to reviving lost traditions, it’s only a matter of time before soju starts to look a lot less lonely on store shelves.

By Jon Dunbar Editor


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