Thursday, September 8, 2011

Korean Traditional Liquors and Wines

 For  Koreans, alcohol has been a lifelong companion in times of sorrow and joy. Korean people have been brewing their own liquor since ancient times when they first began to practice agriculture. Since then, liquor has been enjoyed at every festival and event. Historical records show that Korean people began brewing a clear grain-based liquor before the 4th century. Since that time, Koreans have performed ceremonies when they make a ritual offering of the alcohol to their ancestors in appreciation for the bountiful annual harvest and to pray for future happiness. After making the ritual offerings, Koreans traditionally enjoy drinking the liquor while singing and dancing.

Korea’s traditional liquors are takju (탁주), cheongju 청주 (or yakju 약주), and soju (소주). The oldest is takju, which is made by fermenting grains like rice or wheat. When takju is strained to a refined clear liquor, it becomes cheongju (yakju), and when cheongju is distilled, it becomes soju. Today, takju is more commonly known as makgeolli, and it is enjoyed by the majority of Koreans as well as many visitors.

Makgeolli (Takju) – 막걸리 (탁주)
Makgeolli is unique to Korea. It is made by mixing steamed glutinous rice, barley, or wheat with nuruk, a fermentation starter culture, and water, and then leaving the mixture to ferment. It has a milky, opaque color and a low alcohol content of 6%-7%. It is also called takju (tak meaning opaque) or nongju (nong means farming) because it is traditionally enjoyed by farmers after a day of hard labor.

In Korea, the most popular types of makgeolli are ssal makgeolli (쌀막걸리) made of rice (ssal means ‘rice’) and dongdongju (동동주) in which unstrained rice floats on the surface (dongdong means ‘floating’). When drinking makgeolli, make sure to shake or stir it well before drinking. The best makgeolli is an intriguing blend of sweet, sour, bitter, and astringent tastes. You can try makgeolli almost anywhere in Seoul, particularly recommended are the traditional Korean taverns in the downtown Insa-dong or Myeong-dong areas. Outside of Seoul, there are also many establishments that sell makgeolli. You will also find a wide range of makgeolli or dongdongju at grocery stores, convenience stores, and department stores. Unpasteurized makgeolli will last for only 10 to 30 days, so make sure to check the expiry date.

Cheongju (Yakju) – 청주 (약주)
Unlike takju, which is thick and opaque, cheongju’s liquor is clear (cheong means clear). The brewing process is largely similar to that of takju, but the straining process is different. The main ingredients, rice, nuruk starter culture, and water are put in a jug and kept for 10 to 20 days at a temperature of 20-25 degrees Celsius. During this time the mixture fe

rments and turns into liquor. Then a yongsu, a long cylindrical strainer made from closely woven bamboo strips, is inserted into the center of the jug. Clear liquor is collected inside the yongsu.

Cheongju is regarded as high quality liquor in Korea and is therefore difficult to find at general bars. It is usually available at department stores or grocery stores and comes in an elegant package, so it is a popular gift for special occasions or  holidays.

Gyeongju  Beopju (경주법주)
Gyeongju Gyodong Beopju liquor has been brewed for many generations by the Choi family living in Gyodong, Gyeongju. This 300 year old alcohol was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset no. 86-3 in 1986. The liquor is brewed using glutinous rice and does not have any added chemicals. Its alcohol content is about 17% and the end product is a clear transparent liquor that is yellowish in color.

Like many grain-based types of liquor, Beopju’s unique sweetness spreads fragrantly inside your mouth. The main characteristic in Beopju’s brewing process is that after making the base liquor, it is then put through a second fermentation process. Thus, it takes about a hundred days to brew, and bottles that are available for sale have generally been matured for over a year.

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