The most widely consumed drink in South Korea is getting a makeover, and locals approve of this classic drop being not only preserved, but improved.
“Time can’t be bought,” says Lee Soo-jeen. “That’s the beauty of alcohol, like this neighborhood. Good things – good alcohol – can’t be completed without the magic of time.”
Lee has a soft spot for old things: old furniture, old alleyways, old flavors. The bar owner works in an aging neighborhood in Seoul that is scheduled to be torn down and tries to revive Korean alcohols whose flavors have been lost.
She’s on an unusual mission. South Korea is now a modern society with the skyscrapers of big corporations surrounding Lee’s charmingly downmarket, central-Seoul neighborhood on Euljiro. Speed, efficiency and profit are the bywords here.
These values not only belong in the corporate world. They are also embodied in the national liquor soju, which literally means “drink made with fire.”
Ubiquitous 360ml green bottles of the stuff contain a beverage that is mass produced with distilled rice, or starches, then made cheaper by diluting the alcohol with water and distributed efficiently nationwide by big brands.
Sold for less than US$2 per bottle, it is the most widely consumed drink in South Korea, but lacks the sophistication of Scotch whiskies, French cognacs or Japanese sakes.
A soju counterculture rises
Lee’s company, Sulfun – meaning the fun of alcohol – represents a counter-culture that is rising against the dominant industrial flavors of the diluted, green-bottled sojus – which generally taste like cheap vodka and offer alcoholic content ranging from the low teens to the twenties.
Lee’s small bar, Suldabang, offers a dazzling variety of craft Korean alcohols made by small-scale producers scattered nationwide. Liquors distilled with azalea flowers, makgeollis, or fermented rice brews, sojus flavored with pine leaves, pears and oranges, soju styles dating back centuries to Korea’s last royal dynasty, libations made by a master categorized as an intangible cultural property and many, many more.
By some measures, South Koreans are the heaviest drinkers in the world. In 2017, an average Korean of 20-plus years drank 8.52 liters of alcohol annually, according to data from the Korea Health Promotion Institute. Of that total, 5.731 liters were diluted soju.
Very slowly distilled soju – often misleadingly generalized as “traditional” – is making a comeback. In 2017, the average Korean drank 0.016 liters of distilled soju annually. While that seems minimal, it is double the 2015 figure. Distilled sojus’ upward trend correlates with the rising popularity of “traditional alcohol” as a whole, whose online sales were legally permitted in 2017.
The history of “modern” – diluted – and “traditional” – distilled – sojus, a binary Lee regards with raised eyebrows, is often told in the context of Japanese colonialism, which ran from 1910-1945.
“Traditionally, alcohol was mostly homemade with rice and starches. Drinking culture was vibrant. But the Japanese implemented restrictions that led to the disappearance of many of these individual flavors,” says Oh Myung-sun, a researcher of traditional Korean cuisine and the director of Suwoon Studio, which offers various cooking classes, including with alcohol.
Starting in 1916, Japan limited alcohol production only to licensed manufacturers. By the time Korea was liberated in 1945, the damage was done. Countless local tipples had been suppressed. To make matters worse, the South Korean government passed a law in 1965 to alleviate nationwide food shortages, banning the use of rice as the main ingredient in alcohol.
That step ushered in the reign of the cheap, green-bottled sojus, whose main ingredient was usually imported spirits distilled with starches and diluted with water. The heightened accessibility to inebriation, some would say, came at the cost of taste.
“The diluted sojus you get in convenience stores are okay with food, but they’re hard to enjoy as alcoholic flavors on their own,” says Kim Chul-han, a 31-year-old engineer and frequent visitor to Suldabang. “Distilled soju isn’t like that. It’s plenty enjoyable just by itself.”
Distilled soju, along with other varieties of alcohol, started returning to the market in the 1990s, after the government legalized rice as an alcoholic ingredient. This coincided with the rise in household income and a growing demand for quality alcoholic products.
In the 2000s, legal changes allowed makgeolli to be distributed nationwide rather than simply regionally, sparking an explosion of artisanal rice brews. Craft beer has become a big thing in recent years, with the number of breweries doubling between 2013 and 2018.
All this points to lifestyle change. “Nowadays, more consumers are drinking not to get drunk, but to enjoy the flavor and fragrance,” Ryu In-soo, the director of the Korea Alcohol Industry Research Institute, told the Chosun Ilbo.
Even big soju companies are adapting. Hite Jinro, the company credited with starting Korea’s commercial soju industry in 1924 and which led the way in selling diluted soju, recently released a 100% distilled “premium soju” called Ilpoom Jinro 1924, at about triple the price of a typical green bottle.
Lee’s Suldabang sojus are also more expensive. A small glass can cost around 10,000 won (about $8.83) or more.
Lee and other experts say there’s still a long way to go in uncovering different regional flavors. Her larger company, Sulfun, has worked intensively with a handful of producers since 2014, helping them with branding and distribution.
“One of the most important challenges for traditional alcohol makers is promotion,” says researcher Oh. “Many consumers don’t realize that a variety of traditional drinks are out in the market.”
However, it is still difficult to find niche brands in convenience stores and supermarkets – consumers have to do the legwork.
Old is hip
Lee’s bar, which opened in 2018, is a relative newcomer in newly hip Euljiro. The district of concrete alleys and down-market, concrete buildings has surprisingly emerged as a retro, even ironic neighborhood.
The bar sits on the second floor of a decrepit building, where a gray staircase still bears the stickers of Suldabang’s predecessor, an old-fashioned, pre-Starbucks era coffee house, or dabang. Sul means alcohol, so the bar name means, literally, “Old-fashioned Alcoholic Coffee Shop.”
The bar has a surprisingly warm interior, with sofas and partitions. “These aren’t still here because I like old things,” laughs Lee. “It was cheaper to keep them.”
In a nation where “tradition” often means “neo-tradition,” Lee is careful about generalizing her alcohol varieties.
“Everything is part of a tradition. In 100 years from now, the ‘modern’ stuff we drink can also become ‘traditional,’” she said. “Labeling drinks like this is too vague. Just like people flower and bloom when you call them by their specific names, drinks have their specific identities too.”