Traditional Korean booze receives hip makeover

By Im Eun-byel
  • Published : Mar 14, 2019 - 15:10
  • Updated : Mar 14, 2019 - 15:10

Amid the growing trend toward drinking less but better, traditional Korean liquor makers are churning out trendier drinking options.

Traditional booze, long overshadowed by soju and beer, is evolving to cater to a new group of alcohol consumers, who rather than binge drinking, savor each sip.

Premium rice wine in the house

The drinking less but better trend is reflected in the neologism “mak-pagne,” a compound word made up of makgeolli and champagne, referring to champagne-like traditional rice wine.

While traditional makgeolli usually has a rich, strong flavor with a light hint of fizz, mak-pagne has a relatively mild, creamy taste, bubbling up with a refreshing effervescence. Like champagne, the bubbles burst at once, when the bottle is opened.

Served with champagne glasses at pubs and bars, mak-pagne is often paired contemporary Korean dishes, trendy tapas or even Italian foods.

Usually priced at 12,000 won ($10.60) per bottle, mak-pagne is much more expensive compared to other factory-made makgeolli, priced around 2,000 won. But the high price has not stopped the enthusiasts from seeking out the drink.
Boksoondoga makgeolli (Boksoondoga)

Provincial breweries such as Boksoondoga is a big player in the mak-pagne scene. Based in Ulsan, Boksoondoga introduces its product as a homemade Korean rice wine, brewed without artificial sweeteners.

With 60 employees in total, Boksoondoga claims, its sales has been increasing by 30 percent every year. Chosen as a banquet drink for official national events, the beverage has been labeled with an image of premium liquor which can satisfy both locals and foreigners.

Embracing traditional spirits with cocktails 
Le Pin-ale cocktail is a drink inspired by pine tree spirit Damsol and butter infusion. (Ryse)

Reflecting the demand for locality, local hotel bars are working on shaking up their bars with a Korean touch, for instance, crafting cocktails with traditional Korean spirits.

Side Note Club at boutique hotel Ryse in Hongdae, Seoul, boasts a colorful selection of cocktails inspired by traditional sprits. It has four cocktail drinks listed under the Korean Inspiration category.

For instance, Le Pin-ale cocktail is a drink inspired by pine tree spirit Damsol and butter infusion. I’m Delicious cocktail is based on apple spirit Chusa, sprinkled with pistachio powder. The two cocktail drinks, similar in taste with other western cocktail varieties, show that Korean spirits can be a great alcohol base for cocktail.

Lounge & Bar at The Westin Chosun Seoul in central Seoul presents Joseon Highball as a tradition-inspired cocktail drink. The highball is a mix of beer with Hwayo, high-end soju.

Even outside of luxury hotels, several bars in Seoul call themselves as a traditional liquor bar, concocting colorful cocktail drinks mixed with traditional spirits. Western cocktails, for instance, martini and daiquiri, are newly flavored with traditional spirits.

Booze tap subscription

Still there are those who are reluctant to try out traditional liquor because they do not know much about it. But what if you can get a selection of traditional drinks delivered to your doorstep every month like a magazine?

Sooldamhwa is an e-commerce enterprise that introduces traditional Korean liquor to younger generations. The name means conversation via drinks in Korean. Based on a subscription model, the service sends two bottles of traditional Korean liquor, paired with a snack to subscribers’ homes every month.

The business was co-founded by three friends in their mid-20s, Lee Jae-wook, Kim Young-suk and Kim Tae-young. Their interest for traditional Korean liquor stem from the experience of studying abroad. 

Three co-founders of Sooldamhwa, Kim Tae-young, Kim Young-suk and Lee Jae-wook, pose for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald at the Sool Gallery in Gangnam area, southern Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)

Having attended overseas universities in Hong Kong and the US, the three friends realized, they know nothing about Korea’s traditional drinking culture.

“We target consumers in their 20s and 30s, who are tired of the conventional drinking culture,” Kim Tae-young said. “We recommend drinks to those who do not know much about traditional liquor, suggesting a new lifestyle.”

In 2017, the National Tax Service partially allowed online sales of traditional liquor, in an effort to support the struggling traditional liquor market.

The co-founders spotted an opportunity in the lift. Observing that numerous traditional liquor sellers were dispersed online, they thought that curation service can have a competitive edge and launched the business in January.

“Owners of traditional liquor distilleries are in their 50s and 60s. They do not understand the importance of online promotion,” Lee Jae-wook said. “Through the service, we are actually promoting the breweries.”

The founders say, Sooldamhwa’s aim is to revive the traditional booze industry itself. It hopes to create a community of people who enjoy traditional liquor, serving the role of sommelier.

Sooldamhwa box (Sooldamhwa)

According to Kim, through the service, customers can experience various traditional liquors at a lower price than usual, as breweries provide the drinks at a discounted price.

But, it is much more than just about the price. Sooldamhwa is about storytelling, Lee argues.

“For example, as March is a month when winter ends and spring starts, our March box consists of one drink designed for winter and one inspired by spring,” Lee said. “The purpose is to let customers know that there are diverse varieties of traditional liquor and they can certainly find something that fits them.”

By Im Eun-byel (