DRINKING IN NORTH KOREA
Je Son Lee, a defector wrote in the NK News: “North Koreans tend to be heavy drinkers and enjoy hard spirits. There aren’t many bars, but alcohol can be drunk in restaurants or bought at the market or at factories to drink at home.” The German doctor and human right activist Nobert Vollertsen told AFP. “There is a lot of alcoholism. It is the only pleasure they have...Fear creates sickness. I saw many victims of alcoholism in hospital.”
Annual alcohol consumption per capita: 3.7 pure alcohol in liters:(compared to 17.4 liters in Belarus; 9.2 liters in the United States; and 2.4 liters in Japan). percentage: beer: 5.1 percent ; wine: 0 percent; spirits: 95 percent; other: 0 percent. [Source: World Health Organization data, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]
Alcoholism (deaths per 100,000 people): 1.03 (compared to 14.68 in Russia and 2.26 in the United States. [Source: World Health Organization, World Life Expectancy worldlifeexpectancy.com ]
In the last couple of decades a number of bars have opened up and they have found a receptive audience. “North Koreans’ main hobby is probably drinking,” Simon Cockerell told the Atlantic He has visited the country more than 160 times a tour guide for Koryo Tours, which leads trips to the DPRK for foreigners. “North Korean people tend to drink more and [drink] stronger liquor,” said Leonid A. Petrov, a North Korea expert at Australia National University, who cites the “lower temperatures in winter and bleak lifestyle” as reasons. Governments in Communist countries often resort to subsidizing alcohol in order to keep people happy,” Petrov explains. “As long as the regime stays in power, the leaders will permit people to drink more and will keep the price of alcohol low and consumption rules relaxed.” [Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]
North Koreans are more likely to drink tea than coffee. Both drinks are not that commonly drunk by ordinary North Koreans but are found at restaurant that cater to foreigners. Coffee is generally instant coffee. Restaurants, if they serve a drink with a meal, often serve water mixed with barley or burnt rice. There is no Coca-cola. Milk is sold at dairy shops. It is often not pasteurized.
Types of Alcoholic Drinks in North Korea
Alcoholic beverages found in North Korea include beer, soju (a cheap clear alcohol similar to vodka) and vodka. Foreigners say the beers are not bad. Whiskey and other kinds of hard alcohol and wine are imported and available in hotels. Makgeolli, also called dong dong ju, is a thick, milky, rice beer with a short fermenting time. You can also but wine made from pine cones, ginseng, mountain cherries and plums.
Je Son Lee, a defector wrote in the NK News: “North Korea has many kinds of alcohol but it can be divided into two categories: Number One, made exclusively for the Dear General (the ruling Kim), and Number Two, for everyone else. You cannot buy Number One booze from the market, although you can get hold of it if you’re well-connected. Number One alcohol is made from potatoes and has the best taste. It also doesn’t give such a hangover the next morning. Apart from potato-based alcohol, berries and acorns are also used to make liquor. [Source: Je Son Lee for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 14, 2015. Je Son Lee left North Korea in 2011. She is in her late 20s]
“North Koreans have a different name for soju, South Korea’s most popular spirit – we call it nongtaegi. It is usually about 20-25 percent alcohol, but in my hometown it is about 28-30 percent. In the past, only domestic booze was allowed to be sold in the markets but these days you can also find imported drinks, including Chinese liquor. The most widely seen foreign alcohol is the famous Kaoliang Liquor from China. Most North Korean booze has a high percentage of alcohol and Chinese Kaoliang Liquor (46-50 percent) is really popular.
Local beers include Taedonggang beer. Most imported beer comes from China, Russia or South Korea. Heineken is available at the Pyongyang casino and other places in Pyongyang. Cheap liquor is made from potatoes, corn and grain. North Korean defector Jong Su-ban, who came to the South in 2000, told Reuters impoverished farmers would scrounge for anything they could find to concoct their own home brews. "We found corn flower and hops and made something that came out a weird milky colour. At least it was fizzy like beer," he said. In the old days, “Bare Bones” liquor, 40 percent alcohol, was sold to foreign visitors for US$15 a bottle. “ Vior of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is a health elixir sold to foreign visitors for US$25 a bottle.
Kaesong ginseng liquor, Pyongyang spirits, and Daepyong spirits are popular choices for wedding parties. Munbaeju is a traditional liquor that has been made for generations in Pyeongan-do in North Korea. It is now also being produced in Seoul by a Korean Food Grand Master. Munbaeju is a traditional aged distilled liquor made of malted millet, sorghum, wheat, rice, and nuruk (fermentation starter), with an alcohol content of 40 percent. It originates in the Pyongyang region of North Korea and is noted for its fragrance, which is said to resemble the flower of the munbae tree (similar to a pear). Munbaeju, has the distinction of being South Korea's Important Intangible Cultural Property Number 86-1.
Soju Versus Makgeolli in North Korea
Soju is the most popular drink in North Korea as It Is in South Korea. A clear distilled liquor, it is relatively cheap and usually has an alcohol usually content of between 19 and 21 percent. With a taste comparable to vodka, it is usually made from sweet potatoes, chemicals, wheat, rice or barely. Soju is usually consumed straight but comes in a variety of flavors. Stronger versions of soju have an alcohol content of 30 percent. The most potent forms have an alcohol content of 45 percent. Soju is usually sold in small eight ounce bottles that are very cheap. Men usually drink soju straight in small shot-size glasses but tend to sip it rather than down in one gulp.
In 2007 DailyNK (an anti North Korean government website) suggested that Pyongyang Soju was made using snakes caught in a Yoduk political prison camp grounds by prisoners. Adam Taylor wrote in Business Insider: “In order to use the snake for brewery, the snake is first starved. Once the poison has risen to the top of the snake, the snake is immersed in alcohol. As the poison is highly dangerous, the job of catching snakes is left for the prisoners of the camps not common citizens. Comparatively, the region surrounding Yoduk is well-known for snakes. Pyongyang Soju's label, however, says it is made in Pyongyang City (not in a labor camp). Moreover, as snake soju usually keeps the snake in the bottle, it may be logical that the soju being imported is not the same soju as referenced by DailyNK. [Source: Adam Taylor, Business Insider, April 17, 2013]
Makgeolli (makkloli) is one of the oldest forms of alcohol in Korea. A milky type of unrefined wine, it is made by steaming non-glutinous rice and glutinous rice together, drying it, mixing it with malted wheat, nuruk (a fermentation starter culture) and water and letting the mixture ferment for a couple of days. It has a milky, opaque color and a low alcohol content of 6 to 7 percent, but sometimes as high 13 percent. Fermented with lactic acid bacteria, makgeolli has a rich, sweet flavor and contains plentiful amounts of amino acid. The Los Angeles Times said it “has a sharp and fruity aftertaste, like a cross between sake and beer.”
Cockerell told Munchies: "It's hard to have a meal in the evening in North Korea without alcohol, and if you're late to a meal you often have to drink three shots of soju. That's a common 'punishment.' "Soju is ..is harsher in North Korea than in South Korea. It's not as horrible as baijiu” [China's most popular spirit], but neither is anything in the world. [Source: Jamie Fullerton, Muchies, February 2016, Vice.com, January 11, 2017]
Makgeolli "is not as alcoholic and looks milky. It's nice, but in North Korea it's a bumpkin drink: the [byproduct] of something better. But if you go to Seoul, you can get all kinds of flavoured makgeolli and people drink it in hipster bars. For Koreans, it's like scrumpy: something drunk by your idiot cousins in the countryside, not an urban sophisticate. You can get makgeolli in Pyongyang, but people think it's a bit funny if you buy it. It's a backwards thing."
Drinking in North Korea
Drinking is ritual that has traditionally been done at homes, restaurants and in parks, along roadsides and and empty spaces rather than in a bar. Bars are usually at hotels. In Pyongyang, some Western-style bars have opened in recent years. Many restaurants take on a bar-like atmosphere late at night. There are a few nightclubs and casinos. North Korean men like to drink at picnics, which are sometimes enjoyed along the side of the road. "For snacks, people prefer dried squid, but mostly fish. Dried squid with mustard and soy sauce goes well with beer."
Maya Oppenheim wrote in The Independent: “After a long shift at work, Kang would often wind down with friends over beers or Suji, Korean vodka. “There were no nightclubs but there are bars where they only sell beer. Women are allowed but no children. It just looks like a normal bar but there is no music. I would go a lot in summertime, about twice a week, because it’s very hot so you want cold beer”. [Source: Maya Oppenheim, The Independent, September 9, 2016]
Robert Foyle Hunwick wrote in The Atlantic: “Although it is a conservative culture, North Koreans will drink openly and publicly on certain days. “On hot Sundays and holidays, it is common to find local people having picnics and throwing down a few glasses of soju or even home-made alcohol,” Cockerell says. “They are usually quite keen to share with visitors.” Indeed, alcohol helps lubricate what rare bonding opportunities can be had with locals, Cockerell explains, explaining that late-night drinking sessions “offer a situation in which both Western people and North Koreans are comfortable.” [Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]
“Such open-air events give rise to probably one of the most bizarre aspects of North Korea’s alcohol culture: drinking while literally cooking on gas. “Making a BBQ using gasoline might sound like a crazy idea: it’s dangerous and not healthy. But in North Korea, where firewood is a luxury, this method is the most popular way to have a picnic,” Petrov explains. “All you have to do is to forget about the bitter lead aftertaste in your mouth and enjoy the atmosphere of friendship and hospitality.” Camaraderie comes from toasting and singing. “Soviet drinking culture was full of symbolism and long toasts,” Petrov says. “That was adopted by the North Korean bureaucrats and even common people who drink on family occasions.”
Partying After a Military Parade in North Korea
Robert Foyle Hunwick wrote in The Atlantic: “Pyongyang’s usually quiet streets are filled with revelers on key dates for the regime. For a parade I visited on Victory Day, the July holiday commemorating the armistice between the two Koreas, people came decked in an array of styles, from the military’s oversized pomp, to ill-fitting short-sleeved safari shirts and baggy slacks, to bootleg versions of fancy labels like Lacoste, Dolce & Gabbana, and Dior — all convincingly faked by the Chinese. The unnamed “Draught Beer” tastes like “a pint of Boddington’s that’s been left in the fridge with a copper penny at the bottom of the glass.”[Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]
“When the tanks have all rolled off, though, the real celebrations begin. In homes and bars across the city, bottles of beer and soju are opened and shared. Driving around the big cities at night, one can sometimes spot clusters of men sinking pints at street bars. “People leave work and go home at five. The men will often come here, after they’ve been home, to drink,” a barmaid at the Taedonggang Number Three beer bar explained via a translator. “Later their wives will call to ask when they’re coming back.”
Most of this is off-limits to foreigners, who must attend pre-approved bars – but there are occasional glimpses permitted. While producing Mass Games documentary A State of Mind in 2003, the physicist father of one of the film’s subjects, gymnast Song Yon Kim, took Koryo Tours’ Nick Bonner and crew out for a beer. It was, Bonner says, “one of the coolest bars in the world. There was a seat left empty where Kim Il Sung once sat. Otherwise, drinking was the same as in any country. Social drinking, chatting, and joke telling… we renamed the pub the Red Lion and became celebrities with the locals — nothing more than wishing us well in Korean and occasionally English — but we were, for a few months, definitely part of the ‘in’ crowd.”
“Celebrations often include extended, formalized Kim-cheersing, but people tend to drink in moderation. (That said, Petrov points out that alcoholism is “very widespread” in North Korea, as is meth use and, supposedly, marijuana, as people seek to be “distracted from the grim realities of everyday life.”)
“Although one is constantly blasted with Kim worship from loudspeakers positioned on street corners, there’s little chance of tapping your foot to a Western hit (let alone “Gangnam Style”) in North Korea. Instead, people make their own music, belting out revolutionary tunes popularized by modern folk groups like Moranbong Band, a sashaying, miniskirt-wearing, violin-and-guitar-playing female quartet, whose members are said to have been handpicked by Kim Jong Un. They are the closest thing the country has to the Spice Girls — hits include “Song of Bellflower Root,” “Song of Red Bean Paste,” “Let’s Meet at the Front Line,” “Drink to Victory,” and the classic “Cheers!” (“Chuk-bei!”).
“Even for buzzed North Koreans, there are few opportunities to fall out over religion or domestic politics; both are essentially off limits. Bar fights are rare, as are Hangover-style experiences — “I don’t know of anyone who has drunk too much and then blazed a trail of destruction across Pyongyang,” Cockerell says.
“It’s simplistic to dismiss North Koreans as brainwashed masses; in fact, we have more in common than we think. The morning after some particularly lively, birthday-inspired karaoke celebrations, one of our guides seemed unusually subdued and thoughtful. Later, he leaned over on the bus with a sorrowful sigh. “I drank too much last night,” he admitted. “Now I have a hangover.” Perhaps he wanted something for his headache?, I offered. His face immediately lit up. “You have medicine! Is it from France?” he eagerly asked. “No,” I replied, “Made in China.” Pak’s smile fell and his expression switched to one of immediate scorn. “China!” he scoffed, waving his hand dismissively. “Pfft!”
Drinking in Small Town North Korea
Je Son Lee, a defector wrote in the NK News: “North Koreans tend to be heavy drinkers and enjoy hard spirits. There aren’t many bars, but alcohol can be drunk in restaurants or bought at the market or at factories to drink at home. When I was in North Korea there was only one restaurant in my home town which served liquor, and it was run by Chinese people. The restaurant was popular, at least for those who could afford it. [Source: Je Son Lee for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 14, 2015. Je Son Lee left North Korea in 2011. She is in her late 20s]
“Until 2000 North Koreans weren’t used to dining out so they usually drank at home. But by 2010 we had become familiar with eating in restaurants after coming into contact with South Korean and Chinese cultures. There are also some kiosks at North Korean markets where people drink, although they have to do this secretly as it is illegal to sell booze in open markets. We also buy booze directly from factories that make it. You may ask how this happens in non-capitalist North Korea? Well, people go directly there and pay cash, or buy it through someone they know who works there.
“I wasn’t the only one in the family who appreciated booze. My father was another who greatly enjoyed drinking. There was a beer factory near my house and my dad and his friends would bring abut 50 litres of beer home and drink all night. They would joke and say, “We drink beer so we can go to the toilet more often”. That’s how bad their humour was.
“People in my home town considered beer a soft drink and both adults and children would drink it. The legal drinking age in North Korea is 18 but no one seems to care about that. It is normal for children to go shopping on errands for their parents so shop keepers will sell them alcohol without any hesitation. At New Year and on public holidays, adults will recommend a drink or two to boys around the age of 15. In Korean culture it is rude for younger people to smoke next to adults but it is fine to drink along with older people. I would always drink with my father. I became his favourite drinking companion and I can’t wait to toast and drink with him again one day.”
Bars in North Korea
Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: In 2015, “I went to a crowded bar in Pyongyang, which was magnificent in its roughness. It was crowded with men mostly, chucking it back from rough pots like jam jars which, I remember, had chipped edges that gave a sensual, rough texture on the lips as the cold beer passed. The men stood in circles, the best way to drink beer. When I say it was a rough bar, I mean "rough" in the sense of working class, no frills. Only one man clearly resented a Westerner. He gave me the death stare every time I looked up. But that could happen in any good bar some time into the evening. "Strangers in town" is a common sentiment in pubs everywhere.” [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, September 12, 2016]
Simon Cockerell told Munchies: ""If you want a Taedonggang beer, you can go to a fancy bar and get a pint for two or three dollars, or go to a more proletarian place and get it for a voucher, or about 25 cents. Most beer-drinking establishments have low tables you would normally sit at, but with no chairs. Like in the West, you get drinking and banter in the bars, so in that way it's identifiable. Drinking pints, buying rounds, getting increasingly silly, a sing-song, the occasional spilling of a pint. Jokes, but not so much political humour. [Source: Jamie Fullerton, Muchies, February 2016, Vice.com, January 11, 2017. Cockerell, who has been to North Korea, more than 150 times
"I was in this large bar called Kyonghungwan with a Belgian TV crew once. The crew wanted to film people, so we went to the table that had the most women. t turned out that a couple of them could speak English; they were obstetricians and gynecologists at a women's hospital. Classic hospital workers: They had just finished 16- to 18-hour shifts and were letting loose. They were the drunkest people there — lots of toasts. It's mostly men at these places. Women do go to bars, but never alone.”
Nightlife in Pyongyang
Robert Foyle Hunwick wrote in The Atlantic: “I’m standing outside the Egyptian Palace nightclub in Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel, a place that promises all the advantages of a combination bar, nightclub, sauna and massage service, geared toward the tired and terminally lonely (which, like all other services at the Yanggakdo, means “foreigners only”). The only problem? It’s nearly midnight, and the bar is firmly, implacably closed. The Egyptian Palace has a sign claiming to be open nightly between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 3 a.m., but, according to well-informed sources, it’s mostly shut (and “shit,” anyway). [Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]
“Welcome to North Korean nightlife. The Macanese-run Egyptian has a sign claiming to be open nightly between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 3 a.m., but, according to well-informed sources, it’s mostly shut (and “shit,” anyway). Tales of debauched nights behind its locked glass doors — which showcase a rack of traditional North Korean clothing and some half-hearted hieroglyphics — are rare enough to be semi-legendary. Though the Yanggakdo’s basement has two sides – one Korean, the other Chinese – the latter is by far the sleazier. The reason the club was shut that night was that there were no Chinese staying at the hotel that week and, consequently, neither were the prostitutes that typically service them.
“Even with its irregular hours, though, the Egyptian is a bit of a rarity. Under “Drinking,” my Lonely Planet guide to Pyongyang has a single recommendation: The Diplomatic Club by the Juche Tower, a “newly refurbished complex full of bars, karaoke rooms, and restaurants.” The mere existence of such bars, however, is a sign of the gradual easing towards a marginally less controlled North Korean society (in Pyongyang, at least)
“For non-Koreans, nightlife is mostly confined to downtown hotels like the Koryo or the Yanggakdo. Or you can take a trip up to North Korea’s highest restaurant, serviced by North Korea’s slowest elevator and North Korea’s surliest staff. Spinning (or “swiveling,” as the hotel literature terms it) 47 stories above the city at a majestically sedate pace, the restaurant offers after-dark views of the pitch-black Pyongyang nightscape; they serve soju and beer: “It’s alright,” a fellow guest said and shrugged.
“Most prefer to stay on the ground floor, though, where the “Tea House” serves up a foaming jar of microbrew to a crowd of world-weary diplomats, journalists, NGO workers, and rookie tourists. With expectations at rock bottom, most tourists are happy to pay RMB22 (US$3.50) for something that doesn’t taste terrible. Unfortunately, some say the unnamed “Draught Beer” tastes like “a pint of Boddington’s that’s been left in the fridge with a copper penny at the bottom of the glass,” as Cockerell put it. Cockerell and his friends have asked a Beijing micro-brewery called “Great Leap” to come help teach the Tea House workers how to brew a better beer. It’s the kind of move — a Beijing hipster brewpub hops over the border to Pyongyang — that would have seemed impossible a few years ago.
Kim Jong Il, Cognac and Drinking
Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011, had an expensive taste in cognac and a “gargantuan appetite for food, drink and women.” A habitual imbiber, he reportedly spends more than US$650,000 a year on Hennessy VSOP cognac (the average annual North Korean wage is US$900).He once knocked back 10 glasses of wine during a landmark meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000. His beverages of choice during trip were Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hennesy Paradis cognac at US$650 bottle. He consumed 20 course dinners. Kim has also imported pizza ovens and two Milanese chefs to teach his staff how to make pizzas. [Source: Newsweek, January 13, 2003]
Kim Jong Il reportedly drank a bottle of cognac a day and had a massive liquor cellar with over 10,000 bottles and particularly copious amounts of Johnnie Walker Scotch and Hennessey XO cognac. Steve Glain wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Kim Jong was the world's largest single buyer of Hennessy's top-of-the-line cognac for two years in a row. It is estimated that the North Korean leader imported between US$650,000 and US$800,000 of cognac a year.
Kim Jong Il favorite cognac was 50-year-old Paradis, which sold for about US$630 a bottle in the early 2000s. One South Korean official said that the Dear leader used the liquor to "influence the whole country." Kim was also believed to possess of couple bottles of Hennessy No. 1, which can only be purchased through private bidding as it is served at the world's most exclusive restaurants.
Choi Eun Hee, the South Korean actress who was abducted and brought to North Korea, wrote in a memoir that Kim served her a bottle of liquor that contained a snake "moving about and looking like it was belching". Kim’s sushi chef said he loved the Japanese beer Asahi Super Dry and had boxes of it shipped over by the Man Yong Bong ferry from Japan and reportedly became irritated when the supply was disrupted by political issues that stopped the ferry from operating.
According to a Swedish diplomat Kim was out of the public eye from 1977 to 1978 due to "his indulgence in alcohol". As he got older, he less. A guest to a banquet he hosted in 2000 said he led several toasts, insisting that his guests gulp their drinks down while he took only a sip of his own drink. He told his guest that his doctors told him that he needed to cut back on his liquor intake. He later stuck mostly to red wine, usually Bordeaux of Burgundy. But during a landmark meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000 he was observed downing 10 glasses of wine.
Home Brew in a Small North Korean Town
Je Son Lee, a defector wrote in the NK News: “Home breweries and distilleries are not permitted in North Korea but so many people do this and sell their products at local markets that authorities are not able to stop them. In my town, one out of every 10 households made alcohol at home. The most widely used ingredients were potatoes and corn. The liquor produced here tends to be stronger than in other regions because of the particularly harsh winters. [Source: Je Son Lee for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 14, 2015. Je Son Lee left North Korea in 2011. She is in her late 20s]
“My mother was one of those making liquor at home and selling it. She usually made corn-based drinks. “She would mix corn powder with yeast and put it on a heated floor, covered in a blanket, for 10 hours. You have to watch it to make sure that it doesn’t get too hot. When she saw malt forming at the top of the liquid she would pour it into a jar and mix it with warm water and wait until it became fermented.
“After that, she poured it in the gamasot (cauldron) and boiled it. When it started boiling and steaming, that’s the magical moment when the liquid becomes what we call “liquor”. The final product was always transparent and had a soft taste. I can remember getting drunk after gulping down a mug of the liquor-in-the-making from my mother’s gamasot. While she was away, my friend and I began drinking one cup after another. We got drunk and I can’t remember what happened after that. But my mother told us later that when she got home the house looked as if a big storm had swept through it. We don’t know what exactly we did to trash the house but we know for sure that we kept giggling and had a good time. That’s what alcohol does to you, right? I have to admit, my friend and I kept drinking secretly whenever my mother was not home after that.
Pyongyang Soju in the U.S. and South Korean Soju in Pyongyang
In the U.S., Adam Taylor wrote in Business Insider, “there is one North Korean beverage you can get your hands on pretty easily. Pyongyang Soju, a 23 percent strong liquor imported from North Korea, is currently legal for sale in the United States. Pyongyang Soju is surprisingly easy to find. Business Insider bought a bottle of Pyongyang Soju at Warehouse and Wines in Greenwich Village, New York. It appears to be possible to buy the drink online if you wish to taste it yourself. The soju is inexpensive, and can be bought for just US$5.99 for a 375ml bottle — cheaper than many South Korean or Japanese sojus for sale in New York City. [Source: Adam Taylor, Business Insider, April 17, 2013]
The soju is imported by a company run by Il Woo Park, a South Korean national who lives in Manhattan, who has good relations with Pyongyang even though he was arrested by the FBI for being a South Korean spy. .“Quality may be an issue, however. Bon Appetit recently said that it "doesn't taste great" and had a "funky, fermenty smell." Others were less kind — one user on the Giant Robot forums wrote in a 2001 discussion about brands of soju: "you ain't had shit — until you've had Pyongyang Soju. Then, and only then, can you say you've had shit."
“Reactions in the Business Insider office were mixed. One reporter grimaced and exclaimed "oh god" as he took a sip, immediately reaching for a beer. "It smelled and sort of tasted like rubbing alcohol," he said later. Others were more keen. "It tastes better than it smells," one editor said. "But it's sort of like a b-side saki mixed with well vodka." "It's so smooth," said one editor more accustomed to drinking soju, adding, "I can't get over how cheap it is." Ultimately, Pyongyang Soju tastes exactly like what you'd expect — dirt cheap soju.
On South Korean soju in North Korea, Elizabeth Shim of UPI wrote: North Koreans are developing a taste for spirits originating from south of their border, according to a source in the country. A source in North Pyongan Province told South Korean news service Daily NK a leading South Korean brand of the distilled beverage called soju is popular among North Korea's emerging capitalist class and elite officials. The source said the South Korean brand of soju known as "Chamyiseul" is more popular than the North Korea-made "Pyongyang spirit." [Source: Elizabeth Shim, UPI, Aug. 3, 2016]
“Chamyiseul is highly sought after as a gift at "anniversary parties" and is treated as a "rare commodity," the source said. The South Korean soju brand is popular because its alcohol level is lower than that of North Korean soju, and therefore reduces the risk of liver damage. North Korean officials still generally prefer pure alcohol marking 30 degrees or higher. But the rise in hepatitis and gastrointestinal illnesses resulting from excessive alcohol consumption is leading to a preference for South Korean Chamyiseul, according to the source.
The soju is being smuggled into North Korea at the China border. While at large public gatherings such as weddings Kaesong ginseng liquor, Pyongyang spirits, and Daepyong spirits are popular choices, at more intimate get-togethers such as a friend's birthday party, guests seek a taste of South Korean alcohol, the source said. "News is spreading among North Koreans that South Korean products are of first-rate quality," the source said.
Beer in Pyongyang: History and Rations
According to Petrov, Korea’s beer culture was introduced by the Japanese during the colonial era, from 1910 to 1945, and enthusiastically embraced. In 2000, Pyongyang purchased 175-year-old Ushers brewery from Trowbridge, England for US$2 million and transported all the equipment o North Korea in an effort to improve Pyongyang Beer. There were rumors that former employees with the brewery were going to help launch a chain of pubs in Pyongyang. Heineken sells 50,000 cases of beer to North Korea a year. Imported beer is sold in places like Casino Pyongyang and the Random Access Club, one of the few bars in Pyongyang open to foreigners that unfortunately closed down in 2005.
Cockerell says: "Someone got locked up in South Korea once for publicly saying that North Korean beer was better than South Korean beer. There's a beer ration — men get vouchers every month. This is not necessarily a nationwide policy, but is the case in Pyongyang. But you can buy more; the 'ration' just means you get given vouchers, rather than your consumption being limited.
Beer is not the drink of choice for most North Koreans, who prefer cheaper rice-based liquor that packs a big punch. "They need to be able to drink more at the same price," Choi Soo-young, an expert on the North at the South's Korea Institute for National Unification, told Reuters..
Robert Foyle Hunwick wrote in The Atlantic: “The Taedonggangis one of the city’s most notable nightlife stops, producing seven types of beer. Although these are named with typical Soviet flair — Beer Number 1, Beer Number 2, Beer Number 3 and so forth. When I visited, they only had two beers on tap and were selling them to foreigners at about US$3 apiece, having opened early especially for us. I tried both brews: one made of around 70 percent barley, the other a rice beer. It was hard to tell them apart, although I was told the rice brew was a “woman’s beer. [Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]
The former Ushers brewery make Taedonggang, now the most popular beer in the country. It is named after the river that runs through Pyongyang. Simon Cockerell told Munchies: "The Taedonggang beers have numbers for names: One is made of barley, water, and hops, and tastes good. Two is the most common, with barley, water, hops, and a bit of rice. Three is a 50-50 barley-rice mix. Four is more rice, and Five is rice beer. Five is repulsive.” [Source: Jamie Fullerton, Muchies, February 2016, Vice.com, January 11, 2017]
Reuters reported: North Korea “has quietly been brewing one of the highest-quality beers on the peninsula for several years. But due to the North's poor infrastructure, limited trading links and minimal skills in the capitalist world, its Taedonggang beer will likely remain a little known product. Taedonggang beeris a full-bodied lager a little on the sweet side, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. A few critics who have sampled it in Pyongyang say it is a highly respectable, but not award winning, brew. Available in Seoul until last year, foreigners say the beer is infinitely superior to the mass-marketed beers in South Korea. [Source: Reuters, November 3, 2008]
Taedonggang is one of several brews in North Korea and it has quickly become the top brand, according to foreigners living in the reclusive country. At a Pyongyang hotel for foreigners where goods are overpriced across the board, a 640 ml bottle of Taedonggang sells for half a euro (0.37 pounds) On tap, the beer is a golden to burnt orange in colour with a clean, white foam. Choi said the brewery is a favourite project of the ruling communist party, whose members can afford beer and will make sure the factory receives all the ingredients it needs even though the North cannot produce enough food to feeds it 22 million people.
Taedonggang Beer Production
Reuters reported: North Korea's quest to produce decent beer began in earnest in 2000 when it started talks with Britain's Ushers brewery about acquiring its Trowbridge, Wiltshire plant that had ceased operations.The North Koreans took apart the brewery that had been producing country ales for about 180 years, shipped it piece by piece to Pyongyang and reassembled it under the banner of its Taedonggang Beer Factory. [Source: Reuters, November 3, 2008]
“By April 2002, it was up and running. In June 2002, the North's leader Kim Jong-il, known for his fondness of expensive brandy and wines, went on a brewery tour. "Watching good quality beer coming out in an uninterrupted flow for a long while, he noted with great pleasure that it has now become possible to supply more fresh beer to people in all seasons," North Korea's official KCNA news agency said.
“Park Myung-jin, of distributor Vintage Korea which used to sell the beer in the South, said the North's leader Kim wanted a showpiece brewery. "They used the best quality material without thinking of the production cost," Park said. He stopped selling the beer in the South in 2007 due largely to a sudden price hike. The North taps into overseas markets for ingredients, Park said. It has abundant supplies of fresh water because its hobbled factories do not produce enough to cause pollution problems.
“North Korea may have solved the riddle of making a robust beer but it has not completely solved the problem of bottling it. The brewery has occasional trouble sealing bottles properly and the glass it uses is fragile.
“The transport system in North Korea is also a mess, making it unlikely that the beer can become one of the few legitimate exports from a country shunned by the developed world for its defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and a human rights record cited by the United States as one of the world's worst. Distributor Park said he had to print labels in the South and send bottles from China in order to package the beer for export.
“When I was visiting North Korea, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of their Taedonggang beer, of which we drank quite a lot,” recalls Alistair Humphrey – or “Humph” – whose father was chief brewer for the British ale makers Usher’s of Trowbridge, before he died and the brewery was sold.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021