Soju (a clear, colorless distilled alcoholic drink with an alcohol content of between 16.8 percent and 53 percent) and makgeolli (a milky raw rice wine) are generally considered the most representative examples of Korean alcoholic beverages, but Korean beer is consumed just as much. In the 2000s, wine became more popular, popping up on menus at bars and restaurants all over Korea, but overall still accounts for relatively small percentage of total alcohol consumed. Whiskey, other kinds of hard alcohol and wine, both domestic and imported, are also available. Most domestic alcoholic drinks are sold at supermarkets and corner stores, while imported liquor is normally sold at special shops and is often expensive. Beer is consumed in beer hall-style pubs called “hofs” and soju is often consumed in alleyway orange tents know as pojangmachas.

Soju is usually consumed straight and unflavored but like vodka in Russia comes in a variety of flavors, including cherry, lemon and plum. Another interesting Korean drink is “dong dong ju” (thick rice beer also called makgeolli). Takju includes makgeolli and dongdongju. Yakju is the name for has clean-tasting, sake-like drinks such as baekseju. Fruit wine called gwasilju can be made with persimmons, mountain cherries, plums, grapes or raspberries. You can also buy wine made with pine cones, tree knots and ginseng. There are also imported alcoholic beverages such as foreign beer and whiskey. There are breweries in South Korea licensed to bottle American and European brands such as Budweiser and Heineken.

Gwasilju is the generic Korean term for fruit-based liquor. The method of making gwasilju can be divided into two categories; one is made from naturally fermented fruits and the other by mixing fruits and sugars with alcohol, making for a more fragrant, fruity flavor. Bokbunja, Maesilju, and Meoruju are the most common gwasilju found in supermarkets and department stores. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

For those looking for more quality products, special local liquors such as Gyeongju Gyodong Beopju, Andong Soju, and Munbaeju are highly recommended. These locally produced liquors are made in the traditional method, bringing with them a deep favor and taste. The liquors are usually packaged in luxurious boxes. Leegangju, one of the finest liquors from Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do, made by mixing in pears and ginger. 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.

Among the different kinds of alcoholic drinks found in Korea are ginseng wine (insamju, soju with a ginseng root in it), goryangju and okroju (two kinds of Korean distilled liquors); Myonchi'on Tugyonju (azalea liquor), popju (sticky rice liquor), wheat wine from Andong, pear and ginger wine from Chonju, rice wine from Hansan and millet liquor from Cheju Island. Many of these drinks are sold in ceramic flasks. Hansan Sogokju is a traditional liquor with 1,500 years of history, produced in the Hansan region of Seocheon-gun, Chungcheongnam-do. 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.

Scotch and other forms of whiskey are also consumed in Korea. For a while it was estimated that 10 percent of the world's supply of Chivas Regal and 50 percent of the global supply of Passport whiskey were consumed in Korea. Scotch started to became popular in the 1960s when South Korean president Park Chung Hee said that he was fond of drinking Chivas Regal.

Traditional Wine-Making and the History of Alcoholic Drinks in Korea

Heo Shi-myung wrote in the Korea Herald: “Korean traditional wine brewing consists largely of two parts, rice malt making and brewing with steamed rice. Malt is an essential ingredient of Korean traditional wine. It is made with crushed wheat, which is then placed in a wooden box to be treaded. Malt treading with feet is an exciting experience for foreigners as they often say it is as unique as the taste of Korean traditional wine. [Source: Heo Shi-myung, Korea Herald, March 30, 2010]

The rice is steamed in an earthenware steamer to make a batter called "godubab." When the godubab is cooled, it is mixed with malt and treaded for a while to make it as glutinous as possible — the more glutinous the godubab and malt batter is, the better the wine is. The Korean Traditional Wine Institute offers a 3-hour wine brewing class for a group of five or more for 60,000 won per person. Reservations are required. The fly in the ointment is that participants cannot taste the wine they make that day. They have to wait for at least a week for the wine to ferment. They can take their wine home or pick it up later.

“The royal palaces in Seoul in the Joseon period were always equipped with a variety of wines for different purposes. There was wine for the king, wine presented to subjects by the king, wine for rituals and wine for foreign envoys, amongst others. The tradition of royal court liquor disappeared with the fall of the Joseon Dynasty, but some recipes of the royal wines still survive. One of them is hyangonju, or "fragrant liquor", which is designated as a Seoul City Intangible Asset.”

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “A large variety of homemade wines (which are strictly speaking ales) flavored with ginseng, pine needles, chrysanthemum, cherry, plum, or apricot blossoms, herbs, and fruits were popular before the turn of the twentieth century. The ban on homemade wines during the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945) had a devastating effect on this part of the Korean tradition. The use of rice for wine making continued to be prohibited after the liberation, due to the shortage of rice. The ban on rice wine was lifted in 1971, and various efforts have been undertaken since to revive local wine making in Korea. In 1985, for example, the government designated many traditional wines as cultural assets. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

The Korea Herald reported: “Before the colonial Japanese government imposed its liquor tax law here in 1909, the country’s alcohol scene was varied and vibrant, with local breweries concocting their own beverages. Korea’s rapid, centralized modernization in the postwar years produced a handful of drinks — soju, beer and makgeolli in particular — that quenched the thirst of industrialists and salarymen alike. Korea’s traditional liquors, including takju (opaque, coarsely fermented drinks), yakju (filtered rice wine), soju (distilled liquor) and gwasilju (wine made with fruit), were, for a long time, relegated to the shadow of their Western competitors. [Source: Korea Herald, November 11, 2016]

Seasonal Korean Wines

Heo Shi-myung wrote in the Korea Herald: “The best time to taste Korean wine is February. Baekseju, brewed with rice harvested in late fall and fermented at a low temperature matures at the end of January or early February. The name "baekseju," meaning 100-day wine, comes from the 100 days it takes for the liquor to become clear. The wine is ready in time for Korea’s biggest holiday, Lunar New Year’s Day. Holiday get-togethers often involve some drinking, and the taste of homemade wine is often a highlight. The introduction of a liquor tax in the early 20th century forbade homebrewing, and accordingly homemade wine disappeared for a while. However, wine brewed at home is becoming more popular. [Source: Heo Shi-myung, Korea Herald, March 30, 2010]

“Koreans used to drink green pepper drink on Dano (May 5 in the lunar calendar), sindoju made with new crop rice on Chuseok (Aug. 15 in the lunar calendar), and chrysanthemum wine on Junggu (Sep. 9 in the lunar calendar). These seasonal wines are supposed to be drunk in special ways and carry symbolic meanings.” Seasonal wines found in Korea “include dosoju (literally "evil spirit-expelling wine"), "guibalgi wine" (literally "sharp-ear wine"), and chobaekju ("Japanese pepper and oriental arborvitae wine"). Supposed to have the power to drive away evil spirits, chobaekju is consumed with 7 peppercorns and 7 pine needles picked from a twig that stretches out to the east. Dosoju, which is considered to prevent diseases, is a herb wine that Koreans drink on New Year’s Day after they performed ancestral rites”.

In Korea, seniority usually is extremely important and rigidly observed as an important part of table manners. But “when it comes to dosoju, the youngest, male or female, is the first to drink and the oldest the last. Gwibalgi wine is associated with Daeboreum (Jan. 15 in the lunar calendar). Those who drink it early in the morning are supposed to hear good news and keep free from ear diseases In this respect, Koreans drink wine not just for flavor or taste but for superstitious reasons as it is believed to bring good luck and thwart diseases.”

Samhaeju — the wine of Seoul — is produced by by master brewer Gwon Hui-ja, who married a descendent of a son-in-law of the king. In Korean society, the princess used to accompany her maidservants when she married outside of royalty and lived with her family-in-law. Her maidservants often handed down royal court recipes, which is how Gwon’s family began to make samhaeju at home. Gwon inherited the recipe from her mother-in-law.

Makgeolli (Dong Dong Ju)

Makgeolli (makkloli, also called dong dong ju) is the oldest form of alcohol in Korea. A milky form 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.”

Makgeolli used to be made by rice farmers whenever they could spare the time. It has a soft, silky texture and goes down very easily, making it extremely easy to get very drunk very quickly if you're not careful. It has been said that makgeolli is very good for your skin and health (in moderation of course), making makgeolli a very popular drink among females. [Source: Inkas Admin, International Korean Adoptee Service Inc, August 14, 2013]

According to the Korea Tourism Organization: “It is relatively low in calories and high in proteins. It also contains high levels of yeast and lactobacillus. Idong Makgeolli, produced in Pocheon-si, Gyeonggi-do, has a sweet and tangy taste similar to carbonated water. Recently, different flavors of makgeolli have become quite popular, including yuja (citron), ginseng and omija makgeolli. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The lowliest wine for everyday consumption in village wineshops all over Korea is a coarse, milky-white brew called makkoli, sour to the taste and with a consistency like soup. The commonest types of makkoli ("quick-brew") are made from a rice mash that ferments in ten days to two weeks and is stored in whatever tub, vat, jar, bottle, plastic or metal container is handy. It is usually dispensed from a metal teapot and drunk from a bowl. Makkoli quality varies by age and place; however, there are standard recipes and the taste is so basic to life in the village that it stirs a great homesickness among soldiers at camp and students away in the city where vast quantities of makkoli are consumed in university districts. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Heo Shi-myung wrote in the Korea Herald: “Makgeoli, meaning roughly filtered wine...Makgeoli was once the most popular alcoholic beverage in Korea — it accounted for 70 percent of alcohol consumption in the 1970s. With the urbanization and Westernization, however, its consumption has fallen to 3~4 percent now and beer has taken over its place. Makgeoli is also referred to as nongju (literally meaning "farm liquor" in Korean) as it is popular with farmers. It usually has an alcohol content of around 6 percent, which means that one bowl is enough to have an effect. Farmers drink makgeoli when they take a break because they say it helps them work without feeling tired. In a big city such as Seoul, makgeoli is no longer consumed for that purpose. [Source: Heo Shi-myung, Korea Herald, March 30, 2010]

One of the places where makgeoli is sold most in Seoul is the entrance to a mountain trail. Some people climb the mountain with a bottle of makgeoli in their backpacks to drink at the summit, while others enjoy it served with tofu when they climb down. They say there is nothing like makgeoli to satiate hunger and thirst. According to them the best way to appreciate Makgeoli is to first climb a mountain. The makgeoli that has the largest market share in Korea is Jangsu Makgeoli manufactured by the Seoul Rice Wine Manufacturing Association, which also sponsors the Makgeoli festival held every year in Insa-dong.

Cheongju (Yakju) and Takju

Cheongju (also called yakju) is refined rice wine made by separating out the clear liquor out from makgeolli (makkol)i. It is similar to Japanese sake and is sometimes served warm like sake. The method for making the simplest forms of cheongju is similar to the method for making makgeolli, except that at the end it is strained, yielding a clear liquor. Cheongju ("cheong" means clear and “ju” means alcohol), has been widely used in a variety of traditional rituals and rites of passage, as it is regarded as a sincere and well-prepared alcohol. Chung Ha is a popular cheongju brand that is widely available at Korean restaurants. There are various local variations, including beopju, which is brewed in the ancient city of Gyeongju. Gyodong Beopju is brewed in Gyeongju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Yakju literally means "medicinal alcohol". Cheongju is generally made from steamed rice that has gone through several fermentation stages. It is also called myeongyakju or beopju. Varieties include baekhaju, which is made from glutinous rice and Korean nuruk, and Heukmeeju, which is made from black rice. [Source: Inkas Admin, International Korean Adoptee Service Inc, August 14, 2013]

Takju, takju, meaning cloudy wine, is similar to makgeoli and is sometimes considered the same thing. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Moving up the scale from lowly makkoli, the common types of wine are t'akju, yakju, and soju. T'akju is a wheat-based wine made from grain husks that are left in moist cakes to ferment for several weeks and then made into a mash that is eventually strained, fermented further, and served up as a light beverage with about 10 percent alcohol content. As with makkoli, the making of t'akju is completely unregulated at the village level and varies widely in quality, taste, and alcohol content. Yakju is made the same way as t'akju but it is strained better and has a higher alcohol content, often exceeding 15 percent. Both t'akju and yakju can be served warm, which tends to increase their effect. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]


The most popular drink in Korea is soju, a clear distilled liquor. It is relatively cheap and usually has an alcohol 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, including cherry, lemon and plum. 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 retail for the equivalent of a few dollars. Men usually drink soju straight in small shot-size glasses. But unlike the western concept of drinking shots, Koreans will usually sip from their small glasses of soju. Lemon- and cherry-flavored soju are marketed towards women. Some Chinese medicine shops sell "dog soju," A tonic drink made by boiling a dog carcass without the internal organs for several hours until the bones melt.

Soju has a light texture and crisp, dry taste. The taste varies according to label, region and base ingredients. Those made with sweet potato have a slightly pungent flavor while those made with wheat or barely have a smoother flavor. Soju drinkers claim that the drink's purity means that its hangovers are less painful than those of other liquor. There is no scientific proof to back up this claim.

The soju market is dominated by two companies: Jinto Ltd. in Seoul and the Doosam Group (makers of "Kyongwol") in Kangwom province. In the 1990s, Jinto controlled 50 percent of the market and Doosam controlled 13 percent of the market. In 1998, Jinto declared bankruptcy as a result of frivolous expansion into electronics.

History and Types of Soju

Soju is said to have originated in Persia and made its way eastward on the silk road to Mongolia and China and finally to Korea. Soju was reportedly introduced to Korea during reign of Genghis Khan by the Mongols, who set up a soju brewery in Andong in the 12th century. In 1375, soju drunkenness was such a problem that King Woo issued a decree prohibiting the drink. It is now also popular in Japan (where its called shochu), Thailand and India.

The popularity of soju began to take off in the 1960s — when South Korea’s Economic Miracle began in eartnest — and grew steadily in the 1970s, 80s and 90s as the economy grew at a rapid clip, claiming 70 percent of the alcoholic beverage market by the early 2000s. Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “Although it is often claimed to have been introduced to Korea in the thirteenth century through trade with the Mongols and Chinese, it is not clear whether the contemporary version has any connection with its ancestor apart from the name. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

There are two major types of soju; one type is made from diluted ethanol, while the other type is made from distilled starches like sweet potatoes or wheat. The most common type of soju is diluted soju, which is mass-produced by mixing water with spirits, a process different from the traditional method. The best known brands are Chamisul and Chum Churum. While all have the same soju base, locally produced alcohols are generally made using the traditional method of distillation and regarded as high quality products. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Andong Soju is a traditional distilled liquor, aged for a long period of time for a deeper flavor. The distilling process has been handed down for years in Andong-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do. The alcohol content of Andong Soju is relatively high at 45 percent. However, the soju is also available with an alcohol content of 20-35 percent for those who do not enjoy the heavy alcohol content.

Herbal Wines with Azaleas and Soju with Wasps

Heo Shi-myung wrote in the Korea Herald: “A notable characteristic of Korean traditional wines is that they use herbs as a main ingredient. One of those herb wines is songjeolju (literally meaning "pine knot liquor"). Songjeolju is made with nonglutinous rice, glutinous rice, pine knots, and Korean angelica but some seasonal ingredients are added as well, such as azalea in spring and chrysanthemum, pine leaves, and malt in fall. Among them, pine knots — the joints in the branches of a pine twig — are the most important ingredient, hence the name "songjeolju." Lee Seong-Ja, who is a recognized "skill holder" of songjeolju brewing, makes hanju in Okcheon, Chungcheongbuk-do. The major difference between songjeolju and hanju is that the former is fermented and the latter distilled. As songjeolju is no longer brewed commercially, hanju is the best replacement for it. Baesangmyun Brewery is a leading liquor maker that strives to modernize Korean traditional wine. Famous for its herb wine Sansachun made with hawthorn fruit and Japanese cornelian cherries [Source: Heo Shi-myung, Korea Herald, March 30, 2010]

In 2018, South Koreans were warned that shouldn’t mix wasps and poisonous centipedes into their soju by the country’s food ministry. Reuters reported: “The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said mixing wasps and soju could pose health risks for tipplers after the drink gained popularity on the internet. Some drinkers believe wasp soju is especially good for high blood pressure and diabetes. Some also add other insects, including centipedes and earthworms, to concoct their own soju health tonics. [Source: Reuters, April 4, 2018]

South Koreans often mix soju with other ingredients. “Somac”, a mixture of soju and beer, is the most popular soju-based cocktail. “It is no more than a rumor going around ordinary people that wasps could help restore health,” Kim Seung-hwan, a researcher at the Food and Drug Safety Ministry, told Reuters. Kim said it was a sub-culture that had been around for a long time, but it had worsened since some people began sharing the recipe and even selling it online. “That’s when we felt a need to warn people of the danger before it gets out of control,” Kim said.

“Authorities discourage people from using wasps in food because they can cause severe allergic reactions that could lead to choking. An illegal wasp-based soju shop in Hwaseong, a city south of Seoul, was uncovered in February, according to a statement released by South Korea’s special judicial police. The ministry said it was not aware of the exact number of people who were involved in making soju with wasps but stressed that everyone should be aware of what they should and shouldn’t eat. “Isn’t it too obvious that wasps and centipedes aren’t edible?” Kim said.

Traditional Korean Wines and Liquors Find New Life?

Traditional Korean wines and liquors — such as makgeolli (dongdongju), yakju, and gwasilju — are experiencing somewhat of a rebirth. The Korea Herald reported: “Similar to the way craft beers and wines are percolating through the Korean market, traditional drinks — of which there were once more than 300 kinds — are regaining their foothold in the fine-grained marketplace, albeit slowly. The big change came in February, when the government amended a liquor tax law to allow restaurants and microbreweries to make and sell their own beverages. The revised law greatly lowered the bar for small time traditional brewers’ entry into the market by including traditional drinks in the list of microbreweries with a production capacity of 1,000 to 5,000 liters. [Source: Korea Herald, November 11, 2016]

“Traditional liquors embody the cultural as well as climatic and ecological characteristics of the regions in which they are produced. For example, provinces in present-day North Korea and on Jejudo made alcohol using millet and sorghum, as rice did not grow well there and was expensive. According to Ryoo In-soo, chief of the Korea Homebrew Laboratory, interest in the national beverages is growing, although it has not reached the peak level of 2011, when the drinks were much sought after in Japan and Korea on the back of the Korean Wave. “Exports to Japan were incredible,” he told The Korea Herald. “However, with the rise of anti-Korean sentiment in Japan, increasing number of microbreweries here and foreign beers and wines flooding the domestic market, their vogue started staggering after 2011. Particularly, exports to Japan, which formed over 70 percent of global sales, were hit hard.”

“Makgeolli was vulnerable to competition from beer, as it has a similar alcohol percentage and carbonated taste to beer and has established itself as a go-to easygoing drink here. Although exports have not fully recovered, domestic sales have risen since 2014, he noted, adding that more than 10 microbreweries have opened since the amendment to the liquor tax law took effect.

Somaek: the Korean Boilermaker

Somaek — a mixed drink of soju and beer — is like a Korean boilermaker and is popular among people who find straight soju too strong, but don’t like drinking beer all by itself. Reuters reported: “As a result, one lively debate when Koreans gather to drink is the best ratio of the concoction. For some, pouring soju and beer into glasses is a chance to brag about their mixology skills and prime somaek combinations. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, Jun 8, 2011]

Others line up glasses and concentrate on mixing with all the intensity of a laboratory scientist. But now, a new glass measuring cup takes the mystery out of making the concoction, allowing partiers to mix according to their favourite taste every time. "One day, my daughter brought a beaker from her school. I started using it to not forget the golden ratio," said Woo Sang-taek, the designer and seller of the cup which has markings for mixing and cartoon faces for each different combination.

The 39-year-old Woo, who says he loves somaek more than any other drink, decided to share his idea about the cup and since late last year has sold thousands online. The cup provides guides for all possible permutations, from the 1:9 soju to beer mix described as "gentle and smooth" up to "Blackout" — a 5:5 mix. The golden ratio, according to Woo, is 3:7, which combines the alcohol from soju and carbonated fizz of beer.

“The cup, which went on sale in December — just in time for raucous year-end drinking parties — has drawn a mixed response. "As soon as I saw it online, I felt like going out to drink somaek right away. It is so tempting." said Kim Myung-jin, a 26-year-old graduate student. But others said the logical, metric approach could take all the fun out of drinking. "If we use the measuring cup, there's no human interaction and no fun stories about all the strange combinations people make," said a 37-year old office worker Kim Tae-hyun. But Woo said that the cup, which only costs 3,000 won, actually makes drinking more fun by providing guides to different somaek combinations. "Everyone using this cup says it is so cool. It is out of stock now," he added.

Korean Scientists Aim to Popularize Makgeolli

Ju-min Park wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Shin Woo-chang drinks on the job. Every day at his suburban laboratory, the molecular geneticist sniffs, taste-tests and appraises every bubble and nuance of a once-unappreciated traditional product that the South Korean government hopes will soon have a new life on the international market.” Koreans believe makgeolli “deserves a place among the world's notable alcoholic drinks, including sake from Japan and wine from California and France. Even President Lee Myung-bak has become a makgeolli pitchman. "I can tell you that makgeolli is good for health and for women's skin and beauty," Lee said at a recent get-together for foreign wine. [Source: Ju-min Park, Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2009]

“With feelings such as these on the rise, perfecting the makgeolli recipe with newer and healthier versions has become a top priority for Shin as makgeolli makers want to refine that taste for other national palates, such as those in Japan and the U.S. The goal is to boost the US$200-million industry and double the number of foreign countries — now 15 — where the drink is sold.

“For three years, he has been attempting to transform inexpensive, fermented makgeolli from a sip of nostalgia into an international favorite. Shin's relationship with the drink goes back decades. The 41-year-old scientist first drank makgeolli at a welcome party for freshmen in his college about 20 years ago."When we were young, most of the time we had makgeolli because it was cheaper than beer and tasted better than soju [a Korean distilled alcoholic beverage]," said Shin, an employee of the Seoul-based Kooksoondang Brewery. "I loved to drink, but I never imagined that I would study liquors down the road."

South Korea has about 700 small makgeolli breweries, but many are struggling financially in part because they use outdated equipment and brewing systems, Shin said. "Scientists need to take over and systematize the processing of yeast and microorganisms in making makgeolli," the bespectacled researcher said.

“The winemakers' new approach is to employ research from the fields of molecular biology, medicine and food engineering to help launch a nationwide campaign to promote makgeolli. Shin's team, with many of its 15 members holding master's or doctoral degrees in science, has already seen results. The team patented new fermenting procedures and created a new version of makgeolli — served in a can — that is now available on a Korean-owned airline that flies between South Korea and Japan. "One of the requirements for employment on the team is that you have to like to drink," Shin said, grinning. But he takes his work seriously. When he was a boy, he dreamed of winning the Nobel Prize. The dream, he said, is still alive. "I want to win the Nobel Prize for makgeolli," he said.

Makgeolli Popular with Japanese Women

In 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Sales of makgeolli, a traditional Korean alcohol, have soared in recent years, particularly among women drawn to its sweet taste, health benefits and low alcohol content. According to the Korea Agro-Trade Center Tokyo, 6,157 tons of makgeolli were imported from South Korea in 2009, more than 10 times the 611 tons imported in 1999. The figure for 2009 also represented a 26 percent increase from the previous year. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 2010]

“Makgeolli is similar to Japan's unfiltered nigorizake... A growing variety of eateries and stores are selling makgeolli, from izakaya Japanese pubs to major supermarket chains. A major South Korean brewing company also began nationwide sales of a new makgeolli product. Makgeolli was first imported to this country about 20 years ago. The recent sharp increase in imports is attributed primarily to the ongoing boom in all things South Korean, and to consumers' increasing consciousness about their health.

“The makgeolli bar Tejimaul opened four years ago in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, serving seven types of the drink. Today the bar offers 50 varieties costing from 500 yen to 1,000 yen a glass. Thanks to advanced transport technology, raw makgeolli that has not been heat-treated also can be imported to Japan, where it is popular among gourmands who enjoy the original flavor of the rice. "There are many varieties of makgeolli, including some with mandarin orange or grape flavors," said bar manager Tsuneyuki Shimazu. "There also are makgeolli cocktails." "Because it's rich in amino acids and lactic acid bacteria, many female customers order [makgeolli] for its beauty and health benefits," Shimazu said. There also is a pub that serves fresh makgeolli made at a factory next door and a brewing company that has begun producing makgeolli in Japan. Though most makgeolli is made by small or midsize South Korean companies, some major companies have started to break into the market.”

Beer in South Korea

Beer (mekju) accounts for a quarter of the alcoholic beverage market in South Korea. The most common brands are Cass, Hite, OB and Max. Nearly every drinking establishment in South Korea serves serve one, if not all, of these. The beer is reasonably good and not too high priced. When the prestigious international magazine The Economist said that North Korean beer was better than South Korean beer it set off outrage in South Korea. Someone reportedly got locked up in South Korea for publicly saying the same thing.

Beer was introduced by the Japanese in the late nineteenth century and began to be produced on a large scale in the early 1930s. Germans were mainly responsible for introducing beer to many Asian countries and helped China and Japan set up breweries and develop brewing techniques. When the Japanese colonized Korea they introduced beer and opened breweries to produce beer for the local elites.

The top three most popular beers are Hite, Cass and OB Lager. Hite Beer is the most popular beer in South Korea. It is brewed by Hite Brewery Company Limited. Hite barley malt and rice and has an alcohol content of 4.5 percent. Shops sell a range of sizes. The standard sizes in Korea are 355 ml and 500 ml cans, 330 ml and 610 ml glass bottle and 1000 ml plastic bottles. Hite’s Slogan is “Clean, Crisp and Fresh! or Cool and Fresh!” The 500 ml can of Hite costs 1,720 won as of summer, 2011. [Source: Explore Korea]

Stephen Evans of the BBC wrote: “In Seoul, the bars are now becoming worryingly trendy. Beer is the thing to drink - stronger, more expensive craft beer. The industry has come on in leaps and bounds since it was stung by the criticism that the North Koreans did it better. There is huge variety. One of the South Korean breweries produces a British-style bitter called Queen's Ale which would give British beer a run for its money. The Korean company already exports Queen's Ale to Australia and Hong Kong. They also want to export to Britain but have been told that calling it Queen's Ale might infringe British rules about royal endorsement. And, one imagines, the Queen is not going to endorse a Korean brew. In the froth at the bottom of my glass, I detect a tale of two economies. South Korean brewing is a vibrant industry. It has morphed and improved. [Source: Stephen Evans, BBC News, September 12, 2016]

Beer Companies in South Korea

Oriental Brewery, currently owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, makes Cass and is the largest beer producer in South Korea. Hite-Jinro, the nation's top maker of soju and the second-largest beer seller, makes Hite. According to a survey in South Korea in 2019, Heineken was the most popular imported beer brand among Koreans between the ages of 19 and 34. Beer companies often release special edition beers for different events or seasons and take them off the shelves after three months.

The Hite brewery brews nine different beers including Hite, Hite Prime Max, Hite Stout, D Dry Finish, Hite Exfeel (light, low cal beer) as well as being the local maker of Fosters and Carlsberg. Hite Brewing Company was founded in 1933 as the Chosun Beer company and was originally under Japanese ownership. The name was changed to Hite after South Korea gaining independence from Japan in 1948.

Cass is produced by O.B. Brewery. Originally Cass Brewery produced Cass but they were bought out in 1999 by O.B. The beers produced by Cass are Cass Fresh, Cass Light, Cass Red and Cass Lemon

O.B. stands for oriental brewery. O.B was founded in 1952 by the Doosan Group. Today’s O.B. has a strong brand portfolio that includes Cass, Cafri, Budweiser, Leffe, Beck’s, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Diebels. The main beers produced by O.B. are O.B. Golden Lager (previously O.B. Blue).


HiteJinro Co., Ltd. is the world's leading producer of soju, accounting for more than half of the drink’s domestic sales. Founded in 1924 and located at 714 Yangdongdae-ro, Gangnam District, Seoul, it also produces a variety of other alcoholic and an non-alcoholic beverages including beer, bottled water, red wine and whiskey. Distilleries are located in Icheon, Cheongwon, and Masan. The Masan plant in the southern part of South Korea is geared toward exports. The factory in Cheongwon has been involved in exporting since 1968, when it began shipping soju to Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War. [Source: Wikipedia]

Jinro soju is known by the brand name Chamisul. Part of their marketing strategy is to use temperature sensitive paper on their bottle label. A tab in the shape of a frog (the company's mascot) is white when the bottle is warm and becomes blue when the bottle is cold, indicating that the soju is ready to drink.

In 2006, the company was acquired by Hite, a popular beer maker, and the name was changed to HiteJinro. HiteJinro is expected to be the first liquor company in Korea to surpass 2 trillion won in sales. Jinro has been named the top-selling spirit in the world in the Millionaires' Club 2016, after selling 73.8 million liters in 2015. Hite Holdings Co., Ltd. Owns 50.86 percent of HiteJinro.

According to Bloomberg: Hite Brewery Co., Ltd. offers beer under the Hite, Max, Stout, S, Foster, and Kirin brands; whisky under the Kingdom and Cutty Sark brands; wine under the Hiscot Wine brand. The company also provides Hite Soju branded alcohols, as well as Puriss branded mineral water. Hite Brewery Co., Ltd. operated independently of Hite Holdings Co., Ltd as of July 30, 2008. As of September 7, 2011, Hite Brewery Co., Ltd. operated as a subsidiary of HiteJinro Co., Ltd. [Source: Bloomberg]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, 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, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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