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Korean booze and drinking - recommendations and insight

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Non-Koreans, don't be fooled by your Korean pal who delights in being your personal culinary ambassador to The Motherland. They've done you right with the restaurant and food recommendations, but pass on the soju.

Soju tastes like rubbing alcohol, and is good for 3 things only:

1) getting blitzed as cheaply and as quickly as possible
2) allowing Korean Americans to wax nostalgic about the Yonsei summer program
3) allowing Korean Americans to give cute pouring lessons to non-Koreans (ie, 2 hands, oppa, hyung, etc)

The thing is, a bottle of soju costs $2 *max* in Seoul, but at least 5 times as much anywhere else (shipping + import taxes). Soju *used* to be made from fermented rice or sweet potatoes. NO MAS, just chemical nastiness these days.

Here's the thing: most cultures around the world enjoy their booze. But nowhere on earth is binge drinking and late-night street vomit as mainstream as in Korea. Extreme drunkenness is the de facto crucible in which friendships (and 1nightstands) are forged and solidified. The average 20something FEMALE Seoulite knows at least 2 dozen drinking games. The fuel for this fire? Unless it's an overpriced nightclub where the cheapest booze is a $100 bottle of Jack, it's soju. In Korea, 99 times out of 100, it's about about the drunkenness, not the drink itself.

I'm not hating on Korea. I love the drinking culture, the games, the getting plastered, all of it. Some of the most fun nights I've had were spent in a drunken haze in Apkujeong, Hongdae, Kangnam yeok, etc. But Koreans let's be honest here: recommending soju in America is like recommending Colt 45 in France. Without cultural context, it's utterly pointless.

If you're a non-Korean interested in Korean booze, skip the soju. Go for a couple of tasty Korean liquors.

One is pronounced BEK SAY JOO (image http://www.ksdb.co.kr/eng/product/bek... ). Taste-wise, it's sort of an Asian white wine, sipped and not shot. Content-wise, it's an Asian gin: a ton of different herbs and ingredients (lycii folium. MMMmmmmm, lycii folium http://www.ksdb.co.kr/eng/product/her... ). People mix BSJ with soju to make OH SHIP JOO a play on the fact that the BEK in BEK SAY JOO means 100 and OH SHIP means 50. Fun stuff but IMO adding soju to anything is a great way to make it taste worse.

For me, SAHN SA CHOON (image http://soolsool.koreasme.com/img/1999... ) is the best. A wine made with rose hips. This best taste of any Korean booze you'll likely find outside Korea.

FWIW the best Korean liquor is DOOL JJEUK JOO. You won't find it in the US. It's made in North Korea from I believe a "cousin" of the blueberry. A handful of places in Seoul get it on the gray market and sell it when it's available.

As far as Korean beers go, any place in LA will have all or part of the O.B., Cass, or Hite triforce of mediocrity. Think Coors/PBR/Bud but imported 1/2way across the globe. I prefer Cass.

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  1. LOL. As impolitic as your post may seem to those not familiar with the culture, I have to agree with you.

    Soju tastes, at best, like cheap vodka. Kind of harsh, and only palatable when paired with enough fiery Korean cuisine to drown out the harshness. Soju doesn't have, nor does it pretend to have, finesse. Hence, the popularity of soju cocktails, which use juice and sugar to drown out soju flavor.

    1. Wow! That sure is quite an exact piece of observation! I may fit into 'the average 20something FEMALE Seoulite' you mentioned above. I'm a sophomore in college and just about every night my friends go on a binge that may seem just absurd and crazy to an outsider but "heartwarming" to an insider.

      They call it "college culture" but I don't quite get the "culture" part as not all people are attached to it. I don't mind enjoying the drinking games as they are actually FUN games and I cannot say no to pleasant clinks with intimates but when those few who call themselves 'Ju-sin(god of booze)' take control of the tables it turns into a disaster with everybody filling their glasses till 'surface tension' and gulping them down without giving thought to 'why' they have come to the meeting place. The inevitable result from that is what we call 'corpses' scattered about Hofs and even on the streets.

      I couln't agree more with Papa. Non-Koreans who are adventurous enough to follow the indigenous to drinking places should always be alert when 'Ju-sin' appears grinning with a bottle of soju in hand.

      1. Oh boy, now you've opened up a whole can of nostalgia for me. I was in the Navy for 20 years and my best old Navy buddy's wife is from Korea. I've walked the back alleys of Seoul with them and visited her home in Chinae. Last time I visited, she pulled out a bottle of soju (I think it had a frog on the bottle) and a jar of tang. I remember very little after that.

        1. "But nowhere on earth is binge drinking and late-night street vomit as mainstream as in Korea."

          Heh. If Japan isn't just as bad (or good, depending on your POV), they ain't much far behind...

          I believe shochu in Japan is the same as Korean soju. Or at least it's exactly as nasty as you described it.

          4 Replies
          1. re: healthyscratch

            Maybe I haven't looked hard enough locally, but it seems that the Korean soju that's available are mostly mass-produced cheap liquor. I'm sure there are levels of quality, but I haven't noticed it around NYC. Japanese shochu has been going through a rebirth with the greater availability of artisanal shochus reaching the US, and shedding it's "cheap liquor" stereotype. Here's a link.
            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/301296

            1. re: E Eto

              Thanks for the link. Interesting stuff. I haven't looked for shochu since the one or fifteen bad experiences I had with it when I worked in Japan maybe seventeen years ago, so if the quality has improved, I had no idea.

              Looks like I've got another new drink to try (or re-try). I hate when that happens...

              1. re: healthyscratch

                There are now dozens of Japanese premium shochu available and all are worth trying. They can be really amazing. I tend to like the ones that use the sweet potato which make for a unique musky taste that I love, but the rice, barley, buckwheat, brown sugar ones are good too.

                Some are made from one ingredient and others from combinations. Barley based shochu can be reminiscent of whiskey in flavor. Then there are the chestnut, shiso, sesame, and even milk variations too, and regional versions like Awamori from Okinawa which isn't technically a shochu but very similar.

                Then you have the single distilled and multiple distilled ones and blends, as well as different combinations.

                1. re: JMF

                  I met up last year with a group of Japanese Dr.'s who were in town for a convention. One, a enophile, brought me a bottle of high end shochu from his town, complete with a beautiful stoneware flask. He presented this to me while proudly beaming about how this particular shochu was one of the finest.

                  A couple of drinks later, I was still wishing for a jar of Tang. OK, so maybe it's me, but I don't think I'll ever acquire a taste for shochu other than in lemon sours.