Soju–All So New, All So Familiar

fermenting samhaejuIt’s a brisk Saturday evening in March, and my husband Hugo and I are sitting in the unheated basement of a century-old building in Seoul, Korea’s historic Bukchon neighborhood. Most of the floor space in the small room is filled with large clay pots of fermenting alcohol. Across the table where we sit, a hint of a smile crosses Kim Taek Sang’s face as I sniff my tiny cup of yakju as if it were beer.

A soft-spoken man well into his sixties, Mr. Kim asks a question which our guide, Jay Kim, translates. “What smell do you notice?” I inhale deeply one more time before venturing, “Mint?”

With Kim Taek Sang

With Kim Taek Sang

In a culture where it’s rude to make another person look bad, Mr. Kim smiles like a loving grandfather and utters what I think is a single word. “Chamomile,” Jay translates with her own smile. “I knew it!” whispers Hugo, a great drinker of chamomile tea.

When Mr. Kim signals one of two assistants to serve the next sample, all I need is two deep inhales before I announce with more confidence, “Citrus,” which Jay doesn’t understand. “Like oranges,” I clarify. As soon as she translates, Mr. Kim smiles broadly and Jay translates, “Very good!” A brief discussion ensues before she comes up with the exact word: tangerine.

Just as with craft beer, we’re discovering that a variety of ingredients can be added to yakju and other traditional Korean alcoholic beverages known collectively as samhaeju. Like Japanese sake, all samhaeju is made from three basic ingredients: water, rice and yeast (nuruk).

Unlike craft beer, there are no hops and fermentation takes much longer—120 days. While ales ferment between 68o to 72o and lagers in the fifties, Mr. Kim says that samhaeju needs temperatures between 7o to 8o Centigrade (44o to 46o F). For this reason, he only makes it during the cold months.

Makgoelli (left) and yakju (right)

Makgoelli (left) and yakju (right)

Gradually, the samhaeju separates into a cloudy bottom liquid (makgeolli) with a clearer liquid (yakju) rising to the top. The ABV of samhaeju starts around 6%, although Mr. Kim’s typically register at 16% (a Budweiser or Coors runs 4.5% to 5%, wines tend to fall around 12% to 15%). Yakju can then be distilled into soju. Mr. Kim’s packs a walloping 45% to 50% ABV, higher than whiskey or vodka.

Many samhaeju makers form part of a long family line. Mr. Kim’s ancestors entered the professional at some point during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1897), and he learned the art from his mother. “And you, in turn, taught your child or children?” I ask. “Yes, of course,” he confirms.

Mr. Kim watches our reactions carefully with each sample we taste. As experienced beer tasters, we have plenty of comments and questions that lead to a lively discussion our host seems to enjoy as much as we do. The question that appears to please him most is when I ask how he evaluates a good soju.

There are, he informs us, five steps. First, observe the color. I believe the lighter the color, the more pure, i.e. makgoelli is a cloudy cream color, yakju a light yellow to cream and soju is clear. Second, Jay translates, “is the smell. Third, you touch with the tongue and hold in the mouth.” These two steps are, of course, aroma and mouthfeel. Next, you swallow and check smoothness. Finally, you wait to see what flavors emerge after swallowing. The fourth step is the only one that varies a bit from beer tasting. Given soju’s much higher ABV, it’s understandable that smoothness holds more importance. Meanwhile the fifth, aftertaste is familiar to anyone who enjoys craft beer.

Tour guide Jay Kim with a bottle of Mr. Kim's soju

Tour guide Jay Kim with a bottle of Mr. Kim’s soju

As our tasting session wraps up, it only seems appropriate to ask if it’s possible to purchase a bottle of Mr. Kim’s soju. The question elicits smiles and affirmations from the man, both assistants and Jay. Of the ten or more samples we tried, the tangerine soju was my favorite, so that’s what I’d like to take home to America. At 65,000 ($58.00 US), the 400 mL (13.5 oz.) bottle was more than I had expected, but we’d just experienced an unforgettable evening.

Hugo summed it up best with his goodbye, asking Jay to tell Mr. Kim and the assistants that he was recently gifted a bottle of high quality soju, but Mr. Kim’s was, without a doubt, superior. He went on to say, “In a way, the evening was all so new, but all so familiar. The best part of it, though, was that we shared these drinks with you folks and got to learn from you.”

To schedule a soju tasting, contact Gastro Tour Seoul–and ask for Jay as your guide!

Mr. Kim’s assistants:

Mr. Kim's assistants

Comments

  1. Dave Thomas says:

    Nice story about soju Leslie!
    I can tell you I had {too} many bottles when I was in ChungBukDo in February 1995 with Jinro-Coors. Vice-president Lee and I drank 9 bottles one night! I still have the framed plaque written in Hangul that they gave me when I left South Korea. I’ll tell you what it says next time I see you.
    Gamshamnida!
    Dave

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Thanks, Dave. I laughed when I read your comment and then laughed harder when I read it to Hugo. BTW, we had a couple of Hites (now made by Hite-Jinro) with dinner tonight. I’ll look forward to hearing your war story over our next beer.

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