One can hardly presume to understand much about Korean culture without knowing at least a little about its alcohol. And one can hardly proclaim an understanding of Korean alcohol without knowing some about the basic characteristics, history, and uses of its two staples: soju (燒酒/소주) and makgeolli (막걸리).
Though these two alcohols are radically different in taste and use, they do present some important similarities. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that they are both traditionally made from rice, like many—but, of course, not all—alcohols found across East and Southeast Asia: míjiŭ (米酒) and sometimes báijiŭ (白酒) in southern China, tapuy in the Philippines, sato in Thailand, sake or shōchū (the latter of which shares the characters 燒酒 with Korean soju) in Japan. A less obvious similarity is that despite their traditional origins in rice, both liquors are also sometimes made with other grains: Soju with barley, wheat, or even corn , and makgeolli with wheat or a mix of unidentified or “other” grains , though “100% rice” is still trumpeted by some producers of these liquors as a sign of their quality. Third, both beverages can be purchased very cheaply, for around 3000 won (about $2.60) for a 750 mL bottle at most convenience stores.
Soju, a dry, clear alcohol that was traditionally up to 35% alcohol by volume (ABV) but is now generally sold as much weaker 15-20% ABV drinks , is popular. Incredibly popular. So popular, in fact, that Jinro Soju (진로 소주) has at least once been declared the top-selling alcohol in the entire world . Yes, top. As in number one. On the entire planet Earth. Not bad for something produced in a country of 50 million, eh?
Perhaps soju’s wild popularity the world over is due in part to that fact that it is well suited to enjoyment in company. Less shocking than some varieties of Western liquor or Chinese baijiu, it can be weak enough to drink in greater quantities than other hard-liquor equivalents (thereby showing off one’s prized 酒量/주량, or alcohol tolerance), but it is cheap and, er, effective enough to serve in a casual setting where one might loosen up with coworkers after—or, more often than not, during—a grueling eighty-five-hour work week.
So how did this versatile social drink work its way into the Korean, and then global, consciousness? The sixteenth-century Ming dynasty text Běncǎo Gāngmù 本草綱目 refers to a soju-like beverage cooked, as its modern character name 烧酒 ”burned liquor” implies, above a fire to refine and strengthen the taste; in this source it is accorded a number of different names, most notably “Yàcìjī” 亞刺吉, which suggests origins in the Middle Eastern liquor arak . Mentions of 亞刺吉 similarly abound in other texts across a wide swath of history and geography, including the fourteenth-century Yuan dynasty Yĭn Shàn Zhēng Yào 飮膳正要, the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty Shìwù Gànzhū 事物紺珠, and even the seventeenth-century Tokugawa Japanese 吾吟我集 (loosely supporting, perhaps, the common origins of Korean soju and Japanese shōchū). According to the Korean Alcohol and Liquor Industry Association, soju does indeed trace its roots to western Asian and Middle Eastern liquors, as do, also, the brandies first distilled in Europe after the return of the Crusaders from the same region in the twelfth century . Its entry into Korea as the arak-linked 亞刺吉 was facilitated by the invasion of Mongol forces during the Yuan dynasty under the name “araki” (아라키) . The exact origins of the connection between araki and its modern character name soju 烧酒 are unclear .
Compared with its dry and relatively serious cousin soju, makgeolli is sweeter, thicker, and weaker, generally weighing in at less than 10% ABV . It is a favorite party drink among college students, who sometimes mix it, like soju, with clear soda like Sprite or the local equivalent Chilsung Cider (칠성 사이더), as well as a beloved comfort drink for calmer settings, served warm and accompanied by onion pancakes (파전/pajeon) during rainstorms. According to the website “Mister Makgeolli” (which offers wonderfully detailed instructions for making your own makgeolli at home), this thick rice beverage has been associated with the earthy, unrefined stereotypes of farmers due to its connection to the similar but stronger dongdongju (동동주), and has thus traditionally been considered an alcohol that one does not want to be caught drinking in public . Even so, like soju, its range includes not only uber-cheap chemical cocktails drunk from plastic bottles or even cans but also more upscale, and generally stronger, products sold in gracile frosted glass, like the line sold at the upscale Jahihyang (자이향) makgeolli bar in Seoul’s Seodaemun district .
Unlike soju, the origins of makgeolli are considered to be wholly Korean, beginning sometime during the Three Kingdoms period from 57 to 668 A.D. when the peninsula was divided into the Goguryeo (高句麗/고구려), Silla (新羅/신라), and Baekje (百濟/백제) kingdoms, as a fermented rice drink that would later evolve into yakju (藥酒/약주) and takju (濁酒/탁주), the precursor (some say equivalent ) of makgeolli, sprang up in households across the country . In accordance with its abundance of unclear local origins, makgeolli has gone by several different names according to time and region, including moju (母酒/모주), wangdaepo (왕대포), takbaegi (탁배기) on Jeju Island, takjubaegi (탁주배기) in Busan, and the already-mentioned takju (濁酒/탁주) in Kyeongbuk .
So the next time you meet a Soju on the street or a Makgeolli in the checkout line, you’ll know a bit more about what it’s all about. Not simply generic “rice wine,” these two Korean alcohols have distinct personalities, origins, and functions within a shared—and expanding—cultural ecosystem.
This article was originally written for The Silk Road Project, now I Dig Culture, an international media channel that explores human cultural diversity and exchange.