When you think of Korea, what do you think of? K-Pop, kimchi, and Korean barbeque? What about alcohol? Korea is home to a wide variety of interesting (and delicious!) alcoholic concoctions that make enjoying a night out drinking with friends anything but boring. Some types of Korean alcohol are unlike anything that you’ve ever tasted before — whether it’s green plum wine or a soju bomb that incorporates dropping soju into a tall beer, you’re in for a treat if you’re out drinking in Korea.
Contrary to popular belief, the citizens that live in South Korea actually consume twice the amount of alcohol as citizens of Russia, so you can bet that there’s a long, long list of delicious Korean alcohol for you to wet your whistle with. Whether you’re in the mood for a cocktail, a glass of wine, or a cold beer, there’s a Korean version of your favorite drink!
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Put down the beer, and read on for a list of must-try Korean alcoholic beverages that you should incorporate into your next evening out! Bottoms up!
Korean Alcohol #1: Soju
It doesn’t get more Korean than soju, a quintessential Korean alcohol. That being said, Koreans aren’t the only ones who love soju – believe it or not, it’s the most widely consumed type of alcohol in the world!
Soju pairs well with a wide variety of popular Korean dishes, so it is considered by many to be a staple for a great, well-rounded dinner. However, be careful before you pour your third or fourth glass – soju is commonly 19-25% alcohol, so it is a much higher proof than beer and wine. Don’t let that scare you away, though! The distinct, sharp taste of soju is popular for a reason.
Unlike other clear alcoholic beverages like gin and vodka, soju is slightly sweet when you drink it neat due to sugar that’s added during the distillation process. Even if you’re not a fan of drinking liquor neat, there’s a chance that you’ll find soju easy on the palate and you may become a convert.
Stop and pick up a bottle before your next dinner party and you’ll see what all the buzz is about!
Korean Alcohol #2: Bokbunja
Time for a quick wine lesson! As I’m sure you’re aware, wine is made from grapes, and the different flavors in different types of wine come from manipulating the fermenting process to enhance different properties of the grapes’ flavor. So, what would happen if a fruit like blackberries was used instead of grapes? A delicious beverage called bokbunja is what happens!
That being said, the similarities between bokbunja and wine stops there. Bokbunja has a much higher alcohol content than a standard glass of red or white wine – a glass of bokbunja averages 15-19% alcohol, and a glass of wine averages between 9-16%. Due to the high acidity of the blackberries, bokbunja is a delight to drink with lightly seasoned seafood dishes.
Bokbunja also has a less-known property that makes it a huge hit – it’s been linked to a rise in testosterone in men, making it a delicious aphrodisiac. Pick up a bottle of this tart Korean alcohol the next time you’re cooking fish, crab, or octopus for your date and you’ll be in for a treat!
Korean Alcohol #3: Maeshilju
Are you a fan of sweet dessert wines? If so, maeshilju is the drink for you! Maeshilju is a super sweet Korean alcohol made from green plums fermented with a sweetener, like light brown sugar or honey. The alcohol percentage of this drink is sitting at a decent 14%, which means you’ll be able to enjoy a few glasses without falling over or running into walls, but if you drink much more than that you may be in for a wild night (although there’s nothing wrong with a wild night or two once in a while!).
Maeshilju doesn’t pair particularly well with dinner because its sweetness can be overpowering, but a glass after a meal makes for a fantastic dessert. Break out some maeshilju the next time you’re hosting a dinner party and would like to bring the dining experience to a well-rounded finish for your friends or family. They won’t be disappointed!
Korean Alcohol #4: Makgeolli
Makgeolli is the original Korean alcohol – it’s much older than the other alcohols listed on this list, but it’s still a favorite in Korean bars and restaurants for good reason!
Makgeolli is a think, sweet rice wine that is sweet and tangy with a touch of carbonation to pull the drink together. In recent years, makgeolli has started becoming popular with the younger crowd when paired with a fruit cocktail to make it slightly sweeter. There are a ton of different types of makgeolli available for purchase – some renditions add additional flavors, while some renditions pride themselves on using pure, organic ingredients for an all-around smooth and unbeatable taste (at a slightly higher price). Shop around and find the makgeolli that you prefer, and take part in a tradition almost as old as Korea itself!
Korean Alcohol #5: Dongdongju
Dongdongju is a less-popular (but still delicious!) variation of makgeolli. Makgeolli is made from rice, and as a result is thick and can be full of sediment if it’s unfiltered. Dongdongju is its unfiltered cousin – your standard glass of dongdongju will have rice particles in the bottom of the glass, adding an interesting texture to an already interesting drink.
Makgeolli has somewhere between a 6-8% alcohol content, so it’s similar to enjoying a beer or a glass of wine and isn’t really considered heavy drinking. You can sip makgeolli throughout the evening and maintain a nice buzz without getting a hangover the next morning.
Aside from the difference in thickness and texture as a result of the filtering, dongdongju has a very similar flavor profile to makgeolli, so if you’re a fan of makgeolli give dongdongju a try!
Korean Alcohol #6: Sansachun
Sansachun has been considered a “medicinal alcohol” for over 400 years – supposedly, sansachun is the drink to pour when you’re stressed or anxious, as it’s supposed to calm the nerves and soothe the body. A type of alcohol that’s supposed to be good for you? Sign me up!
Sansachun has long been attributed to a variety of positive physical effects ranging from enhancing appetite if consumed before a meal to keeping hangovers at bay if you consume it during a night of heavy drinking. There are stories with sansachun being associated with the improvement of more serious physical maladies ranging from nausea to heart disease, so there’s a lot of respect for this beverage throughout Korea. If you mention an ache or pain you’ve been experiencing recently, don’t be surprised if you receive several recommendations to drink more sansachun!
Brewed from hawthorn berries, sansachun is slightly sour and is said to enhance appetite if it’s consumed prior to eating, which makes it a popular pre-dinner drink. Use sansachun to unwind the next time you’ve had a long day, and let us know what you think in the comments below!
Korean Alcohol #7: Cheongju
Cheongju is literally “clear liquor” in Korean, and true to its name, it’s a clear Korean rice wine. Think of it as a very mild, slightly sweet soju. The difference in taste comes from being fermented at least twice (rather than once), and the difference in the fermentation process produces a mild, sweet beverage that appeals to many drinkers who find the taste of soju too intense or unpalatable.
Different regions in Korea produce different varieties of cheongju that are all slightly variant in taste and amazing for unique reasons. Nonsan, Gunsan, and Masan are three regions in particular that are known for their cheongju production. Cheongju is considered very similar to Japanese sake, so if you’re a fan of sake this drink will be a favorite of yours when you’re in Korea next. Make sure you try cheongju from as many regions as possible so you can decide which one is your favorite!
If you gave soju a shot and you didn’t know what all the fuss was about, try cheongju for a dialed back drinking experience that you’ll be sure to enjoy!
Korean Alcohol #8: Baekseju
Baekseju is another Korean alcohol that has been around the block — the first mentions of baekseju go back to the seventeenth century, so drinkers in Korea have been enjoying it for quite some time! This alcohol is a favorite during celebrations and nights out in Korea because it goes through several stages of fermentation so it’s extra potent and will definitely ensure that you have a fun night.
Baekseju has a very interesting flavor profile — it is definitely not sweet, and it has a distinct nutty flavor that makes it pair well with meat-based meals. Although you can absolutely enjoy baekseju on its own, it is most commonly cut with soju. The flavors combine to make a delicious drink that is a staple among the Korean drinking crowd.
Due to its considerable potency, baekseju is a little bit more expensive than most alcohols you’ll find in a Korean convenience store. That being said, if you’re cutting it with soju, a bottle should last you a while! Pick up some baekseju the next time you’re making a hearty meat dish or you have something fun to celebrate!
Korean Alcohol #9: Flower Wine
If you’ve checked out our article on non-alcoholic beverages, then you’re already aware that a popular Korean tea is made from chrysanthemum flowers, which is delicious as well as aesthetically pleasing. Flower wine is another Korean beverage that celebrates flowers, because everything is better when it’s made into an alcoholic beverage, right?
Different types of flower wine are made with a variety of flower types ranging from azalea to chrysanthemum to peach blossoms, and as a result the flavor profile as well as the alcohol content can vary greatly between the different variations.
Regardless of which type of flower wine you end up going with, it’s an absolutely delicious beverage that is definitely unique to Korean drinking culture — you’re unlikely to find flower wine in other parts of the country. Pick up a bottle when you’re in Seoul next and experience some flower power!
Korean Drink #10: Cocktails
Typically, Korean alcohols don’t need to be combined with a mixer — the mixing of flavors has already been done for you in the distillation process, which is why so many of these different types of alcohol are delicious straight out of the bottle. That doesn’t mean that fans of Korean alcohol are opposed to trying new things, but rather than they believe mixing soda or juice with an alcohol doesn’t let the drinker appreciate the alcohol for what it is. There’s something to be said for enjoying the purity of a wine or liquor on its own!
While this is the general approach to Korean alcohol, there is definitely an exception to the rule. Soju can be mixed with a wide variety of mixers and be just as delicious as it is when you drink it neat. Whether you’re serving it mixed with a chilled juice or a fizzy soda, soju’s flavor will compliment the mixer and make an awesome cocktail that you’ll enjoy sipping all night.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to get your night started off right, consider ordering somaek, which involves dropping soju (served in a shot glass) into a tall and frosty beer. After dropping the soju, you’re meant to finish the drink as quickly as your stomach will allow you, so this drink is definitely not for the faint of heart!
Seoul has recently had an influx of Western influenced bars pop up, so if you find yourself craving a traditional Western drink you won’t have too difficult of a time tracking it down.
Korean Drink #11: Beer
We already know what you’re thinking: “you can find beer anywhere! What makes Korean beer special?”
Beer has been a crowd favorite in Korea since the first brewery popped up in 1933, so it’s been around for almost a century. Some of the big players in the Korean beer game are Oriental Brewery, Hite, and Cass, and you’re likely to find a wide selection including some novelty beers depending on the bar you find yourself in. If you’re in a convenience store, you’ll be likely to find at least three or four different types of beer. If you check out a large grocery store, you’ll find a wealth of imported beers from all over the world, so you’re definitely not restricted to drinking only Korean beer the next time you visit.
For the most part, Korean beer has a couple of different things in common: they’re light bodied, and there isn’t a whole lot of complexity to their flavor profiles. They definitely don’t have the variety in style that you’ll find in countries like Germany or the US. But, that being said, there’s a time and a place for a frosty mug of ice cold beer on a hot summer day, and if that’s what you’re in the mood for then Korean beer has you covered! Grab a pint of Hite and hit the patio this summer.
Okay, we get it. Korean alcohol is awesome. Where do we buy it?
If you find yourself in Korea on a trip (or to live, if you’re lucky!), you’re probably thinking about where you can find all these different types of Korean alcohol because rules are different from country to country. Depending on where you’re staying, there will definitely be a multitude of bars — Seoul in particular has an amazing bar scene, but there are bars all throughout the country that will have unique Korean flair to them.
Seoul has been ranked the #1 city for partying in night life in the world by many online polls, so you know you’re in for a good time if you’re staying in the country’s capital city. Whether you’re interested in dancing to EDM music or hanging out at a dive bar with plastic furniture and a huge patio, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Seoul.
If you’d rather pick up some alcohol for your hotel or apartment, you have a bunch of different options depending on what’s convenient. You can stop by a grocery store if you need to pick up something for dinner as well as your soju, or you can swing by the convenient store that’s closest to you for a more limited selection of alcohol. Wherever you stop, the likelihood of them selling at least a couple of different types of alcohol is very high.
Getting to know the food and drink of a particular culture can be intimidating if you don’t have a point of reference. Hopefully this list helps you navigate the Korean drinking scene and have some fun! Do you have a favorite Korean liquor that wasn’t on this list? Be sure to tell us about it in the comments!