Travel to South Korea: Where to sample traditional Korean drinks

Soju, as Korea’s renowned spirit based liquor, may be a name that you are already familiar with. For those for whom it is new then I shall attempt to describe it:

Soju is a fermented, traditional Korean liquor made from rice wine, it is clear in colour and distilled. It can be found on many menus in Korean restaurants albeit in a diluted form but may taste similar to vodka.

It was my birthday, I was in South Korea to celebrate and so I reserved a place with The Sool Gallery for that afternoon’s tasting session at 4pm. The tasting sessions can be reserved online and occur daily, except Mondays and English language sessions are available. Essentially, a place for the tasting session has to be booked in advance. I was running a bit late however, as the gallery is located in a small street in the Gangnam district and so it was not so easy to find despite my asking several passers-by and employees working nearby!

The entrance to The Sool Gallery in Gangnam
The entrance to The Sool Gallery in Gangnam

Fortunately, I arrived just in time to hear some of the background to the spirits that were forming part of that afternoon’s tasting. In Korea, all alcoholic drinks, of 1% volume or more, go by the term of sool and indeed The Sool Gallery aims to raise awareness of the various types of traditional Korean liquor as well as promoting their development. The gallery considers its role to be educational by informing the public, which may largely be an international crowd, about the value of traditional liquors within Korean culture. As such there are also cultural experience programmes on offer at The Sool Gallery.

The Sool Gallery supports the economies of rural communities and it receives support from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Originally located in Insadong, which is a district highlighting traditional Korean culture, the gallery now finds itself within the popular Gangnam district.

Korean traditional liquor on display at The Sool Gallery
Korean traditional liquor on display at The Sool Gallery

The Sool Gallery is very elegantly structured with the various types of liquor displayed on wooden shelves. Indeed, the gallery prides itself on showcasing the commercial art and design of sool in terms of its bottling and packing.

For that afternoon’s tasting there were 5 different types of liquor to sample! I would definitely recommend bringing a few snacks with you such as rice cakes to enjoy with the samples!

Traditional Korean liquors at The Sool Gallery
Traditional Korean liquors at The Sool Gallery

The first drink on offer was that of Yakju, this is a filtered and fermented alcohol which was a golden brown colour. The taste was quite smooth and not so strong and so it could quite easily be drunk with dinner regularly.

This was a contrast to the second sample which was a red wine. I had not tasted Korean red wine previously and so I was very intrigued! The wine type is simply known as Korean wild grape and does not bear similarities to its European counterparts.

Korean red wine at the tasting at The Sool Gallery
Korean red wine at the tasting at The Sool Gallery

Apparently, the grape used may be that of Campbell which is unique to South Korea and is the typical grape variety used. The wine itself is quite dry to the taste, medium bodied with hints of blackberry and other red fruits.

We then moved on to two varieties of Makgeolli, in Korean the ‘m’ in the name is pronounced in a similar way to a ‘b’. The first one tried was that of Sopack-San which is a milky coloured drink and quite subtle with hints of yeast and so it is not too sweet and may therefore be enjoyed as an aperitif.

The second variety was Cheongmyeongju which was heavier in texture, sweeter and stronger to the taste and reminded me of eggnog. It is a very pleasant drink, however, but it will require shaking to release any sediment that may have settled at the bottom of the bottle before drinking.

It appears that the older generations in Korea prefer to drink the Makgeolli drink and it was created for the working people, such as farmers, historically. I certainly could imagine myself drinking Cheongmyeongju for Christmas!

Finally, it was on to the soju! I had previously sampled some soju during the London Korean Film Festival, the week prior to my trip to South Korea, and so this was at least a drink that I was familiar with! It is clear, distilled and strong and good to have as a shot as it is typically drunk neat.

Soju tasting at The Sool Gallery
Soju tasting at The Sool Gallery

I have seen others at dinner in Korean restaurants, during my trip, eating raw fish and drinking soju amongst groups whilst eating. So, it seems to be a drink for all occasions and its taste is perhaps a blend of sake and vodka and so will certainly keep you warm during these autumn and winter months. The version sampled on this tasting event was a premium version that was stronger than others that I have tasted before and so with that particular type, a little will certainly go a long way!

The tasting session is a very fun way to spend an afternoon! I would truly recommend reserving your place for this complimentary introduction to Korean liquors.

The Sool Gallery displays
The Sool Gallery displays

So, to assist, here are some practical details. A place on the tasting can be booked online at the gallery’s website referenced below. Assuming that you have already reserved a place, here are some directions so that you will not be as lost as I was:

Once you arrive at Gagnam-Daero 102 close to the CVG cinema, continue walking and then take the diagonal sloping road opposite the 7-11. It is the road with a very high gradient, then turn right after roasted bean coffee house and then it’s the road on the left. The gallery is in a minimalist wooden building on the ground floor.

The Sool Gallery’s website is only in Korean but can be accessed here and the gallery can be contacted by email: soolshop@naver.com

7 Replies to “Travel to South Korea: Where to sample traditional Korean drinks”

    1. I think that you would definitely enjoy South Korea! I would love to return for spring to see the spring blossom as well and to visit the film festival in Busan.

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