If you are a first timer to the world of Korean alcohol (we call it “sool”), a simple bar menu could send you into a head spin. Contrary to popular belief, there is a whole world beyond just the green bottles at a barbecue restaurant.
A matter of process
One of the coolest things about sool, is that even though there are different kinds, they all come from the same basic production process. Starting with the ingredients, traditional sool contains rice, water and the unique fermentation starter nuruk. Brewers prepare these ingredients and ferment them for one week to three months. Then they filter the rice mash, often by hand through filter bags, and collect the alcohol. This is the original filtrate, we call wonju or “Original Alcohol.”
As many sool home brewers will know, wonju is strong. It carries a punchy ABV hovering around 12 and 21% alcohol. Considering wonju is a non-distilled fermented alcohol (think beer and wine), that’s some robust booze!
You can drink wonju straight up, but commercially it can be too high for the target market. Watering it down to a more accessible ABV% creates makgeolli, often bottled at about a 6-10% range. Diluting it a little to 12-13%, we call this takju, which literally means “cloudy alcohol.” While technically makgeolli is also a takju, the two categories exist to help differentiate in terms of price and quality.
Amping up the punch and flavor
If you’re not making makgeolli, you can place the wonju in the fridge. The heavier rice sediment settles to the bottom, and a golden clear alcohol emerges. We now have cheongju, or yakju. This refined and delicate category of alcohol brewers reserved for the kings and nobility. Cheongju has a balance of sweetness and acidity, often with a fruity or floral aroma from the nuruk.
Let’s say you have a lot of cheongju and not enough volunteers to drink it (an extremely rare case at Sool Connection HQ). You can distill it into soju. While green bottle soju at an ABV of 17-19% dominate restaurant coolers, this cheaper and weaker version of its historical self is not a true representation of the craft. Soju, just like any distillation, is best enjoyed at a stronger percentage to take advantage of the the complex aromas and flavors. Simply put, there now exists a “Table Strength” and a “Higher Proof” category within soju.
So while we have wonju, takju, cheongju, and soju, all drinks are produced from the same fundamental process.