Korean Liquor Gets Its Due

Words by
Dakota Kim
Images by
Nicolas Polli

Long dismissed as a means to a buzzy end, soju and makgeolli are gaining highbrow cred thanks to a network of restaurants and distributors spanning from Korea to Koreatown.

Perched at the white quartz bar at Tokki, a sleek new gastropub in Koreatown, I’m squinting at rows of bottles and cans that are at once familiar and foreign. The extensive selection of soju and makgeolli—Korean liquors, or sool, the Korean word for its national alcohols—have been rebranded and reinvented in the sun-drenched, artisanal tones of modern trends: minimalist labels with sans serif fonts, the cans coated with soft, sand-washed swirls, all of it pointing toward a refined sipping experience on the horizon. As a Korean American who grew up quaffing plastic bottles of makgeolli from 7-Eleven in Seoul, and who has long equated soju primarily with shots between karaoke songs, the effect is startling.

“We’ve definitely seen increased interest in Korean liquor, which carries over to the demand in our restaurant,” says Patrick Liu, the co-owner of Tokki, explaining that the shock I’m experiencing is part of the restaurant’s mission. Just as the food here is an elevated riff on classic Korean fare, the booze, as I’ll learn over the course of a tasting session, is aimed to compliment these ambitions in a manner well-known to seasoned oenophiles. “Seeing guests try, enjoy, and return for more of the more unique Korean alcohols is amazing to see,” Liu says.

A place like Tokki is best understood not in a vacuum, but as an extension, or maybe apotheosis, of a larger, long-overdue phenomenon: Korean liquor, or what is popularly called K-sool, is being treated with the same nuance and sophistication as wine, whiskey, and mezcal. You can see this in other spots in Koreatown, where the drink menus at classic haunts have been expanded, fancified. You can see this in a place like Yangban Society, the eclectic Korean deli-restaurant in Downtown L.A., which boasts an exclusive sparkling makgeolli. You see it at craft cocktail bars across the city, and beyond, where over the past few years soju’s lower alcohol by volume (ABV) has been embraced as a vodka alternative—a means of sidestepping strict liquor laws and offering a splash of intrigue.

Every time I see these swanky soju cocktails, especially at non-Korean restaurants, my eyes widen. Just as I was shocked to witness Korean food’s embrace by the mainstream, something I couldn’t have imagined in the 80s and 90s of my youth, to see Americans drinking concoctions made of what I always considered a niche, private part of my parents’ and Koreans’ lives has left me flabbergasted, fascinated, proud—and, above all, curious to understand how this happened and where it all may be going.

The truth is that, when it comes to soju, America is late to the party. Distilled from rice, potatoes, wheat, barley, or sweet potatoes, soju came to Korea via 13th century Mongols, who picked up the distillation technique from Levantine arak, a spirit made from grapes and anise. Today, soju has the distinction of being the world’s top-selling spirit, due to its low prices—often as little as two dollars a bottle—and ready availability in convenience stores across Asia.

K-sool is coming up in America alongside K-Pop and Squid Game.

Makgeolli, a more ancient beverage, is a completely different beast: fermented, brewed from rice, milky in color, a touch sweet where soju can be dry. Over the past decade there has been a renaissance in Korea that has made its way stateside. Like soju, makgeolli tends to have a low ABV, hovering around 14%, making it easier on the tongue and stomach than higher proof liquors—not to mention the added perk of being easier on the head in the morning. And in an age where nothing has quite the currency of authenticity, there’s the undeniable charm of pouring makgeolli out of a brass kettle into little cups, just like a Korean grandma.

This increased interest has resulted in skyrocketing sales among K-sool producers. Carol Pak, founder and CEO of MÀKKU craft makgeolli and SOKU sparkling soju cocktails, is projected to sell 80,000 cases this year in the U.S., doubling what her company sold in 2021. Pak ascribes the astronomical ascent of Korean liquor stateside to two things: hallyu, or the “Korean wave” of culture that’s hit America like an avalanche, with K-sool coming up alongside K-Pop and Squid Game, and to entrepreneurial, second-generation kids exactly like me—and her.

“Our parents immigrated to the U.S. mostly between the 70s and the 90s,” Pak explains. “As the second-generation, we’re between our twenties and forties, producing products that we want to see for ourselves.” That second-generation wouldn’t be able to do it without America’s insatiable interest in culinary creativity and increasing cultural awareness. “People here are falling in love with Korean culture,” says Pak, “and alcohol is a huge part of Korea.”

This embrace of all things Korean isn’t accidental. The Korean government devotes funding to exporting Korean culture globally, including soju. “Mass-produced industrial soju’s profile in other countries increased as it was sold in Korean restaurants, drunk conspicuously in Korean television or movies, and advertised by Korean Wave stars like Psy,” Hyunhee Park, Professor of History at the City University of New York, and author of Soju: A Global History, says. Park notes that industrial soju companies have lowered their ABV levels—once as high as 40%, today often around 18%—gaining a foothold with new demographics. “The generally low alcohol content in Korean soju today appears to have facilitated its growing sales in countries like the U.S.,” she explains. “By lowering alcohol levels, they hoped specifically to target women or young people.”

To Pak, the industrial soju that has long been dominant is a mismatch for the leaps and bounds that Korean food has made in the U.S., creating a gap that companies like her own, which was founded during the pandemic, are rushing to fill. “Until now, it’s mostly been the same five brands imported for decades without innovation—the packaging, name, pricing, and placement is unchanged,” she says. “The quality of food can’t grow without having an appropriate beverage menu.”

So what exactly are the new consumers of Korean liquor drinking? Tokki sells a variety of Korean spirits you can’t just swoop up at H Mart, but its most popular are an interesting blend of old and new—like its number one seller, dubbed “Jinro Is Back,” which is a smoother, crisper, lower-ABV version of Jinro, a reliable old classic. The number two slot belongs to Seoul Night, a clean, dry, golden maesil (Korean plum) soju that’s elegant and immediately likable. Sipping it slowly at the bar is a far cry from my younger days, when soju was dropped into glasses of OB, Korea’s answer to Budweiser, and downed for a jolt of tingly delight

The rest of the roster at Tokki is a quirky who’s-who of modern Korean distilling and brewing, including MÀKKU mango makgeolli, which is light and fruity; Red Monkey makgeolli, which Liu, the co-owner, loves for its earthy taste and thick crimson color; and Yangchon Chungju, a savory soju made with mushrooms and fermented soy. Some of the distilleries are brand new, like MÀKKU, while Yangchon is one the oldest operational breweries in Korea, with its rice guarded from pests by what are essentially the rice farm’s pet snails. (The Korean name emblazoned across the bottle, in fact, is “Snail’s Rice.”)

While Tokki stands apart in what might be called the wine-ification of K-sool, it’s not as much of a neighborhood anomaly as it seems, as artisanal Korean liquor has permeated the menus at Daedo Sikdang, a premier beef house; Han Euem, another new gastropub; and Kobawoo House, a K-town stalwart, where you can now order a bottle of the same Seoul Night soju and Red Monkey makgeolli with its famous bo ssam (pork belly wraps). To unexpectedly have your palate expanded by an artisanal drink offering, as I did on a recent evening, is surprising and wonderful.

According to Pak, all this points toward a drinking culture around high-end distilled soju that’s akin to single-malt scotch or bourbon, where the aim is a unique tasting experience, not just a fluttery buzz. “You can taste the funky nuruk starter in high-end soju, and it’s pricier than the neutral vodka-like varieties, so it’s best to consume neat or on the rocks,” she says. Listening to her, I find myself imagining a future of Korean liquor-driven cocktail bars, or standalone Korean liquor bars with menus detailing rice terroir and the tasting profiles of spring water sourced from various Korean mountains.

While snacking at the bar at Tokki, Liu explains to me that he finds pairing clean soju flavors with his gastropub food to be easier than easy—suggesting, for instance, that the refreshing, sustainably-produced Golden Barley soju, which lands with a hint of spice, is the suitable complement to Chef Sunny Jang’s scrumptious fried chicken. He then notes that the restrained, elegant Seoul Night soju adds to, rather than interfering with, the flavor-popping geography of the smoked trout roe and avocado crema on the uni toast.

Pak, meanwhile, encourages food pairings that extend far beyond Korean cuisine, noting that the anju, or food accompaniments, for fairly neutral or fruity artisanal Korean spirits are rapidly evolving to include izakaya grilled meats, spicy fusion arancini, pizza and pastas. Unexpectedly, Pak recommends that I pair her sweet, tangy mango MÀKKU makgeolli with smoky barbecue, hearty stews, spicy entrees, or sweet desserts, and her SOKU pineapple canned cocktails with sweet and sour pork, Spam musubi, and takoyaki.

Across the Pacific, in Korea, the same trend is sweeping the nation, as makgeolli breweries like Seoul’s Hangang Brewery are bringing a polished, innovative version of sool to a new class of drinkers. By the time my toddler son is old enough to drink, ordering a makgeolli or soju cocktail to sip with his burger could be as commonplace as picking an IPA—something he’ll take for granted, while I’ll look on in wonder, and in pride.

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