Korean Liquor Competition Winners at COEX Food Week 2014

coex food week

This weekend was the 2014 Korea Food Week at the COEX convention centre. But, looking through my photos it appears that my biggest area of interest of the day was the alcohol zone. (What a surprise 😉  The drinks festival included the winning entries from the 2014 Korean Liquor competition. And it introduced visitors to the Grand Masters of the traditional craft of rice wine and liquor making.

Korean drinks festival

Alcohol production in Korea is very extreme. On the one hand are the companies producing HUGE amounts of cheap soju that are available EVERYWHERE in the region and which everybody drinks. Then on the other hand are the exclusive boutique style producers who can only make small batches of their product to sell very locally.

So when out at a typical restaurant in Seoul, the only question really is ‘do you want Chamisul or Choum chorum?’ Because there probably won’t be anything else. These are two very similar sojus in very similar bottles for a very similar price. (prices start from 3,000 won at your cheapest shikdang) If my life depended on it, maybe I could tell the difference between the two – Chamisul is a bit sweeter, I think.

Korean Alcohol

At the drinks festival I was struck by the range of Korean sojus, makkolis and other alcoholic beverages on show ranging from incredibly cheap in plastic bottles (1,000 won per bottle) to eye-wateringly expensive in very artistic pottery. But as I mentioned, a lot of these products are only available in the region where they are made. That’s the interesting thing about the expo. To buy a lot of the food and drink on show you would normally have to travel to that region to buy it.

A Hall of Fame of noteworthy craftspeople in the field of liquor-making was on display at the show too, along with examples of their creations. (the list of Grand Masters is chosen by the MAFRA – Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs)

Korea Drinks Festival

The craftspeople are all of a distinguished aged and most of them are presented in their pictures wearing hanbok or some kind of traditional wear. Most are outside as though caught in the act of their daily idyllic, labour of love – scrutinising and handpicking herbs, washing ingredients by hand in large ceramic pots, building fires with twigs freshly collected from the woods, or pouring clean water which (we can imagine) has just been carried down from the mountain. The equipment they use (in the pictures) are traditional pottery, wood, perhaps some straw. No plastic to be seen. It’s all a far cry from the large scale factory produced alcohol most of us drink! (and to be fair probably a far cry from reality too. 😉 )

Korean alcohol

And so only the few will buy these works of art.  And only a relatively small number can be made.

Korean liquor

2014 대한민국 우리술품평회 입상작


There are 8 categories in the competition awarding the top 4 places in each category: general distilled liquor, general distilled soju, unrefined makkoli, pasteurised makkoli, fruit wine, medicinal liquor, liqueurs, and a rather mysterious category known as ‘other’ I guess for any waifs and strays?

korean liquor competition



The impressively titled ‘Grand Master of Food no. 2’ 김창수 Kim Chang Su specialising in ginseng liquor, took the first prize in the general distilled liquor category with the ginseng liquor called 수삼단본 susamdanbon 720. This ginseng liquor (below) by the same company (with the ginseng still in the bottle) was on sale for 18,000 won.

ginseng alcohol

And here is the grand master himself (below) shown on the packaging for the company’s ginseng liquor. www.insamwine.com Here we see him in his traditional hanbok outside inspecting some ginseng leaves. The bottles have a rustic touch with the paper and string decoration.

ginseng liquor



The soju that most people drink when they go out is about 20% proof. But soju can come in various strengths. The winner in the general distilled soju category (for the 4th year in a row) was 고소리술 Gosorisul from Jeju Island, a 40% drink made from Korean rice and millet. (Obviously all the rice and ingredients are from Korea.) It comes with a 850 year history according to the pamphlet. The price is not too excruciating at 35,000 won. Nice shaped bottle too (below). The other winners were made from rice or rice and barley. Prices varied greatly from a fairly cheap 9,000 won up to a pretty hefty 80,000 won.

Often when I choose a bottle of soju I’m enticed by the shape of the bottle and the artistically written hanja or hangul characters. I wouldn’t want to throw this bottle away. (This picture is from the company website)



CATEGORY: 생막걸리 SENG MAKKOLI unrefined / raw rice wine

Makkoli, the thick, milky rice wine, often comes in a chubby plastic bottle and prices range from 1,000 won to 5,500 won. Unrefined makkoli rice wine has a shorter shelf life than its pasteurised counterpart. And the winner in the unrefined makkoli category was White Lotus Makkoli from Sinpyeong brewery using rice and lotus from Dangjin, Chungcheong Province. (Looks like quite a small brewery judging by this post) It’s quite expensive for a makkoli at 5,500 won a bottle. The best value for money was the second prize winner 줄포 생막걸리 which cost 1,000 won for 750ml bottle. These days it’s fashionable to add flavourings to makkoli and it comes in all sorts of colours.



CATEGORY: 살균막걸리 SALGYUN MAKKOLI pasteurised rice wine

The first prize in the pasteurised makkoli category went to 지리산 허브 쌀막걸리 Jirisan herb makkoli (Jirisan Green Agricultural Association Corporation) which sounds very good indeed. (now I wish I had tried some) Jiri mountain area is famous because its clean water is needed to make good alcoholic drinks. (And as everyone who has watched Korean sageuk medical drama Heojun knows, there are many different kinds of water. According to Heojun, there are 33 different kinds of water depending on from where and when it is drawn.) This makkoli is flavoured with rosemary and lavender continuing the fashion for flavoured makkoli. Second prize went to a makkoli with added pumpkin so it had a slightly yellow colour (below). And there were also two pinky pokpunja raspberry makkoli who got prizes.

pumpkin makkoli



I’m not a huge Korean fruit wine fan. They tend to be a bit sweet and remind me of a sweet sherry. Although pokpunja raspberry wine has grown on me over the years. Maybe it’s because I keep being told it’s healthy! The winners in this category varied in strength from a mild 8% to a not too bad 13% and include 자두 jaju plum, 복분자 pokpunja Korean raspberry, and 참다래 chamdarae kiwi fruit wines. The prices varied with the cheapest at 6,000 won and the most expensive at 22,000 won. First prize went to the kiwi fruit  Darae Wine at 18,000 won a bottle. (The company even have some info on their website in English). According to this picture from their website it looks like they recommend this wine to go with sashimi.



CATEGORY: 약주 藥酒 YAKJU MEDICINAL LIQUOR / 청주 CHEONGJU 淸酒 refined (clear) rice wine

With the popularity of Korean drama I suppose it’s good marketing to name a drink after the main character in a drama (and also a historical figure). The second prize in the medicinal or refined clear rice wine category went to 황진이 Hwangjin Yi (named after the main character in the KBS sageuk drama Hwang Jin Yi about the most famous gisaeng in Korea starring Ha Ji Won). It uses omija berries which are also used in traditional medicine and dried to make tea.

I guess since Hwangjin Yi was a gisaeng (entertainer) she was able to drink alcohol when it was socially unacceptable for nice ladies of the time to be knocking back alcohol. Is there some kind of message here!? Or am I just thinking too much 😉  (This picture below is from the Namwon City website. The product is produced in Namwon)




The winner in the liqueurs category was 산내울 오미자주 Sannaewool omijaju a red coloured sweet and sour liqueur using omija berries from Geochang. 16% strength and 5,000 won for a 375ml bottle. The 4th place sansamgadeuk has wild ginseng looking lovely still inside the bottle. (below)

Korean liquor competition



I was intrigued by the name of this category, ‘OTHER’. What can we possibly find in here? Well, there was a honey wine, and a couple of raspberry wines (not sure why they weren’t in the fruit section) but the first prize went to SSOA a wine made from domestically produced grapes – and it comes in a can! It’s 5% alcohol and costs 2,000 won. But wine in a can? Hmmm. It’s aimed at the younger market. I am not the younger market. :(  And so, since there was a huge range of drinks on sale at the expo, I bought some very nice looking 화요 Hwa Yo rice liquor. (the different colours – black /white – reflect the different strength of the alcohol, 41% and 25%).

hwayo sul

When I first came to Korean over 8 years ago, most of the restaurants that we went to only sold one or possibly two brands of beer (that taste the same). Now they often serve several different beers including dark beers and ales as consumers’ tastes have widened. But this doesn’t seem to be happening with soju. Consumers seem to be happy to stick with the big brands. Only the more upmarket Korean restaurants have a wider choice of soju and liquor on sale. And I bet most consumers (including me) are not aware of all the sojus that are out there. 😥

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