Traditional liquor rides on Korean wave
By Kim Jae-won
It was just 10 years ago when Koreans started to enjoy wines at their dinner tables along with foreign food such as cheese and pastas. Soon after, a wide range of wines became an essential part of Korean dishes, matching them with traditional foods, such as bulgogi and other dishes.
Stimulated by the success of western wine along with its foods here, Korea’s traditional alcohol beverage makers are seeking to create new Korean wave, appealing to overseas consumers with their products’ distinctive taste and deep quality, in cooperation with the government.
Globalizing Korean food has been a keyword in the “food policies” of the Lee Myung-bak administration with first lady Kim Yoon-ok leading the project in cooperation with two ministries and one government agency ― the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, and the Presidential Council on National Competitiveness.
As part of the traditional food project, the government took the initiative in a three-year plan to revive 50 out of an estimated 360 “extinct” traditional alcohol beverages with a national budget of 133 billion won.
Thanks to the efforts of the government, makgeolli, a traditional rice wine, saw its sales rise drastically over the last few years. According to data from the Korea Customs Service, exports of makgeolli hit a record high in 2011, spiking 176.3 percent to $52.8 million from the previous year when it was just $19.1 million. The 2011 figure is 12 times that of 2008 when shipping overseas marked $4.4 million.
The agricultural ministry says that Korea’s traditional alcohol beverages help boost people’s health, if consumed judiciously, as their raw materials have the same roots as good foods. According to “dongeuibogam,” a medical textbook written by the royal Doctor Heo Jun in the early 17th century, foods and liquors protect the body better than medicine and it emphasizes the importance of good food and drink.
Then, how to make Korean traditional alcohol beverages go global? The agricultural ministry launched a nationwide competition and a fair to enlarge the market.
The government has hosted the event titled the “Korean Traditional Beverage Fair” since 2007 in cooperation with the Korean Traditional Alcohol Beverage Development Association. This year, it was held at the World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong, western Seoul for four days from Oct. 25 to 28.
A total of 243 quality alcohol beverages were entered into the competition, and among them 32 were selected to represent the country’s top brands. The list includes Sancheoneo Makgeolli from Hwacheon, Gangwon Province; Chusa Apple Wine; Myeongin Andong Soju; and Sulsung Satto among others.
Sancheoneo was recognized for its strong apple flavor and good combination of sour and sweet taste by juries. Sancheoneo means cherry salmon in Korean, and the beverage borrowed the name as the county is one of the biggest habitations of the fish.
Food specialists say that makgeolli makes the best combination with grilled pork and white kimchi as the soft taste of the rice wine complements them. Makgeolli, also known as “takju,” or milky liquor in Korean, has a mixed sweet and sour taste. It has relatively low alcohol, high calories and abundant protein.
Chusa Apple Wine is a dessert wine made from quality apples in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province with state-of-the-art ice wine technology adopted from Canada. Chusa is the writing name of the 19th century scholar Kim Jung-hee born in the town. Experts said the apple wine’s cool and sweet taste appealed to juries in the competition, getting high scores from them.
Myeongin Andong Soju has grabbed the best award in the soju category for three consecutive years, proving that the liquor from North Gyeongsang Province is unrivaled. Experts say that more than 500 years tradition behind the soju coupled with modern manufacturing technology consolidated its reputation.
Sulsung Satto, an appetizer from Gangjin, South Jeolla Province, topped the liquor competition. Industry sources say it matches well with Korean traditional appetizers, including radish rolls containing crab, cucumber and pear.
In the field of general beverages, JinSim Korea Red Ginseng Wine was awarded the best product for its salty taste and the flavor of ginseng. It helps increase stamina and provokes little pain after drinking. It is matched well with beef or Korean rice cake, experts explain.
They say that traditional liquor makers need to study the products as well as catch up on the changing tastes of consumers to export them to overseas markets more efficiently.
“We should not spare any effort to improve the quality of traditional alcohol beverages until they become world-class,” said Roh Yeong-hwan, head of the traditional liquor producers’ association on its website.