Finding a bottle of Poongjeongsagye Choon (‘Choon’ means ‘Spring’. The Poongjeongsagye series are named after the four seasons) became extremely difficult after the drink was served to President Trump at the North Korea-U.S. summit in 2018. Koreans keen to try out this drink for themselves were often pointed in the direction of Baekgom Makgeolli, which after opening in 2016, has built a reputation amongst alcohol enthusiasts as an emporium of traditional Korean flavors.
Poongjeongsagye Choon, now in the public spotlight,was prior to the summit one of the rarest items in Baekgom Makgeolli’s collection. Located on the ‘gourmet street’ in Seoul’s Apgujeong neighbourhood, where Michelin-featured fine-dining restaurants abound, their shelves play host to a mighty collection of traditional Korean alcohol, some 250+ different varieties.
“We started out with about 100 types of alcohol. We get new product quite quickly and even some exclusive drinks,” says Seung-Hoon Lee, the founder, and the reason behind Baekgom Makgeolli’s success. Since 2010, the year Seung-Hoon quit his old job at a food production company, he has visited more than 400 breweries across Korea. “I posted about the alcohols I discovered on social media and also introduced them to several pubs, however, I wanted to go further, so I set up a Makgeolli society which later became the brick-and-mortar ‘Baekgom Makgeolli’ ”, says Seung-Hoon.
If you can’t find it here, you won’t be able to find it anywhere. Whether it is from an established or newly-founded brewery, Korean traditional alcohol of all flavours and provenance come to find themselves available to order at Baekgom Makgeolli. “The most important thing is of course the taste. It would be even better if the drink also has a background story.” Seung-Hoon said. Despite the brewing facilities they have available locally, Baekgom Makgeolli does not produce its own alcohol; their goal is clear: introducing traditional alcohol from across Korea to as wide an audience as possible.
“If we started making our own product, our customers would likely want to try ours most. To make it available we would need to give up at least 100 types of alcohols we already have. After giving it consideration, I decided to focus on digging up and introducing alcohols from across the country,” says Seung-Hoon.
Seung-Hoon’s establishment also presents 20 different types of anju, food to pair with their alcohol selection, another reason bringing customers through the doors. “Some restaurants do one-to-one parings, but we have 250 alcohols to match ― it’s simply impossible. Though with anju as good as ours, they suit the range of the alcohols we have on offer”, he said.
Seung-Hoon had traveled the length and breadth of Korea to find the best ingredients for his anju. From years of experience, he believes that the best food pairing for the alcohols he presents are with ingredients local to the areas where the alcohol is produced. “Some restaurants pair Korean traditional alcohol with Italian food or even Mexican; I understand that it has an appeal, however, I believe that local food made with local ingredients makes for a natural synergy,” Seung-Hoon said.
A Korean Traditional Alcohol Tasting Course Recommended by an Expert
Despite their expansive selection, customers don’t have to worry about what to choose in Baekgom Makgeolli as its employees are all sommeliers. As well as being a drinking and dining establishment, Baekgom Makgeolli is also a training centre for Korean traditional alcohol sommeliers, having produced the 1st and 3rd award winners in Korea’s national traditional alcohol sommelier competition of last year.
“You need to know around 250 different alcohols and be able to explain their tastes and stories to the customers. If you don’t possess that level of information or cannot recommend an anju that’s suitable for certain drinks, you don’t belong here.” Since they have a wide variety of alcohol, Baekgom Makgeolli also offers a drinking course based on their sommeliers’ expert selections. “It starts with weak and light ones to strong and heavy ones, less-flavored ones to full-flavored ones. If I may explain with examples, start with takju, yakju, then move on to soju ― this is how you enjoy various types best,” he said.
Poongjeongsagye Choon ‧ Ewhabaekju ‧ Leeganju – Three of the most popular drinks and Anju at Baekgom Makgeolli
Over the past year, sparkling makgeolli has become extremely popular. Seung-Hoon Lee, the owner of Baekgom Makgeolli, says of this trend, “it’s quite captivating, you know, the moment you open the bottle, sparkling makgeolli self-stirs itself with a nice little pop! Also, it’s light and refreshing like beer. People like that.”
This new sparkling trend has also made its mark on Baekgom’s best-seller list. Three of its most popular drinks are: Poongjeongsagye Choon (cheongju), Ewhabaekju (makgeolli), and Leeganju (liquor). They all have different points of appeal and are recommended to be paired with different anju.
Poongjeongsagye Choon x Grilled Dalgogi (John Dory)
Poongjeongsagye Choon, made in Chungbuk, has been Baekgom Makgeolli’s best-selling cheongju since its first day of trading. It is sweet-sour, with floral notes and an apple fragrance. Grilled Dalgogi is a perfect accompaniment. Dalgogi, John Dory in English, is a delicacy which is hard to find elsewhere.
Leeganju (liquor) x Pyeonyuk (sliced boiled chicken feet)
Leeganju is the most renowned traditional soju. It is rice-based with pear and ginger also used. Popular with old and young alike., Leeganju is a good example of a drink that has become a classic. It generally goes well with meat dishes, especially pyeonyuk, a good match due to its sticky texture.
Ewhabaekju x Ganjaemi (steamed skate)
Ewhabaekju, an official drink for embassy receptions at the Blue House, is known as the ‘champagne makgeolli’. It tastes sweet rather than sour, unlike ordinary makgeolli and works wells as a refreshing aperitif with its 6% alcohol volume. The combination of spicy Ganjaemi jjim with Ewhabaekju, is a perfect food and drink pairing.