Writer Mi-jin Kang –
Sool – the Korean word describing a wide variety of traditional alcohols from the Korean peninsula – can be found in Korea at most events and celebrations across the land and shared with loved ones and strangers alike. Sool also plays a significant role between Korea and other nations, it is difficult to imagine a banquet for heads of states without a toast.
Unlike the neighboring countries of South Korea or China, North Korean drinking culture is somewhat different. It is usual to see people drinking alcohol at restaurants in South Korea but not in the North. Most North Korean restaurants do not sell alcohol unless they are government-run and so to be able to drink alcohol with your meal, it needs to be bought from a market or a liquor shop and brought to the restaurant, similar to the western practice of BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle).
In this first article of a series describing the drinking culture and alcohols native to North Korea by region, I would like to begin by introducing various sool from the capital Pyeongyang. There are many renowned alcohols in this region: Daepyeong gokju (‘gokju’ means alcohol made from rice in Daepyeong), Daepyeong sool, Pyeongyang soju, Pyeongyang moonbae sool (‘moonbae’ is a Korean wild pear), Ok-ryu byeoksan sool, and Uel-mil-bong sansam sool (‘sansam’ is wild ginseng).
Daepyeong gokju, which is made from corn and rice, is one of oldest alcohols found in North Korea with their brewery dating back to 1819, becoming so popular as to be the standard drink served at weddings until the 1980s.
Pyeongyang soju is usually sold in a 500ml bottle and has a 25 percent alcohol content. It is considered to be one grade lower in quality than Daepyeong soju or Daepyeong sool, yet is still people’s most beloved alcohol and ubiquitous, owing to its mass production.
In North Korea, people who drink high alcohol content beverages are known as “the well-off”. Having a couple of drinks after work with your colleagues at a restaurant or pub is nothing out of the ordinary in South Korea. However, in the North, drinking is more of a private activity taking place at home. Since the beginning of the decade, it has become easy to buy factory-manufactured alcohols from market-places. Before then, most alcohol products sold in the market were home-made.
Many North Korean people desire to live in Pyeongyang though it is almost impossible for non-Pyeongyang people to achieve that ambition. Pyeongyang citizens are often referred to as ‘Pyeongyang nol-sae’ by those living outside of Pyeongyang. Amongst North Koreans, the word nol-sae indicates people who do not work particularly hard. As Pyeongyang is home only to the privileged class, people who live in this city are used to being provided for by the government, however, when it comes to taste, Pyeongyang nol-sae considers homemade alcohol produced outside of the capital as superior to Pyeongyang’s locally-produced alcohols.
I would like to continue this journey about Pyeongyang sool, talking about Daedong-gang beer in our next edition.