(Continued from “The Emblem of Korea” on 3 August 2018)
Situated in eastern South Korea and the capital of North Gyeongsang Province, Andong is indubitably the spiritual home of soju. In the minds of purists and traditionalists, Andong soju remains the only real soju. It is exclusively made from three ingredients, namely grains (mostly rice), nuruk (the cake-like traditional Korean fermentation starter) and water. Due to its painstaking production process and limited production volume, Andong soju is way more expensive than commercial soju.
In many regards, the clear divide between Andong soju and soju is eerily similar to Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena / Reggio Emilia DOP vs Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP.
Renowned for its culture, history and traditions, Andong used to be a centre of Korean Confucianism. In the 13th century, the Mongols under Ögedei Khan and Möngke Khan repeatedly invaded the Korean Peninsula. Owing to its strategic location, Andong became the key supply base of the Mongols. Distillation was probably introduced for the first time to the Korean Peninsula by the Mongol invaders, and Andong has been synonymous fine soju ever since.
During much of the 1st millennium AD, alcoholic beverages in China, Japan and Korea shared numerous similarities, in that they were generally made from grains (particularly rice), brewed rather than distilled, and could be filtered or unfiltered. Whether distillation was invented by the Arabs or Chinese is still subject to debate, and some sources indicate that ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians had accidentally stumbled upon the technique in the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. What can be safely ascertained, nonetheless, is that distillation was propagated across much of Eurasia by the Mongols during the 13th century.
It would appear that Chinese, Japanese and Korean alcoholic beverages began to go separate ways in the 13th century. In China, distilled baijiu took hold in the north and never relinquished its dominance, whereas brewed huangjiu remains prevalent in the south. Between Japan and Korea, brewed and filtered clear rice wine became more popular in Japan (seishu, i.e. sake) than Korea (cheongju); brewed and unfiltered cloudy rice wine remains a niche in both countries (Japanese nigorizake and Korean takju); but distilled liquor is less popular in Japan (shochu) than Korea (soju).
To be continued one day…
Yangban Andong Soju
Andong is to soju what Champagne is to sparkling wine. Immaculately clean and perfectly transparent, the aromatically intense nose effuses mochi, cardamom, paperwhite, fermented black soybeans and sea waves. With a sauce-like mouthfeel, the profoundly flavourful palate emanates daikon, white pepper, grassland, chili bean sauce and brine. Full-bodied at 45%, the focused entry continues through an umami-rich mid-palate, leading to a very long finish. If tasted blind, one could well mistake it for an expensive Chinese baijiu. A very fine soju to be savoured.
Literally meaning “two branches”, the name Yangban refers to the traditional ruling class of Confucian scholar-officials in Korea from the 14th to 19th centuries. Different from noblesse de robe (nobles of the robe) and noblesse d’épée (nobles of the sword) of the Ancien Régime in France, the status of civil officials and military officers in Korea was not hereditary, but attained via imperial examinations modelled after China.
Special thanks to Jacqueline P. L. Chan for supplying the sample.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France,
and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages