Juban: Revamped Traditional Korean Alcohol in Seochon
Juban is amazing. Let me get that out of the way up front, because I’m about to gush. Located in a back alley in Seochon, it serves a wide selection of well-made Western cocktails and craft beers, but that’s not what you go to Juban to drink: It’s the incredible selection of traditional Korean alcohol that’s the real draw.
If I never drink soju again, it’ll be too soon. I hope that with the end of corporate dinners I’ve also seen the last of my evenings spent drinking forced shots of that bottled abomination. I get that it’s cheap and everywhere, but Korea can do so much better. The good news is, it seems the traditional sul (alcohol) revival has arrived.
The Juban tradtional liquor sampler: Chuseong-ju, Heobeok-sul, Solsong-ju and Cheonggam-ju.
Chuseongju is allegedly 1,000 years old, and the name seems to lend credence to that claim — Chuseong was the name of Damyang from the Unified Silla era until the latter half of the eleventh century. It’s made by a family in Damyang who have been making it for four generations, using an old family recipe. Chuseong-ju is made with both glutinous and nonglutinous rice, malt, and herbs and spices like cinnamon and eucommia bark, many of which are still used in traditional medicine today. In fact, of the 20 herbs and spices that are included in the original family recipe, the family now only use 12 — the others are considered controlled substances. It is clean but biting — the herbal ingredients give it an almost licorice-like kick.
Heobeok-sul is not quite as old — in fact, it’s only a little over 60, but it took a gold medal at the International Wine & Spirits Competition, in London, in 2012, and has been granted all kinds of domestic honors and awards. Heobeok-sul is rice liquor from Hallasan, on Jeju-do Island, that is aged in oak barrels for over five years and cold-filtered, so it is crisp and very strong. The oak gives it a bit of an uncanny undertone. Everyone keeps comparing it to whiskey, but it doesn’t actually taste like whiskey — it’s just the oak. It was my favorite of the night.
Solsong-ju was my next-favorite drink on the sampler. This and the pine flower liquors the bartender served us on the house later (which aren’t on the menu) make me think I have a thing for pine. Solsong-ju was allegedly the home brew of Buddhist Confucian scholar Jeong Yeo-chang, who is considered one of the five sages of the Joseon Dynasty. It is made on Mt. Jirisan, in Hamyang, by the daughter-in-law of Jeong’s 16th-generation descendant, using clean mountain water, glutinous rice, pine needles and pine buds (in case you couldn’t guess, the area is known for its pine trees). It has a very slight, delicately sweet undertone that creates a pleasant tension with the ferment’s bitterness, almost like a very, very strong dry white wine (and it is strong, at 40% alcohol).
Cheonggam-ju is the 18th traditional alcohol to be restored by a preservation group called Woori Sul Bokwon Saeop (Our Alcohol Restoration Operation), a project created by Kooksoondang Brewery. Cheonggam-ju is also from Jeju-do Island, and the process for making it has been documented in records going back to the Joseon Dynasty. Now, I don’t know how this works, but apparently the key to Cheonggam-ju is that it is not made with water — it is made from combining glutinous rice with rice liquor, and somehow this produces a liquor that has a really low alcohol content (11.5%). I’m not a brewing expert, so I’ll leave the explanation for how that works to others. It is probably the sweetest of the four, which is another characteristic it is known for.
I also tried Gosori-sul, a kind of traditional soju from Jeju-do that’s made with millet and barley rather than rice, and Ugok-ju, a makgeolli from Hwaseong so thick that if you tipped your cup clean over and were quick enough in righting it, not a drop would be spilled. I’m a makgeolli person myself, so I think this one has to be tried.
Juban is a bar, and that means they’re mostly about the alcohol, but anju (food eaten while drinking) is an inherent part of drinking culture here, and Juban pays equal loving attention to their food.
I’m not going to get into too much detail about the food, because I think I’ve yammered on enough about the alcohol, but they offer a lot of completely one-of-a-kind fusion dishes, inspired by India, the Mediterranean, South East Asia and Spain, as well as dishes they call “Neo-Korean”. They’re not perfect, but they could be made that way with very slight adjustments. The last dish pictured there are fried bananas in a sweet coconut sauce, which we were served on the house. They were absolutely delicious. Everything on the menu is extremely aromatic — the bathroom is located outside the bar in the madang (hanok yard), and on my way back from it, I was struck by the incredible smells that filled the air outside.
If you go to Juban, do yourself a favor and sit at the bar. The staff there are incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and eager to explain the details of everything on the menu. We paid 130,000 won for all of this, plus a beer and a couple of cocktails, but the bill should’ve been closer to 200,000 won if they had charged us for everything we consumed.
The really great thing about Juban is they are doing exactly what so many fine-dining experts in Korea say can’t be done — they are serving traditional Korean alcohol right alongside carefully crafted dishes, despite the fact that the vast majority of the drinks go way over the 15% pairing line. By turning the Western concept of pairing on its head and doing it Korean style — anju accompanies alcohol, not the other way around — they’ve managed to pull it off.
Drinking culture in Korea is changing fast. Cheap brews slung back rapid-pace in brightly lit restaurants and in back-alley tents will always have a place in my heart, but it’s good to see this happening, too. Soju gets all the mouth service, but Korea has a whole host of liquors that are better sipped while sitting in a tiny, quiet hanok, listening to a little history lesson from a bartender who is happy you are there.
서울 종로구 필운동 118번지
118 Pilun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
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Freelance writer and editor. American in Seoul. I write about Korean food. I blog about all food. Last year I wrote a monthly column about traveling to different places around the country to explore Korean ingredients and cuisine. This ignited my interest in local foods and cooking, which I blog about regularly now. I also blog restaurant and cafe recommendations, recipes and some background and history about Korean food.