In Food + Drink

Sool, South Korea’s Home-Made Spirit, Is Making A Come-Back

Sool, a South Korean alcohol made with rice, was once considered a form of art.

Sool, a South Korean alcohol made with rice, was once considered a form of art  a beautiful expression of technique and tradition passed down through the generations. Yet, following periods of war, modernisation and social change, the real art form was almost lost to the ages. As Koreans now look to reconnect with their past, authentic hand-crafted sool is making a comeback  and an Aussie expat is helping bring it into the global spotlight.
For Julia Mellor, a Brisbane native living in South Korea for a little over 10 years now, sool is more than just a drink. Together with her partner Dan McLaughlin, Mellor founded The Sool Company as a way to share the story of sool with the world through tours and education.
Despite it now being her calling, Mellor admits her first introduction to sool wasn’t love at first sip, with common varieties leaving her with a heavy hangover. After sampling different kinds that were hand-crafted and much higher quality, it was a life-changing experience.
“I was shocked,” Mellor says. It was unlike anything I had tried, and it was the beginning of a discovery into a world I had previously not known had existed. When I started to learn how to brew the various techniques, and to hear the traditions and stories that go with that process, I became passionate about sharing what I was learning to a wider audience.”
Sool was traditionally produced in the home and, much like kimchi and red pepper pastes, each family’s unique recipe was passed down through the generations. The techniques for regional varieties of sool were also shared in communities, and from mother to daughter.
“The word sool’ actually means alcohol in Korean language, but it has a long history that dates back thousands of years referring to alcohol made with rice,” Mellor says.
“The bubbling effect during fermentation was referred to as Fire in water’, the word for water being Soo’ and the fire as Bool’.  After many years the word Soobool’ eventually became simply Sool’. Today we use the word to describe all alcohol, but it is deeply rooted in the traditional techniques of making Korean alcohol from rice, including makgeollicheongju, and, of course, the ever-popular soju.”
Sool differs from other alcohols in a number of ways, with the most obvious being in its texture and consistency, which ranges from creamy and heavy to light and fizzy. Drinking makgeolli for the first time can be a shock to the senses, but you soon get used to it.
More than just how it looks, sool is also produced using a wild fermentation starter called nuruk’ and is best enjoyed unpasteurized. Every brew will change flavour and texture, even after bottling, as the yeasts will continue fermentation. All categories of Korean sool – makgeolli, cheongju and soju  come from the same basic fermentation process.
Mellor says there are many different rules for drinking sool, but they’re not all closely followed in modern society. Two rules that have stood the test of time though are you should never pour your own drink and once a glass is empty it should be quickly refilled.
“If you drain your glass, it means you are ready for a re-fill, so whomever is doing the pouring for the night will promptly fill your glass if you have already drained it.”
Mellor created The Sool Company as a means to share the deep cultural intricacies of Korean sool to English speakers, and also help support producers of quality products.
“There is so much potential for the Korean alcohol both domestically and internationally, but the dearth of information in English hinders that potential from being realized. We quickly realized both an opportunity and responsibility to provide that resource.”
“The beauty of the sool scene in Korea at the moment is that there is something that suits everyone’s styles and tastes. I have bars on my rotation that are known for their authenticity to the craft, some that stock an impressive selection of sool from around the country, and some that quite simply just have the best atmosphere for fun night out.”
Among the tours offered are makgeolli brewing classes, a hands-on experience where you can learn how to brew your own makgeolli; and the Insadong Taster, which takes you on a three-hour tasting spree visiting three makgeolli bars, each with their own unique style.
An absolute must-try though is The Master Brewer tour, which offers a unique opportunity to not only try some of the finest Korean sool available on the market, but also meet and dine in the homes of brewmasters at the heart of this centuries old tradition.
Though it has a history dating back more than a thousand years, Mellor says authentic and well-crafted sool is still a very niche market, but it’s one which is actively seeking to carve its way back to a position of respectability among the best produced alcohols in the world.
(All images: The Sool Company)

Published 10 January, 2018