Soju: The Korean wine alternative

Photo: supplied

Photo: supplied

The defining presence of chilli, pickling and fermenting in Korean cooking can present drink-matching challenges for those with a more Euro-centric palate. Beer is always a good fallback position with Korean cuisine’s robust flavour profile, but other options are equally successful and more interesting.

Restaurant Shik is a new, modern-Korean restaurant in the city opened by Peter Jo, a sommelier and self-taught cook known via a series of pop-ups as Kimchi Pete. Jo is a big fan of minimal-intervention wines and just as Shik’s soundtrack is all hip-hop all the time, his wine list never veers from the natural wine path.

But Shik has interesting alternatives to wine, in the form of soju, a clear distilled drink made from fermented rice and a drink called makgeolli, a cloudy white, slightly spritzy, drink, also made from rice and known in Korea as “farmers’ beer”.

There are a couple of sojus at Shik, both made from unpolished rice. This gives them a more robust flavour than Japanese sake or shochu, where the rice is polished before fermenting, which gives them a cleaner, more subtle flavour profile.

The Korean version of rice-based soju has a more floral bouquet, with sour, melon and pepper notes that are more than up to the job of matching with banchan and gochujang. The makgeolli is also a great food beverage. It starts with an inoculated cereal mix that’s mixed with cooked rice and produces a milky coloured, slightly bubbly drink with refreshing fermented characteristics.

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