Samhae Soju

(Jongno, Seoul, South Korea)

The saga that is Samhae Soju actually began months ago when I found an article listing Kim Taek Song as the 8th ranked intangible resource of Korea.  The day came, so The Editor and I traveled an hour by train, followed the GPS to the location and stood outside the unassuming little building at the top of Bukchon Hanok Village’s hill for about 15 minutes too nervous to ring the doorbell and proceeded to walk all the way back down empty-handed. Fast forward to this week:  we came to find that a reservation is required and a Korean speaker is not required, but it is recommended. Once we arrived it became apparent that the reservation either didn’t go through or was not done correctly, so they didn’t know the NINE of us were coming AND there was a tour of people who did it the right way scheduled at 6 (just 30 minutes later).  Despite all of this, Korean hospitality won the day and we were set up for our tasting and treated to nothing but sincerity and smiles…and a ton of booze.
We were first lulled into a false sense of security with iwhaju.  An 8% booze-pudding that might make you want to spread it on a cracker; Iwhaju was slightly creamy and a little gritty with a tart start and a mildly bitter finish.
The first official liquid we drank was takju or rice liquor.  A cousin to makgeolli, takju is an unfiltered wine drained directly from a fermenting pot.  There are two main differences between takju and makgeolli: makgeolli tends to be more carbonated and a little more sour and takju pours at a sneaky 15-17% ABV while makgeolli sits at 6-10%.  I didn’t love this one- maybe I just need some bubbles in my ‘drunken rice’?
Next up was yakju.  Yakju is the filtered layer above takju taken from the same fermentor.  I don’t know if it is all the same, but the two times I’ve had yakju it has been incredibly clean.  I can’t find any other way to describe it other than to say: a lack of harsh flavors- no boozy finish, no malts, no herbs… nothing.
The following two yakjus are brainchildren of Master Kim himself.  Essentially made the same way as above with the exception being that the base used is Chrysanthemum tea instead of water.  This yakju was like a semi-dry white wine blend. A bit more backbone and flavor yet still a crisp and clean finish.
Podo (grape) yakju is made from Korean grown Campbell grapes and then fermented in pots rather than aged in barrels and had a brandy-like flavor.  Still not as thick as brandy or red wine. This one had a nicer bouquet and a solid sweetness throughout to add some substance.
We then transitioned from fermented to distilled alcohols.  The first was the flagship Samhae soju: Made by Master Kim’s parents before him, perfected by him, the catalyst to the title of an intangible treasure of Korea, and though not as badass a title, the best soju I have ever tasted.  Soju typically pours at around 20%, while Samhae soju is a 45% (or 90 proof) and still manages to be incredibly smooth.
Following the same progression chrysanthemum soju was next.  Much like the two yakjus from which these two sojus spawned it was difficult to differentiate very many flavors.  If anything, the mum added a light earthiness.
Podo soju, much like the yakju above, just added some sugary notes and a slight dryness. I’m trying not to sound like a broken record, but again, delicious.  I like craft beer, I like good scotch and good bourbon, and I like vodka mixed with something, but I don’t really looooovvve much else, so for these to all be above and beyond is rather impressive.
Sanghwang mushroom soju was distilled using fungus taken exclusively from mulberry trees.  This was the only thing I drank all day that I didn’t like. Each of the other Samhae varietals had different flavor elements that masked the harshness of the alcohol or complimented it to make it smoother.  This one was just a bit too much like lighter fluid for my tastes.
Gwiju or ‘ghost liquor’ is triple distilled sanghwang soju (above) that comes in at a whopping 71.2% alcohol.  Its origin started when Master Kim himself tried Bacardi 151 for the first time- his immediate thought was “I can make that stronger and less harsh”.  Its name was later coined by a local tv network staff member after he said: “If human drinks this he becomes ghost, if ghost drinks this he will turn back to human”.  I personally was a bit apprehensive based on its predecessor and its unapologetic scent, but if you like a little backcountry white lightning in your life then I’d say you’re barking up the right tree.
If that wasn’t amazing enough, on our way out the door, Master Kim followed us down the stairs to pour a sample of his delicious, dessert-like, tangerine yakju still bubbling in the fermentor.  Truly an amazing experience.
If I haven’t raved enough- this was quite possibly the best 10 dollars I ever spent (an additional 10 to turn into a ghost), so, for the sake of habit, I’ll give them a rating, but it’s almost not even fair.  I give Samhae Soju a 9.9 out of 10.
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