the Korean drinks you need to know

First there was Korean pop sensation BTS. then parasite won the best picture Oscar. Now Korean drinks are the country’s latest cultural export, with major Australian retailers doubling their range of soju, bokbunja wine and other Korean tipples.

“A couple of years ago you could find soju and makgeolli in small Asian grocery stores but they have become more popular with all these influences coming together,” says Samuel Lam, the Asian beverages sourcing manager for Endeavor Group, which owns retailers Dan Murphy’s and BWS.

Just as pop culture can influence how we dress and what we listen to, our food and drink choices are shaped in a similar way.

Sam McGill and Bri Fisher from Granville enjoy soju at Korean eatery Gami in Campbelltown. Photo: Wolter Peeters



“We are seeing a 14 per cent increase in the import of Korean alcohol and only see this trend continuing to rise,” says trade consultant Niha Sathasivam from the Sydney office of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

“The increase in popularity of [Korean] entertainment, such as Netflix’s Squid Gamewatched by 142 million households worldwide, has shed light on the food and drinking culture, which has a rich and meaningful history.”

To keep up with demand, Dan Murphy’s and BWS recently added 20 South Korean drinks to their shelves, expanding the offering to almost 40 products nationally.

At Gami Fried Chicken and Beer, people are branching out and trying more Korean drinks, such as lagers brewed with rice.

At Gami Fried Chicken and Beer, people are branching out and trying more Korean drinks, such as lagers brewed with rice. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen



One of the best-known drinks is soju, a clear, distilled liquid traditionally made from rice. With roots in the 13th century, it accounts for 97 per cent of the South Korean liquor market and, these days, is also made using tapioca, wheat or sweet potatoes.

It was featured in Squid Gamewhile the song glass of Soju from the South Korean movie parasite was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards in 2020.

Makgeolli is one of Korea’s oldest alcoholic drinks, but it features in many K-dramas, including popular series Vincenzo, hence the increased interest. The lightly sparkling beverage is made from rice, water and a starter known as nuruk.

Of the rise in soju-loving customers, Lam says: “Food culture also plays a part. In major [Australian] cities, Korean barbecue restaurants have become quite popular.”

At 32 eateries nationwide, Gami Fried Chicken and Beer serves soju, Korean beer and somaek, which is a cocktail-like mix of the two that’s also known as a soju bomb.

“Somaek is one-third soju and then two-thirds beer,” says Lam. “I’ve been to a few restaurants where they have a specific glass with a little measuring line on it so you know how much soju to put in.”

The TV series "Squid Game" was watched by millions of households, catapulting Korean culture into the mainstream.

The TV series “Squid Game” was watched by millions of households, catapulting Korean culture into the mainstream. Photo: Noh Juhan (Netfix)



Lolita Java, owner of Gami in Campbelltown, Sydney, says customers are increasingly curious and willing to try traditional drops. “They’re steering away from chicken with a standard soft drink and instead are going for soju, fruit juices like BongBong Grape Drink, and Korean beer on tap.”

Gami’s venue in the Melbourne suburb of Caroline Springs has also seen a shift toward soju and juices. “Kids love the BongBong Grape Drink because it comes in cute packaging,” says owner Caroline Lee . “With beer, people still tend to go for brands they know but once they try the Korean beer on tap and in bottle, they love it.”

When pairing dishes with Korean booze, Lam of Endeavor Group suggests chilled soju with Korean barbecue, or makgeolli for a palate-cleansing match with kimchi pancakes.

Soju comes in many different flavors and can be a refreshing match for the chargrilled meat of Korean barbecue.

Soju comes in many different flavors and can be a refreshing match for the chargrilled meat of Korean barbecue. Photo: Wolter Peeters



Makgeolli also tends to be lower in alcohol. “One of the biggest consumer trends we are seeing is low and zero alcohol products,” Lam says. “Soju can be used as a vodka substitute when making cocktails, but typically has half the ABV of vodka.

“Makgeolli is also lower in alcohol. The more traditional ones sit at about nine per cent alcohol but you can also find them at three-to-four per cent alcohol,” Lam says. “In that sense, think of it like a beer – it’s not too strong.”

Six Korean drinks to try

Kooksoondang White Grape Makgeolli, $10.99 for 750ml

A gluten and sugar-free Korean rice wine that’s made with fruit extract, in this case grape. The more traditional way of serving the light fizz is in little bowls, sometimes out of a vessel like a teapot. For a modern twist, serve chilled in a highball glass. Shake gently before you pour. From three per cent alcohol.

Korean barbecue at Yeonga BBQ in North Melbourne is one of many similar restaurants that have grown in popularity over ...

Korean barbecue at Yeonga BBQ in North Melbourne is one of many similar restaurants that have grown in popularity over the last decade. Photo: Kerrie O’Brien



Find it at Dan Murphy’s and BWS.

Chateul Soorok Apple Soju, $10.99 for 375ml

Chateul Soorok makes soju in 12 flavors but green apple is arguably the most refreshing. Produced in South Korea using a natural bamboo charcoal purification process, it is best consumed chilled as a shot or mixed with beer. 16 per cent alcohol.

Find it at Dan Murphy’s and BWS.

Hoju Soju, $50 for 500ml

Hoju means “Aussie” in Korean and this delightful spirit was made with all-Australian ingredients in a Korea-meets-Oz mash-up. As spirits go, it’s mid-strength so it won’t knock your socks off, especially when mixed in a cocktail. You can also serve it neat or on the rocks, and it’s great with food. 16.9 per cent alcohol.

Find it at wine merchants.

Bokbunja-Um Fruit Wine, $18.99 for 375ml

A sweet-ish beverage made from fermented Korean black raspberries (otherwise known as bokbunja). Serve it cold by itself, on ice as an aperitif, or mix with soda water. 12 per cent alcohol.

Find it at Dan Murphy’s and BWS.

Hite Pale Lager, $15.99 for six packs

A traditional pale lager brewed with rice, this is super refreshing and slightly sweet at the tail end. It’s particularly well-suited to food that delivers a hit of spice. 4.3 per cent alcohol.

Find it at bottle shops and Korean eateries.

BongBong Grape Drink, from $1.50 per can

One for people on a NoLo (zero or low alcohol) path, this canned juice is punchy in flavor and usually contains small pieces of grape. joyful. Zero per cent alcohol.

Find it at Asian grocers and specialty stores.

.