Traditional Korean beverages roughly fall into two categories: alcoholic and nonalcoholic.
While this may be indicative of Korea’s long-standing love affair with alcohol, there are close to 200 types of traditional teas, juices, and grain drinks associated with the latter group, known as eumcheongnyu (음청류).
Winnowing that list down to 20 drinks required many tasting panels and difficult decisions, but nevertheless, here is our list of the top 20 most interesting and delicious Korean drinks:
1. Bokbunja ju (복분자주)
Bokbunja, is a blackberry native to the Korea Peninsula. The wine is the color of oxblood, and its sweet, berry flavor is reminiscent more of dessert wine than a red wine.
The drink has traditionally been associated with male virility, and it wasn’t until 2008 that a team of South Korean scientists confirmed that the berry increased testosterone levels and sperm counts in mice. Talk about an aphrodisiac.
2. Banana Milk (바나나우유)
For many Koreans, banana milk conjures up memories of childhood. And if you try it, you’ll understand why: it’s simple, sugary – and totally addictive.
The most popular brand, Binggrae, has cultivated a loyal following since it hit the shelves in 1974, a time when bananas were a luxury food.
3. Soju (소주)
As the ubiquity of these glittering green bottles in virtually every eating and drinking establishment should tell you: soju is Korea’s national liquor. For a nation of lushes, soju provides a cheap and effective way to get hammered.
The two major soju brands that dominate the Seoul market are Chamisul (참이슬) and Chum Churum (처음 처럼). The taste resembles that of slightly sweet, watered-down vodka – sort of like sugar dissolved in rubbing alcohol.
But don’t judge soju solely by those brands. Regional brands outside Seoul offer interesting, and even delicious sojus. Andong soju, despite its higher alcohol content, is hand-crafted and has a clean, subtle character that is more akin to sake than other sojus.
4. Omija tea (오미자차)
Omija means “five-flavor berry” because you can supposedly taste five flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy – in the berry. In Korea, the berry is normally turned into a tea that can be consumed by itself or mixed with honey, flower petals, mung bean powder, and other things to create a variety of different Korean punches called hwachae (화채).
Omija is also used as a flavoring for makgeolli. For everyday use, the tea is supposed to be good for colds or other respiratory illnesses, but in terms of traditional medicine, omija is supposed to restore your liver.
5. Makgeolli (막걸리)
Makgeolli is the oldest alcohol in Korea. Unlike soju or other clear alcohols, it is unfiltered, giving a milky white color with some sediment at the bottom. It is sweet and smooth, with a little tang and the right amount of carbonation to make it refreshing.
Recently makgeolli has made a comeback with younger generations as a fruit cocktail, a drink made with Chilsung Cider (Korea’s version of Sprite), and other incarnations. Makgeolli is best though, when it is made by hand from pure ingredients – meaning, rice. Enjoy it with pajeon (파전) a savory pancake or bindaetteok (빈대떡), a mung bean pancake.
Wolhyang (월향) in Hongdae makes its own organic brown rice makgeoli that stands at 15% alcohol, but tastes better than the cheap stuff.
6. Cheongju (청주)
Need a break from soju? Try ordering a bottle of cheongju, literally meaning “clear liquor” – the most popular (and readily available) brand being Chung Ha. Rice liquors like Cheongju have been fermented multiple times, giving them a pure and sweet taste. Chungha costs a bit more than soju, but it’s worth the price if you think soju tastes like rocket fuel.
7. Baekseju 백세주
Feeling a little old-fashioned? Have your dinner with Baekseju, a herbaceous yellow wine made from rice and a number of different roots and herbs, the most prominent being ginseng. Depending on the brand, there will be a host of other aromatics like wolfberry and licorice.
Older ajussis tend to fancy this drink because it comes with the promise that drinking baekseju will help you live to be 100 years old — thus the name, “100-year liquor.”
8. Citron tea (유자차)
Citron, more commonly referred to as yuzu, has become a popular ingredient on the menus of fancy restaurants in the United States. The fruit itself looks like a large tangerine, but has a tart flavor that places it more closely to grapefruit. As with the green plum, maesil, Koreans preserve thin slices of citron in honey or sugar.
A jar of citron honey – also available at the grocery store – is a go-to herbal remedy for colds and other winter ailments. Just drop a tablespoon of the syrup in some hot water and you have citron tea.
9. Chrysanthemum tea (국화차)
The white and yellow flowers of the chrysanthemum plant are dried and then steeped in honey for about a month, and then brewed as a tea. The tea is a visual stunner, with the chrysanthemum flowers expanding like bright balloons in the water.
As you might expect from a tea made from flower petals, the tea has a delicate, flowery taste with a sweetness that can be brought out with a spoonful of sugar. It is said that chrysanthemum tea can help you fight a cold during the winter months, and also ease high blood pressure.
10. Daechu tea (dried jujube tea) 대추차
Daechu, or dried jujubes, will pop up when you least expect them: inside a chicken, in slices on top of rice cakes, and yes, in a tea. You can make a tea either from a paste, which lasts for a long time, or make a fresh batch by boiling dried jujubes.
The tea is a rich dark maroon and a deep, savory flavor. The tea is rich in iron and is good for anemia and for curing general lethargy.
11. Green plum tea (매실차)
Around early summer, you can start to see large netting bags filled with little green plums, known as maesil. This plum tree (also known by its Japanese name, ume) is popular throughout East Asia for both its flower and for its fruit.
Koreans will often ferment the plums with sugar and make a batch of maesil syrup, essentially a plum concentrate, that they can store and use as a refreshing beverage in the summer or a tea in the winter. Of course, the longer you ferment it, the syrup can become alcoholic, known as maesil-ju.
12. Corn tea (옥수수수염차)
Corn tea can be made with the dried corn silk or with dried and roasted corn kernels or a combination thereof. The former has a light roasted flavor unlike the latter, which tastes more like, well, corn.
Kwang Dong’s popular corn silk tea promises to give you a V-line, meaning a slim and sharp jawline that ends in a “V” at your chin.
13. Barley tea (보리차)
This is a pan-Asian drink, as you can find variations of roasted barley tea in China and Japan. Koreans tend to drink this year round, as both a cool, rejuvenating tonic, and a warm, soothing tea. Sometimes, as is the case with Sky Barley (하늘 보리), the mass-produced version of this tea, the roasted barley seed is mixed with corn, toasted brown rice, and chicory as a way of lightening the flavor.
14. Sungnyung (숭늉)
Before the advent of nickel silver and non-stick pots and rice cookers, Koreans cooked rice in heavy iron cauldrons like cast iron. After cooking rice in those iron pots or hot stone bowls, a crust of roasted rice (called nurungji [누룽지]) sticks to the bottom – hard, crunchy, and delicious.
In order to clean the pot, people pour in water or barley tea. The water sizzles in the pot and loosens the rice. The warm and starchy broth you have as a postprandial palate cleanser is known as sungnyung.
15. Yulmu (율무)
Known as “Job’s tears” in English, this grain is contained within a hard, tear-shaped shell about the size of a pea. The shells were the size of beads and were good for making jewelry and bracelets, including rosary beads. It was in the monasteries of southern Europe where the rosary beads made from this plant came to be known as “Job’s tears.” In Korea, however, the grain usually comes in powdered form along with walnuts, almonds, or other nuts. Less like a traditional tea, yulmu can be eaten more like a savory cereal. With a high protein content, this might be a healthier alternative to a cup of coffee in the morning.
16. Bacchus (바카스)
When you feel like coffee and soda isn’t doing the trick, turn to Bacchus for help. This was the energy drink of choice before Red Bull reared its head. Started in 1963 by Dong-A, a pharmaceutical company, Bacchus was originally touted as a hangover remedy.
Now, it is marketed as an energy booster. The bulk of the drink is actually just water, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, but it also has taurine (the magic ingredient in Red Bull) and a mix of other chemical ingredients.
17. Sikhye (식혜)
This cold rice drink is probably the closest thing you’ll get to with traditional Korean “dessert.” Made from malt water and cooked rice, you can usually get a sweet, icy glass of sikhye at a restaurant or cafe. The best time to get it though is after hitting the saunas or jjimjjilbang (찜찔방). It will quench your thirst and wake you up from the languor of the hot tubs.
18. Misutgaru (미숫가루)
Misutgaru is a shake made from roasted grain powder and sweetened with some honey or sugar. The number of different grains, beans, and nuts depends on the brand, but more often than not, you’ll see some mixture of healthful ingredients like barley, rice (glutinous and non-glutinous, black, brown, and white), millet, soybeans, and sesame seeds.
Unsurprisingly, this shake is good diet food because it is high in protein, while still giving you a nutritious variety of whole grains. If you’re drinking at home (you can buy a package at the grocery store), blend it with some ice, milk, and honey for a healthy and delicious protein shake.
19. Sujeonggwa (수정과)
The other Korean “dessert” drink. The base of the drink is made from boiling ginger, peppercorns, and cinnamon. Afterwards, honey or brown sugar is added along with dried persimmons, which are reconstituted in the liquid to give it a heartier, autumnal flavor.
The drink is served cold and garnished with a few pine nuts. Overall the drink has a nice balance of sweet and fruity, getting a nice kick from the ginger and cinnamon.
20. Dawn 808
Also sometimes known as ahjussi juice for the portrait of the kind grandfatherly figure beaming from the can, Dawn 808 is the ultimate hangover elixir.
Made from traditional herbs and roots, the taste is reminiscent of hanyak (한약), or traditional Korean medicine. Knock back a can of this after one of those drinking bouts that has lasted until the subways start up again in the morning and it will ensure that you won’t be completely useless when you wake up for work the next day.
Can be bought in any convenience store.
Alex Jung is a food and travel writer. His love for food is only limited by the capacity of his stomach.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2011. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.