Bottoms up for tip-top health

One family’s centuries-old liquor tastes bad, but is said to be a cure-all

Mar 27,2003
DAESEOK, North Jeolla
In this obscure hamlet, time has stood still for at least a century. The feeling of being in a time machine still percolates through my bones after a visit there earlier this month.
The place that I visited, known as Hakseonggangdang, is a center for the study of ancient Chinese teachings. During holidays, about 100 students come here to study Chinese classical works, but when vacation ends only about 20 regulars remain in this small compound, which consists of a couple of hanok, or Korean houses set around a courtyard.
Not much has changed since old times; Korean traditions are embedded into the fabric of everyday life.
Both teachers and students wear hanbok, the colorful Korean robes. And true to the belief that students and teachers must not exchange money since it sullies the purity of their relationship, lectures are free just like long ago.
The production and consumption of baekchoju ― a traditional alcoholic drink that includes 100 herbs ― also continues unabated. Centuries ago, many Korean families possessed unique recipes for drinks, some of which were recorded in texts such as Gyuhapchongseo, which was written in the early 1800s. It is not clear how many families make their own liquor nowadays, but the number is certainly lower than in years past.
The man at the helm of this school is Kim Su-yeon, who is 78 years old. Mr. Kim’s school represents the Gihohakpa, one of many lines of thought in the realm of Chinese scholarly learning. As I was sitting in a room, cross-legged, Mr. Kim’s son Jong-hei served me juansang, a repast consisting of baekchoju and atypical appetizers such as wheat gluten and dried persimmons.
At first I did not touch my appetizers; I wanted a clear taste of this hard-to-find alcohol made from herbs.
The initial taste of this dark brown beverage was not very inspiring, I must admit. The alcohol percentage must have been around the 13 percent mark as it left a somewhat bitter aftertaste.
“What is it?” I asked the junior Mr. Kim.
“It’s baekchoju that was made 60 days ago,” said Mr. Kim.
I proceeded to put down a couple more shots of this potent potable, trying to convince myself that with the many herbs it contained, this drink could only benefit my health.
In addition to baekchoju, the Kim family produces baekhwaju. This beverage contains everything baekchoju does but also includes 100 varieties of dried flowers to infuse it with a more robust flavor.
Kim Jong-hui explained that besides the usual purpose of drinking alcohol, their two family beverages may have been passed down for health reasons. Centuries ago, when large families lived together and passed down genetic weaknesses, liquor was thought to help circulate the energy inside the body, he said. “Perhaps a recipe such as ours was intended to strengthen the body and cure it as well.”
Both beverages are said to have been passed down from one generation to the next with only one rule: Anyone above age 60 must quit making them. As the thinking goes, the somewhat reduced spiritual power of people beyond that age could hurt the taste.
Both drinks are made identically, except for the final stage which only applies to baekhwaju.
For about three weeks, brewers ferment one and a half gallons each of glutinous rice and yeast, to make the base material. The second and third stages are essentially a repeat of the first: More glutinous rice and yeast are added, consuming another three weeks.
The water is brewed in a very special manner. One hundred herbs (baek is the number 100 in Korean) are dried and then boiled in natural spring water for 10 hours. Among the herbs used, at least three ―cho-o, buja and sangryuk ― are known as poisons in the oriental medicine world. In the case of cho-o, a person’s body and tongue are said to shrink if it’s boiled and eaten, ultimately leading to death.
Buja is no less potent a poison. Consuming it in a soup form reportedly causes one’s blood vessels to burst.
Nevertheless, poisonous herbs continue to be ingredients in this old family beverage, with no harmful effect on its imbibers. According to Kim Jong-hei, who oversees liquor production here, when poisonous herbs are mixed with others a synergy effect renders the poisonous ones harmless. Such a reaction adheres to the tenets of oriental medicine.
While baekchoju is complete after the third stage, baekhwaju involves one additional, and fairly time-consuming step. To begin, all of the liquid at this point is poured into the family’s oldest jar, said to be over a century old.
Then, 100 different flowers that have been collected and dried over the course of a year and painstakingly stored in small bags, are put into the jar.
Finding the herbs is no easy task, but preparing the flowers is even more challenging. At least herbs can be bought, but flowers must be picked by hand. After flowers are added, it takes another 25 days to attain the right flavor.
To find the necessary species of flowers, Park Geun wanders the countryside from village to village ― a task that makes for some prickly moments, as locals find her poking about a tad suspicious.
“Sometimes I have to explain to them what I am doing,” said Ms. Park. “In the case of the evening primrose flowers, getting them in the summertime is not too hard. The problem is that when dried, the remnants get very small so I have to pick a fairly large amount.” With such a tedious process, one might wonder how the recipe has been kept alive through the generations.
Apparently, the Kim family was not the only one making baekhwaju long ago, as evidence in the Gyuhabchongseo text points out. However, the description in that book differs slightly from the Kims’ method, as it prohibits poisonous herbs and permits flowers of every season to be used.
“From our own experience, using some poisonous herbs has not caused any problems. Also we choose any kind of flower for our beverage,” said Mr. Kim, adding that the variety of flowers gives the beverage an exceptional aroma and richness.
According to Mr. Kim, baekhwaju is one of three preeminent traditional liquors, along with songhwadaeryeokju and bulloju. But the family has never attempted to brew the others due to the difficulty of preparation. For instance, finding a century-old pine tree, growing where no hens can be heard in the distance is a precondition to making songhwadaeryeokju. Only then can a fermentation jar be placed beneath the roots of this pine tree.
Bulloju, meanwhile, contains snakes, insects and frogs among its ingredients. Furthermore, it takes about three years to make. Naturally, the lengthy process exposes the drink to a high risk of rotting.
“I only have heard of those,” said Mr. Kim, who has learned the secrets of making baekhwaju from his mother and plans to pass down his knowledge just like his ancestors did to him.

by Heo Si-myung

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