Health Tonics Go Alcoholic: Winemakers See Big Profits In Stress on Healthy Drinking

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Health Tonics Go Alcoholic: Winemakers See Big Profits In Stress on Healthy Drinking

Koreans have a reputation of showing an exaggerated interest in their health. Middle-aged men, especially, seem to be willing to try almost anything if it claims to be good for their well-being. This explains the craze for various kinds of traditional eastern medicines in Korea. Most popular are invigorants, called boyak in Korean, which are simmered with great care for hours. It's almost like a ritual to drink eastern medicine concoctions to recover or maintain one's health.

These days, products used in eastern medicine are being used for making alcoholic drinks as well. Aimed at those who want to have it both ways - an alcoholic haze and good health - Korean distillers offer a number of alcoholic drinks distilled using special recipes that include medicinal roots and herbs. Given the social climate, the success of these medicinal wines was almost guaranteed.

The most popular among these products is called Baekseju. It was created by Bae Sang-myoun, chairman of the Kook Soon Dang brewing company, in 1994. This golden-colored wine is distilled from unsteamed, powdered rice and leaven, and, like most wines, is 13 percent alcohol. It also uses 10 kinds of natural products, including ginseng, Chinese matrimony vine, arrowroot and milk vetch root. The recipe, Mr. Bae says, is secret, but is based on traditional wine making arts. Kook Soon Dang claims that Baekseju is a medicinal wine as a result of its ingredients: Ginseng is known for its restorative effects, while Chinese matrimony vine and milk vetch root are said to be effective as tonics. Arrowroot is claimed to be good for easing the aftereffects of alcohol, which leads to intriguing relativistic questions about whether you can create the conditions for a hangover at the same time you are recovering from it - before it strikes.

Jang Seung-jin, the marketing manager at Kook Soon Dang, claims that these wines are indeed good for you. "You will experience less of a hangover in the morning and have some other positive effects from eastern medicines," he said. That Kook Soon Dang has succeeded in winning over Koreans is apparent in their net profit of 12 billion won ($9.2 million) in 2000. Given that their product was only released in the market in 1996, this is a huge success in the Korean brewing industry.

Bae Sang-myoun, the man behind the success of Baekseju, is also the chairman of another distillery. In 1996 he created recipes for another batch of medicinal wines inspired by traditional recipes. He also created a number of other goods including alcoholic ice cream, which is something you may not want to think about if the Baekseju you drank the night before somehow didn't prevent its own hangover.

Five wines were introduced to the market in 1999. Among them is Hwaleen 18-Pum, an upgraded version of Baekseju, which is made from 18 kinds of medicinal plants.

Other brewing companies, such as Doosan, have taken a good look at this growing market. Doosan released a new drink called Gunju in April. "We created Gunju from a special recipe for the royal family," said Lee Byung-sang, a Doosan employee.

So if you offer your friends one of those medicinal wines, you may get a reputation as a person who is solicitous enough to think of others' health. But think twice about the alcoholic ice cream.

by Chun Su-jin

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