Rare Korean liquor offers a glimpse of life as a Joseon scholar

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Rare Korean liquor offers a glimpse of life as a Joseon scholar

Ellyeop Pyunjoo is being made at Nongam Jongtaek in Andong, North Gyeongsang. [ELLYEOP PYUNJOO]

Ellyeop Pyunjoo is being made at Nongam Jongtaek in Andong, North Gyeongsang. [ELLYEOP PYUNJOO]

 
If you're looking to drink like a Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) poet, Ellyeop Pyunjoo might just be the tipple for you.
 
Korean society has long moved on from the aristocratic gat hats and long afternoons spent philosophizing by rivers, but that doesn't mean that you can't still briefly step into the life of a Joseon scholar — or at least share a drink with them at Nongnam Jongtaek, home of Ellyeop Pyunjoo.
 
Korean drinks don't come much more authentic, or much rarer, than Ellyeop Pyunjoo, a Joseon spirit that has been handed down through the generations of a single family and only recently launched to the public.

 
The family behind the drink also comes with an impressive pedigree. Descendants of Joseon era scholar Yi Hyeon-bo, whose pen name was Nongam, have passed the recipe down by word of mouth for generations, and still keep it within the family today.
 
Adding to its literary credentials, Nongam is said to have often sat down for a cup or two and, presumably, a deep philosophical discussion with legendary Joseon era scholar Yi Hwang, better known by his pen name Toegye. The two were neighbors in Andong, North Gyeongsang, where the drink is still made today.
 
The Chinese writing of the drink Ellyeop Pyunjoo, written by Joseon era scholar Yi Hwang, better known for his pen name Toegye. [ELLYEOP PYEONJOO]

The Chinese writing of the drink Ellyeop Pyunjoo, written by Joseon era scholar Yi Hwang, better known for his pen name Toegye. [ELLYEOP PYEONJOO]

Even today, the writing printed on the label of a bottle of Ellyeop Pyunjoo is said to have been written by Toegye himself as a gift for Nongam.  

 
Ellyeop Pyunjoo means a small leaf-life boat that’s floating on the water.
 
For centuries, Nongam's descendants kept the recipe to themselves, only using the drink for family rituals. Last year they went commercial, putting bottles on the market for the first time.
 
Today Ellyeop Pyunjoo is made by Lee Won-jeong, the wife of one of Nongam's descendants, who learned the recipe from her mother-in-law after she married into the family. Her own daughter-in-law, Kwon Jan-di, will likely learn how to make the drink in the future. In the meantime, Kwon takes care of designing the packaging and promoting the drink.
 
A bottle of Ellyeop Pyeonjoo [ELLYEOP PYEONJOO]

A bottle of Ellyeop Pyeonjoo [ELLYEOP PYEONJOO]

To make the drink, Lee first makes a nuruk, the live culture that forms the basis of fermentation in many Korean drinks, using rice and water. The fermentation process takes about a month, after which she is left with two layers — both alcoholic — a clear liquid on the top and a cloudy liquid underneath.
 
The clear liquid is cheongju and the cloudy liquid is takju. Both are bottled by hand, labeled and then ready to sell. Because everything is done by hand, Ellyeop Pyunjoo is only ever available in small batches. Every bottle is also likely to be slightly different due to the changing environment as it is made, and the drink will age and the taste change over time.
 
Besides the two, the rice winery also offers a distilled soju, which is the rarest of the three as it takes time for the liquid to slowly pass through a distiller.  
 
The winery explained that making drinks is like raising a baby as it requires constant care. Lee listens to the sound of the drinks fermenting as the bubbles pop in the hangari, or porcelain pots, she uses, and often takes the time to tell them how lovely they are to encourage the drink to ferment well. 
 
She keeps a journal to write down any abnormality she sees so as not to repeat any mistake made in the process. Lee declined to be photographed, saying she is just the caretaker of the drink, and Ellyeop Pyunjoo should get all the spotlight.
The landscape in front of Nongam Jongtaek, home of Ellyeop Pyunjoo, has become the motif for the label of the fermented rice drink. [ELLYEOP PYEONJOO]

The landscape in front of Nongam Jongtaek, home of Ellyeop Pyunjoo, has become the motif for the label of the fermented rice drink. [ELLYEOP PYEONJOO]

 
The drink is now distributed to about 30 different outlets across the country, including major Michelin-starred restaurants like Mingles, Mosu and Kwon Sook Soo. 
 
Whenever there is enough in stock, the brewery puts up a notice on Instagram so that individuals can purchase a bottle to try it at home. Each time sales start, bottles sell out almost immediately. 
 
Kim Jin-ho, a sommelier at Mingles, said both the packaging and the subtle hint of fruit flavors in the drink is popular with diners. In fact, Ellyeop Pyunjoo is so popular that the winery has never attempted to sell the drink, with industry experts finding their own way to Andong to try and secure some bottles.
 
The bottle itself is a work of art. Kwon worked at a local art gallery before joining the family business, and carried that heritage into her work with Ellyeop Pyunjoo.
 
Ellyeop Pyunjoo rice winery in Andong, North Gyeongsang [LEE SUN-MIN]

Ellyeop Pyunjoo rice winery in Andong, North Gyeongsang [LEE SUN-MIN]

The design of the bottle is based on Andong and specifically the Nongam's home. The black and white label took its motif from the cliff and the river right in front of the hanok home where the drink is made, and the rough-textured hanji, a traditional Korean paper, adds more character with writings from Toegye helping drinkers time travel back to the Joseon era.

 
“If we were to put our drink in a container, we thought we might as well do so in a pretty packaging with everything we could see within reach of our home,” said Kwon. "I have imagined how people in the ancient era had a fun time drinking and writing a poem, so I wanted to write 'Be a poet' on Instagram post to encourage others to be someone creative and have their own fun time drinking and talking."
 
A special edition with a more colorful label is on the way. This will be a kkotsul, a rice drink fermented with flowers. Lee gathered wild flowers grown around her home in Andong in spring and used them to add floral and honey-like notes to the drink. This particular drink will go on sale on July 3 and July 10 at 9 p.m. through the company's website. The limited edition only comes in 500 bottles.
 
Another thing the winery is trying out is aging its drink in oak barrels. Collaborating with Three Societies Distillery, one of the Korea's single malt distilleries, the winery put its drink in one barrel. Since it is still checking when the drink will be ready, the exact release date has not yet been unveiled.
 
Rice winery Ellyeop Pyunjoo collates with chocolatier Adore to make soju-flavored chocolate. [ELLYEOP PYUNJOO]

Rice winery Ellyeop Pyunjoo collates with chocolatier Adore to make soju-flavored chocolate. [ELLYEOP PYUNJOO]

It doesn’t stop at drinks. Ellyeop Pyunjoo has also added its flavors to make chocolate as well. 
 
After just making a small amount to share with close friends, the winery decided to produce teardrop-shaped chocolate with Seoul chocolatier Adore in June. Just like the black and white color seen in the bottle, the chocolate is made in the same color pattern and filled with its soju. 
 
The chocolate box takes inspiration from the 1526 painting of Buncheonheonyeondo, Korea's Treasure No. 1202. Kwon said she has been collecting a list of other shops she wants to work with to create something new and different. Needless to say, the chocolate sold out immediately after the release early last month.
 
 
Although it is not easy to secure a bottle online, it is very easy for overnight guests at Nongam Jongtaek, the hanok guesthouse the family run.
 
All guests need to do is ask what's available, and they can buy a bottle of cheongju or takju for 30,000 won each, with soju costing 70,000 won. Many take the purchased bottles out to the river to get the full Joseon scholar experience. Overnight guests can even ask to taste each drink if buying a whole bottle is a bit too much.
 
Nongam Jongtaek moved to its current location when the village it stood in was to be flooded with the construction of the Andong Dam in 1976. Lee Sung-won, the head of the family at the time, brought together the scattered homes and ancestral shrines of the family, moving them to their current location which a river in front and the mountain at the back.
 
Nongam Jongtaek [LEE SUN-MIN]

Nongam Jongtaek [LEE SUN-MIN]

To keep the hanok alive, the family decided to open the doors and run the premise as a hanok guesthouse. The cheapest room starts from 50,000 won for an overnight stay for two people, while there are pricier options if people want to use the entire building with unhindered view of the nature. 
 
Even if you don’t stay overnight, you can take a look around the premise between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., after check-out and before check-in. The river is of course open for anybody who passes by.
 
“Although many are so accustomed to life in an apartment complex in Korea, that’s not the lifestyle Koreans have had for centuries,” said Kwon, who’s focused on how to adjust what’s traditional so that the core essence of Korean heritage is kept in the life of modern day people.

 
“We continue to think about what we want to show our son, and how we can make what’s already ours as part of the future life of the next generation. It is like our homework to think about how to make what’s culturally ours more comfortable for the life of the current generation and the next for more sustainability.”
 
For more information about Ellyeop Pyunjoo, go to www.ellyeoppyunjoo.com, or visit @ricewinery on Instagram for more immediate alerts on new releases.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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