A note on names: If the bottle has a romanised name on it, that is usually the name listed here. Other names are either romanised or translated here, whichever seems like a better idea. Accuracy is unfortunately not guaranteed.
A Korean traditional folk liquor (that means it has fancy packaging and costs ten times as much as regular Korean liquor), the 12th intangible cultural asset of Kyungsangbuk-do. The aroma is unfortunately unpleasant, like rice liquor gone wrong. The taste, however, is mild, and like rice liquor gone right. Very up-front, at 45% alcohol, it forces attention without too much sharpness. This is a well-distilled beauty, made by Jo Ok-Hwa, from rice and wheat malt to a recipe handed down from the Koryo dynasty. Excellent. Excessively cutesy bottle, though. As is usual for Korean folk liquors, it "does not accompany hangover or headache even with the high alcohol content."
Chon Ju Lee Gang Ju:
A very traditional Korean liquor, supposedly quite good for one's health, to retain your energy level and keep your stomach strong. It has a mild but quite distinctive flavour, suggestive of rice and millet, and an irreproachable smoothness elevates it above its modern mass-market counterparts (and for the price, one would hope so). Once one is accustomed to the taste, this goes down very easily. A bit too mild and innocuous for its own good. 25% alcohol.
Darng Jung Ok Lo Ju:
Traditional Korean folk liquor, from Kyung-gi Do. Made from rice and Job's tears. Pleasant aroma, and a fairly sharp sour taste - smells better than it tastes. Not bad, with a nice aftertaste. I'm told this has a good reputation among Korean folk liquors, but didn't feel it stood above its competitors. 45% alcohol. "Rare in the world, also has yul-mu (Job's tears)"
Golden Flower Kao Liang Chiew:
From Tianjin, in the P.R. of China. A solid, full-bodied flavour typical of kao liang chiew (sorghum liquor). Quite forceful and sharp, but still pleasantly drinkable. Dubious packaging, with the flimsiest plastic stopper possible, that ejects itself after a few minutes. Obviously meant to all be drunk in one sitting. 49% alcohol.
Certainly drinkable, but not great. A little sharp, and light in flavour. The manufacturer, Doosan Kyungwoul, claims that it's the most popular Korean distilled spirit. 25% alcohol, and not at all green.
Jinro 1988 Korean Liquor:
Seems to be the regular (export) Jinro Korean Liquor, specially bottled for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Tastes the same, at any rate.
This soju, Jinro's basic Korean mass-market soju, is enormously popular; this one was a big seller and looked very much like the standard that the others are compared to (though probably considered old-fashioned by the youngsters). A nice flavour, very much like a low-proof east European vodka. A surprising amount of burn in the aftertaste considering the low alcohol content (23%). Filtered through bamboo charcoal. Available everywhere in Korea in bottles and little cardboard cartons, and sometimes to be found overseas. Complete with a very healthy toad on the label.
Jinro Chamnamoo Soju:
Jinro Chamnamoo Soju, aka Jinro Premium Oak Soju is an unusual soju. Made from pure grain alcohol and rice liquor and aged for a year in used whiskey barrels. It has a strong flavour (for soju), and a mild sweet/sour sake-like aroma. It's a little sweet, and definitely nice. If it's not chilled, it has quite a burning aftertaste. This is a "premium soju," so it costs about 25% more than the regular soju, but is still very cheap. Available at both 24% & 25% alcohol.
Tastes very much like the standard Jinro soju (ie Jinro Chamjinisulro), but 25% alcohol instead of 23% (I couldn't tell them apart by taste, at least not by the third bottle). A good drop. Jinro claims this is the most popular soju brand in Korea.
Jinro Korean Liquor:
Proudly proclaimed as "One of the World's Best Selling Spirits" (and selling over 40 million cases a year, why not?), this is made from neutral grain spirit (rectified high-proof rice spirit), sugar and citric acid diluted down to 24% alcohol. It's an easily drinkable and quite fresh-tasting little number, lightly sweet with a lemon overtone. This is aimed squarely at the export market (especially Japan); I couldn't find this one at all in Korea, Jinro Chamjinisulro is the big seller there. This one is the one with red and yellow label and red cap, green 375 ml bottle. Jinro calls it Jinro Soju (International Brand), the label says Jinro Korean Liquor.
T *** S **
A "soft & easy" soju. Quite neutral in aroma, which is good, because it doesn't smell nice at all. Drinkable chilled (the traditional way), but barely so at room temperature. A Kirov vodka of soju. Avoid this, there's much better out there. 23%, usually 360 ml.
Smells like a mild East European vodka, and tastes like it, too. Nice, pleasant and easy to drink. A solid performer, though not exceptional. 25% alcohol.
A traditional Korean royal court liquor, also known as Kyeryoung Soju. Distilled from a mixture of glutinous rice, rice, malt, pine needles, red flower (?), Maximowiczia chinensis fruit, azalea, chrysanthemum and honey. It has a light piney fragrance, and a light (and quite unique) taste. Fairly neutral at first, and then the pine comes out, followed by a strange gritty aftertaste. Interesting, and nice. But then, I like retsina, so I'm not at all bothered by the pine. 40% alcohol.
Mei Kuei Lu Chiew (cooking version):
500 ml bottle
Chinese alcohol, smells like rosewater. This was a cheap version for cooking (apparently there is one intended for drinking which is supposedly quite good), with 1.5% salt added. I thought it might be OK for making Indian-style rosewater drinks, but it's a bit salty. High proof. Glen: "Good God!"
T ** G (unrated - the smell was enough)
Moon Bae Sool:
A very traditional Korean liquor. Distilled from millet and sorghum, the packaging claims that this delciacy is hangover-proof (Anybody care to test this claim?). In a square china bottle, this is strongly flavoured, with a very distinctive taste and aroma showing its milletish origins clearly. I'd guess that this is distilled to a low proof and bottled undiluted, or almost undiluted. Smooth and well-made, 40% alcohol, and beautifully packaged.
T *** S ***
A "well-known liquor," this is a Kanggye specialty from the D.P.R.K. (aka North Korea). Shoddy packaging, with a bottle full of defects (at least no holes beyond the necessary one) and a cap that guarantees it will leak in your luggage, hides a truly impressive liquor. A very attractive aroma, with a flavour to match, and a very nice lingering aftertaste. This is stunningly good. As an added bonus, if you drink it, you get to live for a hundred years (thus the name, which means "hundred-years liquor"). 40% alcohol.
From North Korea, this spirit is pale brown, with a reddish tinge. I thought this tasted like rice liquor with a strange sweetish overtone, rice liquor flavoured with something. But apparently claims to be made from 100% gathered-in-the-wild tuljjuk berries. Strongly flavoured, with a pleasant sweet aftertaste, it's not bad at all, very nice even, though it won't be to everybody's tastes. Recommended to be drunk chilled. Paektusan, the highest mountain in all of Korea, is the legendary birthplace of Tan-gun, the mythical founder of the Korean nation.
Pearl River Bridge Cooking Rice Liquor:
600 ml bottle
From our favorite soy sauce makers comes the cheapest 76 proof vodka we've ever seen, at $2 a litre. If you want a good cheap spirit for cooking, this Chinese rice spirit can't be too far from what you need. As it is not for use as a beverage, it comes with the usual heavy dose of salt. Glen - Na, this is going too far!
T * G (huh!)
Pearl River Bridge Kiu Kang Shuang Jin Chiew:
It's clear, it's aromatic, and it doesn't seem very strong. Still, it's got a lot of burn. Drinkable in small quantities (well, large quantities, too, if you try), and strangely refreshing. Proof unknown, but probably fairly low.
Red Star Erguotou Chiew:
Strong, and much smoother than expected; this is very easy drinking firewater. Very noticeable flavour and aroma, but not overpowering, approaching mildness even. This kaoliang chiew (sorghum liquor) is a popular and well-known brand, from Beijing. 56% alcohol, and perhaps not for the faint-hearted.
Third Grade Fresh Double Strength Chinese Health Liquor:
Despite the long name (hopefully a correct translation from Chinese via Korean to English), this Chinese sorghum liquor is a simple drink. Smells rather innocuous, but kicks like an angry mule when you drink it. Definitely for the strong-stomached - full-on, high-potency Chinese fire-water. The aftertaste will linger for a few hours. Drinkable, unpretentious, industrial, and certainly effective at 56% alcohol.
This soju is distinguished by its glossy ad campaign and clear bottle. Seems to be aimed at the fashionable young adult market. Other than that, its a very middle-of-the-road soju. Fairly neutral with a not-pleasant finish. Mediocre, but drinkable. 23% alcohol.