Filed Under Artwork

"An Advertisement for Soju"

Soju Bear presents!! Your favorite Soju drink now has a New Soju flavor. Rice soju developed and produced locally. Support your local village distillery!!!

Although alcohol was not typically sold this way before the modern period, this piece is meant to emphasize how versatile alcoholic beverages were throughout Korea’s history. By the Late Koryŏ period (1250s–1392s) there were over 25 varieties of liquor, rice being the most popular (75). The lettering of the word soju in the artwork is written in Korean letters. This artistic choice has many implications. While the Mongol period influence on alcoholic beverages in the East Asia peninsula was immense, soju eventually became a Korean product produced with techniques developed in Korea and made from resources in Korea. Moreover, in premodern Korea, Korean lettering, now known as hangul, occupied an informal written space and was reserved for household use (as opposed to Chinese lettering, which was more formal). Therefore this artistic choice alludes to the production of alcohol in households.

Historical Context:

The artwork was inspired by Hyunhee Park’s book, Soju: A Global History (Cambridge, 2021), which uses soju’s development through history to understand the first stages of globalization in world history. During the thirteenth and fourteenth century, the Mongols conquered Korea and China, spreading their dietary customs. Among one of these was the consumption of new varieties of alcoholic drinks. One of the first alcoholic beverages introduced by the Mongols was called, “kumiss” or “shobat,” made from the fermented milk of mare and camel, and contained low alcohol content, less than 10% (43). Soon after, they introduced imported liquors made of grapes. As new alcoholic drinks were introduced into the Eastern Asia peninsula, Korea also adopted new distillation methods that could create drinks with stronger alcohol content (47). They made their own versions of this stronger alcohol made of grains.

Before the introduction of distillation, the most popular drink in Korea was rice wine. As described on p.70, Korean rice wine (which is different from soju) was “milky, off white, slightly sweet, tangy, bitter, astringent taste.” After distillation practices were introduced, Koreans began to make, aralgil (the word is derived through Mongolian and Turkish the Arabic word arak, meaning “perspiration” 80), a distilled liquor made by portable stills. As a result, the new alcohol lasted longer and was more concentrated at 40% or higher alcohol content.

Koreans adopted these new technological advances. Korean stills are called “soju kori”  and in the Chosŏn period, many families typically owned a still. Alcohol was used for medicine, spiritual and other social practices. As its popularity grew, drinking became more frequent, some even attended several drinking parties in one day (76). In conclusion, changes in the uses of alcohol and the evolution of techniques for making alcohol give us an understanding of the relationships that pre-modern Korea had with its neighbors as well as how soju became what it is today, Korea’s National Drink. 

Images

"An advertisement for soju" Acrylic on Canvas Creator: Nancy Santos Date: March 2024

Metadata

Nancy Santos, “"An Advertisement for Soju",” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 12, 2024, https://koreanhistory.humspace.ucla.edu/items/show/91.