(Originally published February 2015)
This is a fun character. You will recognize its Japanese pronunciation immediately – “sake”. In Korean it is pronounced 주 (“Ju”). The character can refer to any type of liquor or wine but unlike Japanese sake, in Korean this character is never used alone (we say 술 or “Sul” for liquor). It is instead found in compound words like 맥주(“Maek-ju”- beer) and 소주 (“Soju”).
소주 (“Soju”) is Korea’s most infamous liquor, although it is also extremely popular in Japan, where it is called “Sho-chu”. The word is a compound of 2 characters. The first one, 燒 (소 “So”) means to ‘burn’, ‘bake’, ‘heat’, or ‘roast’. The second one is the character for liquor, 酒 (주 “Ju”). Could the name refer to a burning sensation when drinking it? Soju has been in Korea for a long time. According to Wikipedia:
“Soju was first distilled around the 13th century, during the Mongol invasions of Korea. The Mongols had acquired the technique of distilling Arak during their invasion of Central Asia and the Middle East around 1256. It was subsequently introduced to the Koreans, and distilleries were set up around the city of Kaesong. In the surrounding areas of Kaesong, soju is known as arak-ju (hangul: 아락주).”
The Korean word for beer is 맥주 (麥酒 – “Maek-ju”). The first character 麥 (맥 “Maek”) means ‘barley’ (which is the key ingredient in beer). When combine with the second character 酒 (주 “Ju” – ‘liquor’) the result is a compound word which literally means ‘Barley-Liquor’.
The Korean word 양주 (“Yang-Ju”) refers to any hard liquor that isn’t soju (Like whiskey, vodka, rum, etc.). The first character 洋 (양 “Yang”) means ‘western’, so 양주 (“Yang-Ju”) literally means “Western-Liquor”.
No discussion of alcohol would be complete without mentioning 안주 (“Ahn-ju”), the snacks and munchies that are served with alcoholic beverages in Korea. The origins of this term are a bit obscure, as the first character in this word, 按 (안 “Ahn”) means to ‘put your hands on’ or ‘press’.
Don’t forget to say 건배 (乾杯 – “Geon-bae”) when you lift your glass. It means ‘Cheers!’ and is a compound word made up of 2 characters. The first character 乾 (건”Geon”) means ‘dry’, and the second character 杯 (배 “Bae”) means ‘cup’ or ‘glass’. So “건배!” means drink until your glass is dry! This word will get you far, because it is also used in China and Japan. In Cantonese they say “Gom bui!”, Mandarin “Gan bei!”, and Japanese “Kampai!”
Who ever said learning Hanja couldn’t be fun? I hope learning this character will make it a little easier the next time you need to order alchohol in Korea. Have a word or character that you would like to know more about? Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
These pictures were taken at Zion market in San Diego. Notice that both bottle have the character 酒 on them!