Insamju Is a Korean Ginseng Liquor Often Overlooked by Younger Generations
With 2020 helping us all refocus and reprioritize, it could be the year to finally give this drink a try.
Take a close look into the backgrounds of Korean living rooms around the world, and there’s a good chance your eyes will eventually come across a large jar with what appears to be a long white root suspended in clear liquid. Whether homemade or store-bought, this is insamju, a cherished ginseng liquor believed to hold medicinal properties and health benefits, and an item Koreans like to show off to impress houseguests.
“We had one in our china cabinet for years,” says Carol Pak, the Korean American founder and creator of Korean rice beer, Makku, when recalling her childhood home in Queens, New York. “But my parents never drank it,” she adds. “I guess it was a gift from someone and I assumed it’s good for you.”
While Pak’s memory of her parents’ insamju collecting dust is burned into her brain, as an adult, she’s still yet to ever have tasted or tried the drink. But her relationship with insamju is not an uncommon one, because for the majority of Koreans in their thirties and younger, while the recollection of seeing it around the house during childhood is common, it remains mostly as an obscure artifact sitting on parents’ shelves.
In a country that has over 2,000 kinds of traditional liquors, it’s no surprise that South Koreans love to drink. In fact, they produce the most popular spirit in the world, soju. And drinking is very much ingrained into Korean culture, with plenty of rules, customs, and even new vernacular being generated on the regular (somaek, anyone?). But even in a nation with millions of potential imbibers, insamju has yet to make its mark beyond an association with elders consuming it for health purposes.
The history of insamju’s main ingredient, ginseng, dates back to more than 1,500 years ago in Korea. A common folktale links ginseng’s origins to this period, where in the mountainous region of Geumsan county, a man used the root to help cure his mother of different ailments. It’s been thought of as a super food since then, with Koreans identifying it as a medicinal herb used to strengthen the immune system—especially to ward off colds and sickness—in addition to improving overall strength. The Korean liquor of insamju dates back to the 14th century and is made with ginseng and soju, offering a smooth taste with a slightly herbal quality. While there are many varieties of it on the market, the version made with ginseng from Geumsan, Geumsan insamju, is considered to be one of the most prized selections available. Special ingredients like nuruk (a Korean fermentation starter) and processes including a low temperature fermentation cycle lasting more than five years are just some of the factors considered as its standout qualities.
But insamju’s strong association with health and vigor can also explain its low appeal to a younger generation simply looking to party it up. “Ginseng itself has an image as a food that we only eat for healthy-eating purposes,” says Jaeook Lee, cofounder of Sooldamhwa, a Korean traditional alcohol subscription service startup in Korea. “There’s no joy in it, so naturally, drinking insamju translates to eating something like medicine.” And according to Lee, the liquor’s image as a “medicinal alcohol” is what makes it a treasured gift to grandparents and elders. As a liquid greeting card with the sentiments of “live long” and “stay healthy,”—the same messaging, unsurprisingly, has little resonance to twenty-somethings.
For Lee, the few times a year he does have insamju is when he eats samgyetang, a dish sometimes referred to as “Korean ginseng chicken soup.” Lauded for its nourishing qualities and often enjoyed during the hottest days of summer (Koreans commonly consume hot soups during peak summer months because it’s believed to help cool off the body), samgyetang comprises of a whole chicken stuffed with healthy ingredients like ginseng and jujubes, before being boiled to perfection. To maximize the soup’s ginseng attributes, insamju is traditionally paired along with it, and some Korean restaurants will even offer complimentary insamju when ordering the dish.
However, even with its long history of being overlooked and misunderstood by younger generations, 2020 has the potential to start a new chapter for insamju. Since the onset of COVID-19 earlier this year, learning to balance health with the small pleasures that help keep us sane, has become more important than ever. And for people like Natalie Camerino, the founder of newly-opened NYC Korean-inspired concept, Umma by Noodlove, insamju claims a standard she’s come to appreciate. “I love the idea of incorporating medicinal herbs into our rituals for their health benefits,” says Camerino, whose mother is Korean and father is Italian American. “When I think of insamju, I think of the various traditional Korean beliefs and practices related to food and beverage. I am deeply inspired by many of these culinary philosophies relating to nature and well-being,” she adds.
Carol Pak also sees insamju’s potential in a landscape that might have not been possible before this year. “There is a huge trend of health and wellness that you see affecting the alcoholic beverage market,” she says. Using hard seltzer, low and no alcoholic beer, and hard kombucha as examples, she adds: “If it tasted ok and the branding was relevant, I could see the appeal.” Lucas Lee also thinks if it was positioned as “cool” or something to help alleviate hangovers (a viewpoint widely believed by many Koreans), and packaged inside bottles with a modern design, it could help insamju reach a new age group of customers. “The bottle designs must change,” he says.
And with Lee’s stance being, generally, a quite common one, the good news is, the Korean government has set in motion a plan to address the frequently held opinion. Through the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation, they’re teaming up with small breweries to implement bottle redesigns and improve market outreach to engage the next generation of potential insamju drinkers. And if there’s anything that 2020 has shown us in recent times, it’s that with hard work and a dedicated course of action, anything is possible.