I’m not an avid soda or juice drinker, but I’ll be damned if I don’t love browsing the soft drink aisle of the Korean supermarket. There’s so much to examine and try, plus I find something about soft drinks that feels directly connected to the colorful pop culture of a place (pun intended).
Now I’m not talking about traditional beverages, like teas and formal drinks with a grand history behind them, I’m talking about the pure glee of a sweet, mass-produced liquid. Most Americans are used to shelves of corn syrup-flavored sodas, but you’ll will find that Korean soft drinks offer more in the dairy or cream department, nothing terribly sweet, along with a heavy showing for fruit-flavored drinks. If you wan to taste the soft-drink rainbow, Korean brands are where to start.
There’s no way I could have covered every single thing, but here’s an overview of some of my favorites.
Aloe-based beverages are popular in the States now, but you’ll see a large variety of them at the Korean grocery store, too. They’re filled with pulverized aloe bits and artificially flavored to taste like pretty much anything. The version I’m accustomed to has a distinct green grape flavor to it, but nowadays you’ll find multiple varieties.
I loved Bacchus-D as a kid, though my mother thought it was bad for me (it probably is). It tastes like an un-carbonated version of Red Bull mixed with a Flintstones vitamin pill’s metallic tang. It’s sold in 3.3 ounce glass bottles and is touted as a remedy for hangovers, though I can’t attest to that personally. There’s also a variety called Bacchus-F which has extra taurine—an amino acid—added to it.
Banana milk is hugely popular phenomenon in Korea. As its history goes, the original brand, Binggrae, started making banana-flavored milk to encourage people to drink more milk. Bananas were considered a high-end food then, so that was supposed to be part of the appeal. Turns out, the flavor stuck, and many Koreans drink banana milk religiously. It’s sweet, artificially-banana flavored, and goes well with snacks.
Sweetened soy milk is delicious—I’m partial to the black sesame variety. It’s smooth and rich, and the black sesame flavor has flavor parallels to chocolate. It’s worlds beyond the watery soy milk you get at American supermarkets because there’s actual fat in it.
When you see a Korean bottle labeled “cider,” don’t expect pressed apple juice. Instead, you’ll get a drink that’s akin to 7-Up or Sprite. The can you’re looking at now, Cheon Yeon Cider, has a light lemon-lime flavor that’s accented with a slight cream-soda note.
All of Asia has a love affair with pre-packaged coffee drinks, and Korea is no exception. Most of the coffee drinks lean towards the creamy variety with a delicate coffee flavor. More sweet and milky than bitter.
Morning Rice tastes like an entire pan of stovetop-cooked rice (toasted grains on the bottom and all), sweetened with rice syrup, paired with a gentle creaminess; it may be one of the most satisfying drinks on this list. It bears a similarity to toasted rice horchata, but minus the cinnamon. It’s touted as a breakfast beverage, and it almost feels illegal to drink it after morning. Unlike sodas, there’s something really nourishing about it.
When you think about yogurt, you’re probably thinking about the thick kind you’re used to scraping out of plastic containers, or maybe the drinkable kefir or lassis—which are also fairly thick. The liquid contained within these little guys is barely thicker than water, but very pleasantly tangy and barely sweet.
The interesting difference is that the dairy in these beverages comes from dry milk and not fresh milk. Don’t be surprised if you see these show up in your local supermarkets, as their popularity is growing.
Milkis is the lightly carbonated version of a standard yogurt drink. If you’ve never had any Korean soft drinks, I’d start with this one—it’s got the same bubbliness of Western soda along with the sweetness levels, but it’s got that twist with the light, tangy dairy flavor that makes it a great gateway drink. It pairs well with fruit; I’m partial to the melon and peach varieties.
Pororo is a popular Korean children’s cartoon about a little blue penguin who lives in a snowy forest. Adorable, I know. These are related to the yogurt drink I mentioned earlier, but you can’t miss the cute little squeeze bottles, which I see everywhere now. Along with the original milk favorite, there are variations like strawberry, apple, green grape, and tropical fruit.
Asian pears probably have more nicknames than I’ve seen for any other fruit—apple pears, Korean pears, Dennis Lee pears, etc. They’re prized because they’re large and juicy to the point of wateriness, with a sweet, snappy and sort of sand-like texture. You’ll see a lot of boxes of them around the holidays since they’re often given out as gifts. This canned juice has a light pear flavor and comes with enough pulp in it to remind you of its original texture.
I vowed (for the most part) to stay away from traditional Korean drinks such as teas, but I’m making an exception for shikhye. It’s a rice-based punch that my family often drinks at get-togethers. It’s slightly sweet with entire grains of soggy, cooked rice floating in it, which is my favorite part, since they absorb the malty water. If prepared in the traditional way, there’s no sugar added. The natural sweetness from the malt comes through when the rice liquid is reduced by a fair amount.
If you’re past the novice level of Korean beverage aisle browsing, then you’ll recognize the small cans of Sac Sac in either orange or grape flavors. The grape version is almost candy-like in flavor, and the orange one doesn’t stray far from there either. What you will notice between the two of them is the abundance of fruit pulp, which makes the drink almost like a snack as well as a drink.
Peach “water” is sort of a misnomer here. This drink is lightly sweetened (think Gatorade), but has a delicate peach flavor added. It’s great if you don’t want to commit to something terribly sweet. I secretly think it makes for a good hangover drink because it’s delicate and not heavy-handed on the sugar.