The Sool Gallery Sansawon is bar-none the best bang for your buck if you have any interest in doing a booze tour in South Korea. Earlier in the year, Takjoo Journals shared a Korea Herald article detailing one reporter’s visit, which you can find here. Basically, Sansawon is a museum dedicated to traditional Korean alcohol (i.e., sool) and it was created by Baesangmyun Brewery, the minds behind your favorite and mine: Neurin Maeul. Visitors can’t see the brewery itself, but the displays dedicated to Korean brewing and to Bae Sang-myun’s work are nothing short of fascinating.
Since it had been almost two years since our last visit, we decided to head back to hit the limitless tasting room—yes, limitless!—and to do something for the site. Before we get a glimpse of Sansawon, here’s some information if you’re planning a visit.
KOREAN NAME: 전통술 박물관 산사원
ADDRESS: 25, Hwadong-ro 432beon-gil, Hwahyeon-myeon, Pocheon-si, Gyeonggi-do
(경기도, 포천시, 화현면, 화동로432번길 25)
HOURS: 8:30 am-5:30 pm (closed on major holidays)
ENTRANCE FEE: ₩2,000
DIRECTIONS BY BUS: From Dong Seoul Bus Terminal, Sangbong Bus Terminal, or Uijeongbu Intercity Bus Terminal, take the bus to Ildong Bus Terminal in Pocheon. From Ildong Bus Terminal, take Bus #66, #5, or #7 and get off at Hwahyeon 3-ri (화현 3리). Walk south about 5 minutes and Sansawon will be on your left.
ENGLISH TOURS: Be advised! Nearly all information in Sansawon is in Korean. You may not even find a staff member who speaks English. If you’re looking for a fuller tour experience, you should contact the Makgeolli Mamas & Papas Korea (MMPK) and see if they have any upcoming tours you can join. Here’s a link to the tour scheduled for September 6, 2016.
BREWING ARTIFACTS GALLERY
The gallery begins with a display of the tools necessary for the craft of making sool, or Korean alcohol. Here you can find small scythes for harvesting rice, threshing mats, Korean clay pots called hangari, nuruk molds, wicker yongsu used to separate cheongju from takju, and the device used to distill soju known as sojutgori.
Moving into the next room brings you to the texts, maps, and dioramas. I can’t speak to the authenticity of any of these books but they seem incredibly old. And cool! Just looking at them, I was struck by how much brewing knowledge is probably stored in these venerable tomes. On the other side of the bookcase, a map of Korea hangs on the wall. It’s stylized, made to look like a map you might find in one of the nearby books. Running out from the map like spiderwebs, lines of text indicate the name of the alcohol that each area is famous for. Samhaeju in Seoul; Okroju in Yongin; Gayagokwangju in Nonsan; Gamjasul in Pyongchang; Omegisul in Jeju; and the list goes on. I immediately wished I had a print of my own! The spinning diorama is next. It dominates the room, slowly turning so you can follow the process of making Korean traditional alcohol from harvesting the rice to pouring the finished product. While dioramas don’t sound particularly cool to the modern museum-goer, this one felt different, perhaps because of the size and the novelty of seeing the brewing process spin out before me.
Finally, this portion of the gallery ends with some examples of pouring and drinking vessels used throughout the ages. There’s also a selection of ye olde refrigeratores on display.
THE TASTING ROOM
Okay, let’s just admit it: we didn’t come all the way out to Pocheon for musty books and dioramas. I mean, history is great and all, especially if it’s the history of alcohol, but… We. Want. BOOZE!
Well, you’re not going to be disappointed. The thing that makes the tasting room so unique is that you can pour your own. And Sansawon’s not skimping: you can try every single thing Baesangmyun makes: Neurin Maeul, Neurin Maeul ihwaju, Sansachun, R4 rice beer, Daedaepo, Chalyesul, Ssanghwaju, and a dozen other products of theirs I’ve never seen. A small snack bar sits off to the side, weakly encouraging you to stay sober.
Taking a woozy walk around, you can see the Wall of Korean Alcohol as well as the VIP Cellar where Sansawon members can have their own private recipe made and stored for fermentation.
Almost anything in the Tasting Room is available for sale at the counter. You can also buy Bae Sang-myun’s “fool proof” nuruk—I was literally told that my brew would not fail if I used it! I can’t remember the specifics but I think it is like ₩3,000 for about 45 grams.
BAE SANG-MYUN HALL OF FAME
The last bit before you leave the gallery is, for some reason, my favorite (that is, after the tasting room). Across from the hall, there is a square room with an impossibly high ceiling. The walls have been plastered with what look to be handwritten notes; I assume they’re from the old man himself. I’m not sure what they call this room but, if it had a few more strings crisscrossing the scribblings on the wall, I’d call it the Beautiful Mind Room. In one corner is a plexiglass case with Bae’s desk, his notebooks, and various other keepsakes that represent his work. But if your eyes can settle on only one thing, it is the glowing pillar in the center of the room. Upon closer inspection, it is the nuruk that made Baesangmyun Brewery Baesangmyun Brewery. It is lit almost as if from within to highlight, I suspect, its perfectness, its infallibility.
Exiting the room, the hallway wall features a large timeline of Bae’s life, each achievement neatly detailed. Before you leave the building, you’ll pass one last room that’s set up as a sort of lab. You can see some jars, labeled bottles of liquid, brewing equipment, and even a batch of makgeolli bubbling away.
The last, or possibly first, place you’ll encounter on your visit is Sansa Garden. The massive grounds mean that you will find the perfect place to sip a glass of sool on a temperate day. At the upper end of the park sits the Ugokru building. The first floor offers visitors a place to lay out a picnic or just get out of the elements for a bit. The second floor is open to give a better view of the grounds. Winding away from Ugokru is a stream that leads to a pond and an open-air pavilion called Chuiseongak; it is an exact replica of another much-loved pavilion found in Damyang. Across from the pavilion is a replica of a nuruk wharehouse. Finally, Sansa Garden is bordered by Sewollang, a roofed area that houses dozens of giant hangari. According to the site, “All the liquor of Sewollang will be matured while listening to your footsteps and laughter to become truly precious traditional liquor with unique aroma.”