The Impossible Quest for North Korea’s Ever-Elusive Hangover-Free Booze

by Josh Schollmeyer

On the mornings when my head pounds the hardest after a long night of drinking, I often think of two things: Will I throw up the Gatorade I just spent two hours building up the stamina to get from the refrigerator—and why couldn’t last night’s bender have been in Pyongyang?

Maybe it’s all relative, considering the crazy shit the Kim family typically gives itself credit for — e.g., the ability to control the weather, the discovery of a unicorn lair and the lack of a need to urinate or defecate — but inventing a hangover-free North Korean booze doesn’t seem that insane. First of all, there’s a British dude who’s made it his life’s work to rid the world of hangovers by 2050 via something called alcosynth, a mere 33 years away. Plus, repressive regimes have had moments of ingenuity in the past. Two recent examples: The Soviets pioneered Lasik, and the Cubans allegedly discovered a vaccine for lung cancer.

And so, despite a hemisphere-to-hemisphere eyeroll from the international media when North Korea announced in January 2016 that it had developed a kind of liquor that was all party, no cleanup, it seemed plausible enough. (Admittedly not as plausible: The DPRK’s earlier claims that some of the medicinal properties contained therein could also successfully treat SARS and AIDS.) Moreover, the regime credited the ginseng that infused the booze (called Koryo Liquor) as the hangover cure-all — a claim that also isn’t as bat-shit crazy as it seems, since scientists have long studied ginseng’s health benefits. A fact from WebMD, not state-run media.

The ginseng in question is considered legit as well — an actual North Korean-produced good many people would go out of their way to purchase and something the rest of the world would gladly import, if not for the draconian international sanctions imposed because of of Pyonyang’s nuclear program.

Calling bullshit (or propaganda) on the idea that you can’t get hung over in North Korea would be as easy as me downing a bottle of Koryo and seeing what happens in the morning. But therein lies the rub: In all the coverage of it (and pretty much everyone in the world covered it — an outrageous promise that was easy to both laugh at and dream on), it appeared as though no one could ever get their hands on it. In fact, by my count, there have been only four people who have come close — and three of them were these American soldiers who went to the DMZ and came back with a red-label, off-brand version (i.e., not Koryo, but something similar and definitely of DPRK origin):

The other is Elliott Davies, a world traveler who chronicles his continent-hopping on the website Earth Nutshell. Unlike the trio of American military personnel, he got the real thing — 86-proof Kaesong Koryo Insam Liquor. “It was purchased from a supermarket in Pyongyang where I was told I was the second foreigner to be allowed inside,” he writes on his site.

“A plaque on the entrance denoted the dates both Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un had overseen the store. It’s illegal for foreigners to handle local currency. To pay, I had to line up, receive a receipt, then head over to the currency exchange booth offering unofficial, black market North Korean Won rates to make the payment before heading back to collect my goods and finally back to the booth to collect my change in three different currencies, almost certainly wrong, as usual.”

“The alcohol was also a smash hit with the Korean People’s Army General who searched by luggage on departure from North Korea in Sinuiju,” he continues. “Smiles weren’t derived effortlessly in North Korea, but after the General discovered this magical box, it resulted in one of absolute approval… which was quickly wiped from his face when I refused to offer it as a bribe.”…



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