After observing the news coverage of North Korea threatening the USA with thermonuclear war, I couldn't help but wonder what this strange country was like to visit for a holiday. So, I booked a trip with a tour company called Young Pioneer Tours and flew from Beijing to the North Korean capital Pyongyang with Air Koryo recently voted the world’s worst airline.
Here I was in one of the world’s most secretive countries, a state surrounded with mystery. One thing I did know about North Korea was that the late leader Kim Jong-Il had a taste for fine wine and his wine cellar reportedly contained over 10,000 bottles. He also spent up to £500,000 a year on Hennessey cognac (the average North Korean earns just £600 a year). But there was one important question that I needed an answer for - what was the booze like in the most rigorously controlled nation on Earth?
Our tour group was booked into the Yanggakdo Hotel aka the “Alcatraz of Fun” based on an island in the Taedong River which runs through the middle of the city. We have to be shepherded by government minders at all times and leaving the island is forbidden. As the Lonely Planet‘s guidebook warns, “don’t even think of crossing the bridge into the city.”
On arrival at the hotel I discovered that there was a microbrewery producing an interesting selection of steam beers and ales. I was to find out that North Korea had many microbreweries as a shortage of fuel due to UN sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs made it difficult for beer to be shipped around the country. Microbreweries were everywhere - hotels, restaurants, bowling alleys, karaoke bars, department stores and even in the shooting ranges.
The most widely available brand of North Korean beer is the funky, full bodied and bitter Taedonggang lager brewed by a state-owned brewery in Pyongyang. The idea for this national beer came about in 2000 when leader Kim Jong-Il decided that North Korea should have a “supreme” brewery to cheer up his country which was just recovering from a devastating famine. So, the North Koreans bought the disused Ushers brewery in Wiltshire, dismantled it and shipped it to Pyongyang where the brewery was reassembled. And it’s been producing toe curling beer ever since.
UN sanctions banning luxury products in North Korea were first imposed in 2006 after its first nuclear test. Unfortunately, there were no given examples of such goods, leaving it up to individual countries to decide what constituted as a luxury. By studying the shelves behind the bar at the hotel, North Koreans appear to be having little trouble getting their hands on luxury brands of single malt whiskies, spirits, wines and champagnes.
As well as proudly introducing Western tourists to their beers the North Koreans were also very keen to promote the famous “Soju”. It’s supposed to be a spirit made from potatoes, barley, rice and water but with the food shortages in North Korea, it tastes like it's made out of whatever they can get their hands on. Another lethal spirit is the truly frightening Mount Paektu Blueberry Wine. I’m really not sure if it is made from blueberries but it has enough power to stun an elephant. I should know, as it took three people to wake me up the morning after sampling the stuff.
During our time being shown the customary tourist sites and bowing to statues of the Dear Leaders, our guides introduced me to many different North Korean wines and spirits mainly created for medicinal purposes. This is a country that spends just $25 million on its health system (that’s $1 per person) compared to $9 billion on its armed forces. As Western drugs are scarce and medical supplies suffer from chronic shortages, the North Koreans turn to traditional medicines as an alternative. There was the awesome looking Snake Wine - a spirit with a dead snake floating inside the bottle produced to cure short sightedness and hair loss. The controversial Tiger Bone Wine is also widely available to treat rheumatism and arthritis. I wasn’t brave enough to taste the wine made from bear bile but was persuaded to buy a bottle of Deer Antler Wine which I happily took home to open for a wine tasting group in the shop later that month. According to the label it was a mixture of fermented red grapes, black tea, menthol and a few other unidentified ingredients. It certainly raised a few eyebrows during the tasting - as it did mine when I later found out that the wine was a type of Viagra supplement for geriatric men…
Matt Head Wine Adventurer Smiling Grape Adventure Tours