Makgeolli: The rice wine revolution is here

Makgeolli: The rice wine revolution is here

With a push from the national government, young taste-makers are resurrecting the fabled makgeolli, Korea’s original home brew

Makgeolli. Unless you’re a fourth-century farmer or a Seoul college student ahead of the drinking curve, there’s a pretty decent chance that this milky, sweet-but-astringent libation hasn’t been on your must-try radar.

Until now.

Here’s what you need to know about Korea’s fabled-and-suddenly-fashionable fermented rice drink:

MakgeolliMakgeolli's tangy, sweet taste makes it a popular drink with the ladies. Makgeolli is the country’s oldest agrarian spirit. The sweet-ish, cloudy, un-distilled, rice-derived “wine” predates better-known old-timey staples such as soju by several centuries. It’s commonly pronounced “MAK-a-lee.”

Makgeolli’s first heyday in Seoul came back in the 1960s and 1970s, but was thwarted by national food shortage scares and government-enforced rice rationing that led to nasty barley and wheat substitute varietals, reports of terrible hangovers and plummeting sales.

Makgeolli retreated back into the hills, forgotten and misunderstood. Those were hard times for makgeolli. 

'Drunken rice' returns from the fields

After a long hiatus, makgeolli is back in urban vogue. Smoother than ever. Affordable as always. Headache-free, sort-of-healthy in reasonable doses, and revamped for a broader fan base of nostalgia-soaked old-timers and trend-seeking newcomers who these days are downing it like never before.

So how does a beverage also known as nongju -- or “farmer’s liquor” -- with backwoods roots and a checkered past claw its way back to the top shelf in metropolitan Seoul?

A recent government-fueled initiative to revive a variety of extinct or endangered traditional Korean alcoholic beverages -- in which makgeolli has taken center stage -- has helped spur the comeback.

Some of the more memorable PR stunts by the Ministry for Food over the last year have included a push to make makgeolli the “national drink” of last year’s G-20 Summit and the launching of a Best Makgeolli Nickname contest to help boost sales and troubleshoot the product’s unpronounceable name.

Contest winner: “Drunken Rice.” Honorable mentions: “Makcohol,” “Koju” and “McKorea.”

A 'well-being' drink

What else does Makgeolli have going for it?

A quick web search leads to a hard drive’s-worth of fun quotes from booze industry luminaries offering good tidings about Korea’s oldest rice wine. Turns out it may just be the most bar-and-body-friendly beverage the country has ever built a national and export marketing strategy around.

“It’s low proof with an alcohol content of 6-7 percent,” notes Sung Ki-wook, a director at the Seoul Rice Wine Manufacturing Association, “so people with a lower tolerance can enjoy it.”

“It contains lots of lactobacilli and fiber, matching the current ‘well-being’ trend in our society,” adds Kooksoondang Brewery spokesman, Shin Woo-chang.

Of course, low alcohol content, gastro-intestinal benefits and a tricky nickname have never buoyed a drink’s popularity all that much even during the best of times. Especially a drink derived from steaming glutinous rice that’s traditionally quaffed from an unwashed wooden bowl.

According to the National Tax Service, national makgeolli sales have surged almost 48 percent over the last few years. Exports to Japan (the biggest foreign buyer of makgeolli), as well as in China and the U.S. have spiked. Probably the biggest stimulus package behind today’s makgeolli surge has more to do with the three Ps -- price, packaging and palatability.

During a tough economic climate, makgeolli stands out as one of the cheapest alcoholic beverages out there -- as a smartly branded, ₩1,200, 750 ml bottle of the stuff sitting beside a musty magnum of heavily taxed Gewurztraminer for 40 times the price at the supermarket will quickly confirm.

Where to drink it

Various venues around Seoul are inventing new makgeolli cocktails. Beyond grocery store aisles, many places are supporting makgeolli’s latest makeover.

At Baesangmyun Brewery, which has opened five mini-outlets in the last year, rice wine shoppers can grab a freshly brewed bottle of Daepo straight from the source.

The Guk Soon Dang Brewery-run Baekseju Village restaurant chain now offers seven branches throughout Seoul, where a range of traditional Korean rice wines are poured old-school-style -- into ceramic bowls -- with carefully paired side dishes.

For a more youthful (and palatable) take on an old rice wine, try a Dduktak, Seoul’s busiest makgeolli bar franchise.

Here, drink masters have given the beverage its sweetest, brightest tastelift yet, infusing the drink with a range of fruit flavors from strawberry and pineapple to kiwi and pomegranate. Tattooed waiters serve it to a new generation of makgeolli fans, who put it away like Jell-O shots.

Jell-O shots with a much longer history than Jell-O, to be sure. But a history, it turns out, that’s still very much in the making.

Jordan Rane writes regularly for CNN Travel and The Los Angeles Times. A Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers, his work on travel and the outdoors has spanned six continents and appeared in over 50 publications. He lives in Los Angeles.

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