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The world of alcohol is governed by trends. These days, the most popular drink in Korea is definitely makgeolli, a traditional Korean rice wine. Last year, in fact, 889 patents related to makgeolli were applied for, a 32 percent increase from 2008. Each region of Korea has countless varieties, which has led to the rise in use of terms such as “makgeolli bar” and “makgeolli nouveau.” Let's take a closer look at the appeal of the alcoholic beverage that's changing Korea's drinking culture.

Makgeolli is a traditional alcoholic beverage in Korea, much like wine in France or sake in Japan. It is made by fermenting a mixture of boiled rice and water with yeast.

There are several reasons makgeolli has become more popular in Korea than other types of rice wine. For one, it has been loved across the country since the Goryeo Dynasty that began in the 10th century. In its unfiltered form and served with its natural sediment after being stirred, it was not just an alcoholic beverage but a filling refreshment. Originally popular with farmers, it earned the nickname nongju, or “farmers' liquor.”

A popular drink for years, makgeolli eventually fell out of favor with people during the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945). Because of food shortages, there was not enough rice to eat, let alone enough to produce alcohol. As a result, the government restricted the making of rice wine and the once ubiquitous makgeolli seemed to fade into history. But as rice production increased, people started to miss the traditional drink, and it began its return to the spotlight.

Today, in a world where health and well-being are at the forefront of many people's minds, makgeolli is the perfect fit. Usually around 6.5 percent alcohol by volume, it's lighter in alcohol content than other alcoholic beverages like soju (a local grog) and wine. The sediment, which gives it a milky, offwhite color, is rich in nutrients such as lactobacilli, protein, amino acids and vitamins. Interestingly, makgeolli's popularity extends beyond the borders of Korea. In Japan, large department stores like Takashimaya sell makgeolli and idong makgeolli, makgeolli cocktails, as well as other fusion varieties.


William Lawton Cromwell, an American from Connecticut who has been living in Seoul for a year and half, loves makgeolli. “I like it because it's lighter than other drinks [tequila, rum or whiskey], and goes down easy,” he says. “It smells fresh and its fruity taste makes it feel like I'm drinking a fruit wine.”

Along with its popularity, side dishes that are well-matched with the drink are turning heads, too. For time immemorial a countless number of dishes have competed with each other, vying for the title of the best side dish complement to makgeolli. Today, the most popular — and affordable — is probably pajeon, especially Dongnae-pajeon, a Korean “pancake” from Busan that is made of dough with spring onions, seafood and eggs. With its melange of balanced ingredients, it boasts a flavor that goes well with the rice wine.

Another good accompaniment is a specialty of the Jeolla-do Province called hongeo-samhap, a three-layered dish consisting of cooled fermented thornback ray (or skate), steamed pork and well fermented kimchi. The thornback has a unique burning taste from ammonia, though it becomes milder when eaten with pork and kimchi. In addition, sashimi chomuchim, made with fresh fish, spiced with vinegar and hot pepper bean paste, is paired with the beverage. Kim Ok-sim, the owner of a bar named Gounnim in Seoul says it is the best side dish, claiming “Its sweet and sour taste goes well with makgeolli.” The makgeolli craze is sure to be around for a while. Even the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries announced last year it would give full support by subsidizing companies that make makgeolli with freshly harvested rice. The popular drink was even served during a “Korea Night” event at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Koreans have long appreciated makgeolli for its taste and health benefits. Will it, however, be able to gain popularity overseas? It will certainly be interesting to see how makgeolli fares globally in 2010.

By Oh Kyong-yon photographs by Kim Nam-heon KOREA Magazine (Mar. 2010) Post Feed

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