For many of us in the first days of our new Korean lifestyles, someone inevitably asks the loaded question, “Have you tried makgeolli yet?”
Not one to deny a new experience, you might have headed to the closest convenience store to fork out two blue bills for a green bottle initiation. At first sip, confusion sets in. Sweet, fizzy, milky, and boozy, there aren’t a whole lot of other drinks that serve as a frame for descriptive reference. After a few more cups the buzz kicks in, everything feels alright and you think, “Hey, this makgeolli thing ain’t half bad.” So much so that you go back for more, after all it’s only 6% alcohol: what could be the harm? Time clicks by and all of a sudden you find yourself a little unsteady on your feet, stumbling towards where you think is home, filled with thoughts of happiness and good times. Laying your weary and dizzying head on the pillow, you think to yourself “makgeolli is awesome.”
And then you wake up. As your head pounds and stomach churns, a feeling of being cheated washes over. You raise a fist to the sky and cry “Makgeolli….Where did I go wrong?!”
While the scene and circumstances may differ, for many people their makgeolli experience ends with their first cheap bottle and a raging hangover. Even for those that are enviably immune to the next day struggles, experiencing makgeolli beyond the common varieties can be difficult and elusive. Makgeolli more often than not gets put in the I-tried-it-once basket without ever getting its day in the sun. But truth be told, that’s kind of like drinking a bottle of Carlo Rossi and coming to the conclusion that all wine leads to aspirin.
What actually goes on in the world of Korean traditional alcohol, unseen on convenience store shelves, is a craft worthy of respect and exploration. With a complex and often tumultuous history, it’s no surprise that even much of the Korean population has yet to discover makgeolli in its true form. With soju far outselling its milky counterpart, makgeolli gets relegated to the “rainy day drink” category and is terminally paired with pajeon or bindaetteok. In short, makgeolli gets unfairly short shrift.
What started my own love affair with Korean alcohol was when I started to understand even just a little of what it was all about. Beyond those nights of endless metal bowls and hazy endings, when I got to know about the stories and processes of brewing, it was game over. I found myself constantly asking ‘Why don’t more people know about this?”
To get a better sense of what’s in that deep bowl of milky booze, we need to start from the beginning. When you strip away all the kettles and clichés, cutesy marketing campaigns and controversial health claims, makgeolli is just one part of the art of fermentation.
At the heart and soul of all Korean traditional alcohol is nuruk, without which rice and water would remain just that: rice and water. Nuruk is the unique wild fermentation starter that is responsible for Korean alcohol brewing, and it’s what gives makgeolli its character. Using nuruk is one of the fundamental ways Korean alcohol is set apart from Japanese sake. Nuruk is inoculated from the regional air in which it’s made, and therefore filled with a variety of flavor profiles. For me, it’s always somewhat reflected the character of Korea itself; bold and diverse with a fair dose of wild card in every batch.
When nuruk is added to rice and water, the magic of fermentation begins. Under the watchful eye of a careful brewer, the mash is filtered at just the right time and fresh booze is born. At an average alcohol percentage of 15-19%, this strong and smooth mixture is known to the homebrewer as wonju. It is out of wonju that Korea’s three most representative traditional alcohols are crafted. As the heavier sediment settles, clear golden nectar rises to the top. This often sweet and strong elixir is called cheonju or also yakju and was the favored drink of the kings of old. Cheongju can then be distilled to make soju in the traditional methods; some of the top shelf expensive varieties of which have been painstakingly extracted using ancient clay distilling equipment.
So where does that leave makgeolli? Traditionally, after the best cheongju was removed and thoroughly enjoyed by the upper class, the remaining sediment was cast off to the lowly peasants. Ever resourceful, water was added to dilute this thick liquid and then shared far and wide. In this way, makgeolli has always been the people’s drink.
Fast forward to today, and after a century of imperialism, war, rice shortages, and a historical disconnect with the deep traditions of brewing, Korean traditional alcohol has lost its way. In an industry dominated by cheap ingredients and artificial sweeteners, winning the respect of discerning palates remains a challenge. But there are people out there fighting the good fight. Cheongju, soju, takju, and makgeolli all have their own unique story to tell, and there is a growing foundation of the dedicated who are willing to tell it. Before you give up on makgeolli or even soju, know that what lies beyond the common scene is an artistry being reborn.