By Han Sang-hee
``Makgeolli,'' a representative Korean traditional wine, may well be the oldest liquor in Korea. The pale white drink saw its heyday back in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) and again in the 1970s and `80s for its rich taste, cheap cost and the food that went with it, but sales and popularity dwindled as wine, sake and soju reigned.
However, with growing interest in new and trendy products, many makgeolli makers have added twists to the milky liquor recently, garnering both young and old fans all over again.
The first document that refers to local rice liquor is the ``Jewangun-gi,'' or the ``Rhymed Records of Emperors and Kings,'' written in 1287 during the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392). Being an agricultural society, the first alcoholic drinks would have been based on grains such as rice and barley.
Yoon Jin-won, the head of the Korea Liquor Culture Institute (KLCI), an expert on makgeolli and also the head of traditional food and liquor restaurant Dduktak, reminds that before you taste makgeolli, you must know its roots.
``Makgeolli holds an important meaning in not only Korean liquor history, but also in culture, business and Korean history,'' he told The Korea Times during an interview at the institute in northern Seoul.
Yoon is the first person to invent what is now called a ``makgeolli cocktail," the colorful drink mixed with various fruits that is currently a big hit among young women.
``There were more than 350 varieties of liquor in documents that date back to the Joseon Kingdom. But with the Japanese invasion, we lost the will and power to manufacture our traditional drinks, and that was when the tragedy of makgeolli began," he said.
Due to the Liquor Tax Law and the Japanese law preventing Koreans from preserving their own culture, the latter were not given the right to freely make their own traditional liquor, and this continued until independence. Not having a proper preservation plan, local drinks lost their heritage and potential to grow in the market, resulting in foreign liquors dominating market shelves.
``During the Joseon Kingdom, many houses had their own distinctive way of making makgeolli and other types of liquor, and this formed into its own culture called the
``gayangju culture,'' or the culture of home-brewed liquor,'' Yoon Sook-ja, the president of the Institute of Traditional Korean Food, writes in her book, ``Our Beautiful Liquor.''
This tradition still stands in some households, but much of it has been lost, and the recipes have been altered due to a lack of traditional ingredients and the importing of Western spirits.
``Tradition and liquor experts have realized the importance of reviving makgeolli, and this is what we have been doing for the past years,'' makgeolli expert Yoon said
Yoon invented the makgeolli cocktail in 2005, realizing that it was the younger generation who had the power to bring back the glory days of the traditional wine.
``We came up with the cocktail to revive makgeolli. We already knew how to make the best makgeolli and we wondered how we could attract the younger crowd. We added fresh fruits such as peach and kiwis, and it became a hit instantly,'' Yoon said.
There are 15 different types you can choose from at the restaurant Dduktak, including strawberry, peach, blueberry and even raspberry.
``A lot of young students and women enjoy the cocktails. They are different, light, pretty, tasty and go well with any type of food. Some of the most popular are the peach, strawberry and pineapple,'' Yoo Gwang-il, the manager, told The Korea Times, while receiving an order from a customer Thursday evening.
Many complain that makgeolli makes them feel nauseous the next day, and also gives them headaches. But this, according to Yoon, is a common misconception.
``If you have a splitting headache or a stomach ache the day after drinking makgeolli, it probably means that the makgeolli was not made with the proper ingredients. The sad reality is that 97 to 98 percent of the makgeolli sold today is made with imported rice, and some with flour. In order to accelerate the fermenting process, some even use other ingredients as well,'' he pointed out.
Although he invented the colorful makgeolli cocktails, Yoon said he still enjoys the original and that he has stopped drinking other liquors all together.
At the restaurant, however, more than half of the customers, many of them female, ordered the cocktails.
``I never enjoyed makgeolli before. I usually drank what a lot of young people do now ― soju, beer and especially wine ― but I discovered the taste of makgeolli a few weeks ago, by coincidence. It's sweet, refreshing and very tasty. It's like rice yogurt with a hint of alcohol,'' Lee Yoo-mi, 24, told The Korea Times while pouring a glass of blueberry makgeolli.
Other liquor makers have joined in the trendy phenomenon, using distinctive ingredients that are abundant in their regions. Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, came up with a barley makgeolli, while Mungyeong Brewery in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang Province offers an omija berry makgeolli. You can also find garlic makgeolli in Namhae county, South Gyeongsang Province and sweet potato makgeolli in Haenam, South Jeolla Province.
When asked if he would drink makgeolli in the future, 29-year-old office worker Kim Bum-jin shrugged.
``It's tasty, but I'm not sure if I will drink it regularly. It's true that we are more used to soju, beer and wine and I think we need to promote makgeolli more to attract drinkers. We tend to think it's too old fashioned to drink makgeolli,'' he said.
Yoon pointed out that the problem has been that makgeolli is not considered a brand, like many others alcoholic beverages including soju.
``Makgeolli is a great cultural content because it has a story. It is deeply related with Korean history and Koreans. We need to use the right ingredients, promote it as part of our history and learn to enjoy it. Tradition is nothing fancy, it's about using our products to make something that has been with us for so long,'' he said.
``There is a saying that where there are spirits, there is food, and where there is food, there is communication. Our ancestors considered makgeolli as an important part of our culture and history, and as their descendants, we need to appreciate and nourish the tradition.''
|Makgeolli Tips From an Expert|
1. Check the Ingredients: Makgeolli tastes best when it is made with local goods. Be sure to check if the drink is made in Korea with local ingredients.
2. Check the Temperature: Keeping the yeast alive is important. Keep makgeolli at a temperature of about 5 degrees Celsius or lower. "You can drink it again after you have opened it. Makgeolli can last from five to even 10 days after it has been made if you keep it at the right temperature,'' Yoon said.
3. Enjoy with Any Side Dish: Koreans tend to believe the liquor is only good with jeon, or Korean-style pancakes, but Yoon said he enjoys it with cheese. ``Rice is a very tolerant ingredient, thus any type of food can be a good match. Try makgeolli with sushi or pork, you won't feel stuffy the next morning.''
4. Proper Glasses: Use porcelain or ceramic glass when drinking makgeolli as they prevent the coolness from escaping and are environmentally friendly.