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Food / South Korea

Magkeolli, Korean Rice Wine: Ancient and Humble

My wife opened the door to our apartment. Her umbrella pouring off straggling raindrops. She had just come home from work after a long, rainy and cool day. I had wrapped up another writing project myself and we were both looking forward to two things on this rainy evening. Pajeon (파전/Korean “pancake/pizza”) and makgeolli (막걸리/Korean rice wine). Two staples of rainy day dining in Korea. But it’s the slightly fizzy, tangy, sweet, chalky, milky and altogether satisfying and nourishing makgeolli that I look forward to the most.

An ancient yet humble beginning

While soju is largely seen as Korea’s trademark alcohol, it is actually soju’s humble and modest older cousin, makgeolli that is the oldest recorded booze in Korean history. Rice wine, especially of the murky and cloudy variety, have been mentioned since Korea’s Three Kingdoms Period (삼국시대/samguk-sidae) which began in 57 B.C. The brewing and enjoyment of rice wine is attested to in the Jewang Un’gi (제왕운기/ Songs of Emperors and Kings). “Cloudy rice wine” is mentioned in the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (삼국유사/samguk yusa). And Korean sources aren’t the only ones detailing the ancient Korean’s mastery of milky-cloudy rice wine.

The Chinese Records of the Three Kingdoms (三國志/삼국지/San Guo Chih) remarks the Korean people’s adeptness as fermenting foods, including wine. And in the Japanese Kojiki (古事記/ Records of Ancient Matters) a brew master from the Korean kingdom of Baekje (백제) is mentioned as being associated with rice wine preparation.

chinese tea

Makgeolli eventually took on the name ihwa-ju (이화주) meaning “peach blossom alcohol” because makgeolli was brewed when the pear blossom trees bloomed. Ihwa-ju isn’t the only alternative name for makgeolli, there is also takju (탁주/opaque wine) and nongju (농주/farmer’s wine).

It’s this last title, “farmer’s wine” that became most strongly associated with makgeolli for most of its history. Makgeolli had been brewed at home and either enjoyed after a long day or used for various Confucian rites and rituals. Because each household and village would brew their own batch of makgeolli, each region has a diverse and unique variation, taste and terroir to their rice wine.

After the Korean War and the rebuilding period, makgeolli went from the most consumed drink to being over shadowed by foreign liquor. Food shortages and rice rationing decreed by government law further stifled the brewing of makgeolli with its traditional ingredients. Lower quality makgeolli was mass produced instead, using wheat and barley. This also turned people off from this once time honored booze, and increasingly built an aura around the beverage being an old fashioned, cheap and un-classy drink. A highly unfair and untrue designation if I may be frank!

But luckily, makgeolli has been seeing a big comeback, both domestically and abroad. Makgeolli is enjoyed not just due to its unique flavor and lower alcohol content compared to soju, but also its ability to be easily paired with lots of bar food, and of course, it’s cheap cost!

Nuruk for fermented fun!

The special magical ingredient in makgeolli is a fermentation brick called nuruk (누룩). The brick is usually made from rice, barley, wheat, or mung beans. It is moistened, rolled into a large, round brick and hung up to ferment. This goody is then thrown in a big clay onggi (옹기), the same type of jar used to ferment kimchi. The nuruk is joinedin the onggi by steamed rice and then possibly some other herbs, spices, fruits or nuts to ferment for about a week or so. Fresh makgeolli is said to have a milder and creamier taste and consistency.

A cloudy drink for a rainy day

With all the science aside now is the part you’ve been waiting for! How does it taste, how do you drink it and what does it go good with? There are a few different ways to enjoy this ancient and legendary alcohol.

The nobility of a plastic bottle     

The first, is to get it at any convenient store or supermarket. Here you will typically find it in plastic bottles. Now here’s the special part. Because makgeolli’s contents separate, with a yellowish clearer liquid rising to the top and the thicker, rice sediments drifting to the bottom, it is important to shake your makgeolli the hell up! You read that correctly. Shake or jiggle the bottle around until you can see the contents of the bottle take on a more solid and consistent color. Now, be careful opening the bottle as it can explode (another fun trait of makgeolli. Great at parties!). My technique is to use quick twists of the cap, opening and closing it in swift intervals. Be sure to watch the contents inside if they are rushing to the top or not. If you see bubbles and wine rushing to the opening, seal the cap shut and wait a few seconds before giving the cap another quick open and then shut twists. Do this until the cap is off. And hopefully your wine hasn’t exploded! This took me a few years to master myself.

Canned rice wine

Makgeolli can also be found in cans. This incarnation is interesting because it also usually comes in unique flavors. The sweet potato flavor is absurdly good, it is almost like a dessert! The cans are usually sold upside down, and when you turn them right side up to open them, the contents are already pre-shook. So no (possible) explosions!

Wine from a kettle

One of the more traditional ways to enjoy makgeolli is out of a copper kettle. The kettle resembles a tea kettle and is served individually in matching copper bowls. The wide bowls help keep the liquid from separating from the thicker rice sediment.

A clay bowl for rice wine

            The other traditional way is makgeolli served in a massive clay or earthenware bowl. A ladle is used to serve the contents into smaller individual clay or earthenware bowls. This way is particularly fun because it is such a unique way to drink alcohol.

What should I eat with it?

Whichever of these splendid ways you choose, makgeolli is best served chilled. As for food to go with it, pajeon, kimchi-jeon (김치전) or haemul-jeon (해물전/seafood “pancake/pizza”) are the most common choices, consumed together on rainy days. The reason being that the sound of the pajeon frying resembles the sound of the rain on the rooftops.

Innovation on the ancient

Makgeolli is also a popular base for cocktails and more modern variations that include ice or fruits. A makgeolli place in our home city of Ulsan (울산), for example, has a menu that includes magkeolli mixed with milk, yogurt and ice and blended into a smoothie. Some of the flavors they offer include banana, green tea and even Oreo flavored! In regards to natural flavoring, as each region had its own distinct makgeolli recipe and flavors, as one travels throughout Korea, different cities will have some unique styles. For example, while hiking some mountains near Gwangju (광주) in South Jeolla Province (절라남도) we encountered a blazing golden colored bottle of turmeric infused makgeolli. And yes, it did taste like curry. And it was superb!

That night as we fried up the pajeon, and opened a tangy bottle of Taehwa (태화) brand, Ulsan’s native makgeolli. The gloomy weather went from a real drag to a real source of revelry. Any reason to be able to sit inside, all warm and cozy, with family and loved ones. Enjoying a delectable, unique and amiable drink with delicious food. What else could anyone ask for?

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