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Say hello to the latest Korean fervor - makgeolli the rice wine

Is soju all there is to Korean liquor? Certainly not. If you actually live in Korea and make friends with the locals – especially if you like to climb mountains – there’s a good chance of sampling makgeolli, a traditional rice wine, whitish, almost creamy, in color, soft in taste and filling to the stomach within a few cups.

For several years recently, western wine was the hottest trend in Korea’s liquor market until the pattern started to change, making this particular type of liquor the biggest re-discovery of Korean tradition and pride. So what happened? Increased sales, of course.

The National Tax Service has it that Korea’s liquor exports for 2008 increased by 22.9 percent. Soju led the pack, being sold to 58 countries and notching up $100 million in sales.

However commercially made makgeolli, the relative newcomer, also showed significant growth of 26.6 percent, thanks to improved technology to manufacture and preserve the fresh taste of rice wine for a longer period of time. Its exports have grown eight-fold since a decade ago, when its first shipments amounted to 631 tons.

Neighboring Japan was the earliest to appreciate the taste of the new liquor from Korea. The amount of makgeolli sold to Japan has lately recorded 4,891 tons, surpassing the 1,866 ton-imports of Japanese sake to Korea. During the early part of this year, Japan imported 2,336 tons of makgeolli, which is 89 percent of total makgeolli sales abroad.

The fervor is even stronger at home. What started out as a cheap, local drink is now being reborn as a new type of cocktail mixed with fruit, soda and even turned into ice cream. The drink once relegated to bars, outdoor drinking tents and liquor stores can now be found in major department stores, golf clubs, hotels and other high end venues.

History of makgeolli

Makgeolli cocktailMakgeolli is actually the oldest kind of liquor in Korea, made basically of glutinous rice, barley, flour and wheat all steamed and mixed with yeast and water. It is then fermented naturally.

It has some dozen additional names according to its types including “tak-ju,” named for its dull white color and “nong-ju,” meaning farmer’s drink. A good makgeolli is known to blend well with most other side dishes, whether sweet, sour, bitter or puckery and leaves a cool aftertaste.

It is unclear since when Koreans began to drink makgeolli, but according to “Poetic Records of Emperors and Kings (Jewangun-gi),” written during the Goryeo Dynasty (A.D. 918-1392), the first mention of the drink was in the founding story of the Goguryeo Kingdom during the reign of King Dongmyeong (B.C. 37 - B.C. 19). Many tribes in Korea around that time enjoyed the tradition of drinking and dancing all night in special ceremonies. In Goryeo times makgeolli was called “ihwa-ju” (pear blossom alcohol) for the liquor was made during the blossoming of that particular flower.

One of the strong points of makgeolli is that it is nutritious, thanks to its fermentation process using microorganisms, making it a liquor and a health drink at the same time. Over 10 kinds of amino acids can be found, together with Vitamin B, inositol and cholin. The organic compound that makes up 0.8 percent of the beverage is also effective in quenching thirst, invigorating the metabolism and relieving fatigue, plus it is good for one’s complexion.

Chrysanthemum makgeolliThe drink also contains 1.9 percent protein, which is quite close to milk (3 percent) and certainly much more than other alcoholic drinks such as cheongju, a clear-stained rice wine (0.5 %), beer (0.4%) and soju (0%).

At the same time it is low in alcohol content (6-7 percent), making it popular among not only tired and hungry farmers after a day’s work but also among modern women sensitive to hangovers and skin rashes after drinking.

These days, to boost the drink’s healthful effects, more varieties of makgeolli are being made, including ginseng makgeolli, black bean makgeolli, grape makgeolli and Jeju tangerine makgeolli.

Bae Yong-joon, Korea’s major heartthrob actor, opened two restaurants in Japan and saw their limited set of makgeolli, 300 packs of 6 bottles, sell out in eight minutes. The latest variation of makgeolli in stores is garlic-makgeolli. It even comes in an ice-cream pack that can be frozen to be enjoyed later.
Remaining tasks 

Furit makgeolliExperts point out that while it is good to find another potential in Korean traditional food or beverage, several obstacles needs to be overcome to keep up the fervor.

Professor Kim Nan-do of Seoul National University and Dr. Shin Woo-chang of Kook Soon Dang Brewery advised in the local edition of weekly magazine “the Economist” that, firstly, one must overcome the short shelf life. Ways must be found to keep the flavor of draught makgeolli rich in amino acids and also protect its anti-carcinogenic effect, not to mention the invigorating aftertaste that is unique of makgeolli

Because draught makgeolli cannot maintain its taste more than 10 days (there is of course sterilized makgeolli which is not quite as competitive overseas) it is important to streamline the existing distribution route nationwide. This is likely to be difficult and take time, as many makgeolli makers are small businesses, necessitating the government to take the lead in certain areas.

Secondly, a kind of grading system must be introduced to assure the quality of makgeolli, just like wine. Thirdly, a brand name needs to be secured. It is imperative that makgeolli becomes known as a Korean product, before it is mistaken as a “milky sake” or some other drink from neighboring countries.

Fourth, Korea should create a cultural image for its traditional liquor, as there are many historical records, stories and ballads referencing it. For example, in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when the authorities prohibited liquor manufacturing due to wastage of rice, one leading scholar and philosopher of the times Jeong Yak-yong (pen-name Dasan, 1762-1836) advised in his “Admonitions on Governing the People (Mongmin simseo)” not to forbid makgeolli, which fills the stomach like a good meal and helps travelers on their way. (He added, however, to go ahead and ban soju, since it only leaves government officials to get drunk).

A new marketing push

Garlic-makgeolli drink V-1 Fortunately the government is equally enthusiastic about keeping up the passion for makgeolli.

Last week on Sept. 3, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries held a special exhibition called “Makgeolli Transformer” at Congdu museum café, within Seoul Museum of History in Jongno-gu district, Seoul.

The event was held to raise awareness of new types of makgeolli, enhance its cultural value and further solidify its brand name. Thirteen types of makgeolli liquor made of local rice from seven cities and provinces were presented.

Some of the popular makgeolli included ihwaju, the newly restored drink of Goryeo times, which can be drunk like a yogurt. In modernized makgeolli, there was even an espresso flavored. Free sampling of makgeolli cocktails was on offer. Ambassadors from Sweden, Denmark, Canada and other countries were also invited.

By Kim Hee-sung Staff Writer

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