As South Korea’s most popular alcohol until 1988, makgeolli was favored among farmers and the working class. It's recently made a comeback among Korean youth and even celebrities who put creedence in its reputation as a healthier booze.
Photo via Flickr user Cytryna
The name of almost every Korean booze ends in the suffix -ju, which unsurprisingly translates to "alcohol." Beer is maegju, whiskey is yangju, and soju is well, soju.
There's also nongju, which literally translates to "farmer's alcohol." Better known nowadays as makgeolli (meaning "roughly strained"), this unfiltered rice wine is Korea's oldest liquor. Made from nothing more than fermented rice, yeast, and water, makgeolli typically contains 6 to 8 percent alcohol, is often milky and semi-sweet, and slightly fizzy from the fermentation process.
As South Korea's most popular alcohol until 1988, it was favored among farmers and the working class—especially because it was a filling substitute for food at a time of economic stagnation. But as Korea's fiscal and political climate began to improve and modernize in the late 80s, the country's taste for makgeolli began to wane. Within the laxly regulated alcohol industry, many makgeolli breweries used questionable ingredients and chemicals that would often leave drinkers with powerful hangovers, or worse. The drink was soon eclipsed by beer, imported whiskey, and wine, making makgeolli an unfashionable relic only consumed by the poor or elderly.
That changed in 2010, however, when a former food journalist named Yo-Yong Yi opened up Wolhyang, a 40-seat makgeolli bar in Seoul.
"Before I opened my bar, there weren't just regular makgeolli bars for young people," says Yo-Yong. "There were only shabby and rundown places where older people and seniors went to drink—because other than farmers, they were the only existing customer base."
Wolhyang was fortunately situated in Hongdae, the city's creative hub that's also home to the country's best art school. It became an instant success, eventually birthing a mini-chain with four locations and even a makgeolli brewery.
Yo-Yong credits her success to many factors, including the purported health benefits of makgeolli. "Makgeolli is the sports drink for adults. You can also think of it as yogurt for adults," she says.
In Korean culture, makgeolli has long been considered a healthy form of alcohol. Roughly 10 percent of it is composed of lactic acid bacteria and dietary fiber, which explains its appeal for the elderly.
"It's easier on the stomach than beer," says Yo-Yong.
That's not just folk belief, either. A recent study conducted by the Korea Food Research Institute discovered that makgeolli contains squalene, a compound found in shark livers that is believed to prevent the growth of cancer. A previous study by the institute found the existence of farnesol—also believed to have anti-tumor properties—in makgeolli.
Interestingly, young women have lately become the largest customer base for makgeolli in Korea. For them, it's a lower-alcohol option within the country's extreme drinking culture. There are also many young Koreans who have also experimented with makgeolli as their first sip of booze, because it's less harsh than other liquors. Mixing it with Sprite is especially common among the youth.
Women, old people, and the glitterati aren't the only ones on the makgeolli tip.
Some people are even beginning to pair it with different types of anju, the Korean term for bar food. The anju traditionally eaten with makgeolli is fried, such as the savory pancakes known as pajeon. But because makgeolli's image has been transformed so drastically in the past few years, women are now drinking it like they do a glass of white wine, ordered with cheese and fruit instead of heavier fare.
Celebrities in Korea have also caught on to makgeolli. "There's actually a very popular female Korean superstar," Yo-Yong tells me, "who is known to always travel with the trunk of her car filled with makgeolli. Whenever she goes out and people are drinking, she'll get a bottle of makgeolli retrieved from her car and proudly say, 'I'm having this!' So for lots of young women and girls, makgeolli has become a thing."
Women, old people, and the glitterati aren't the only ones on the makgeolli tip. Noisey's Dexter Thomas recently called attention to makgeolli's appearance in a Korean rap music video by Keith Ape. "And check the bottle that Keith is waving around like it was an expensive bottle of Dom," Thomas writes. "It's not Champagne—it's a cheap plastic bottle of makgeolli, a cloudy, unfiltered Korean rice wine that until a few years ago fashionable people wouldn't be caught dead drinking." He also points out that the rappers prefer to spell it as "'mack gully,' which not only makes it easier to pronounce in English, but makes it sound 200 percent cooler."
The curious thing about makgeolli is that it appeals to everyone, and it can be found nearly everywhere. Because this rustic Korean staple has been around for so long, different types and flavors of makgeolli are found all over the country, in both high-and low-end versions. Like the ubiquitous 40 oz. bottles of malt liquor in the US, bottles of makgeolli can still be purchased in any Korean convenience store for a little more than $1.
But don't tell that to the diners of JUNGSIK, the only Korean restaurant in New York to have received two Michelin stars, where the nine-course tasting menu includes dishes such as bibimbap with foie gras and black truffles. Since opening in 2011, JUNGSIK's most popular drink has remained "The Rose of Sharon"—the bar's only makgeolli option.
"It has a very good balance of flavors," says Jung-Sik Yim, the owner and head chef of JUNGSIK. "It's makgeolli-based, and has a creamy texture with a yogurt-like favor, and is heavy on the palate," he says.
Beyond JUNGSIK, though, makgeolli can now be found in practically every Korean restaurant anywhere all over the world. It wouldn't be a stretch to give some credit to Yi-Yong and her success in reintroducing makgeolli to a younger generation of drinkers in Korea. She is happy to see the drink grow in popularity globally, and thinks Americans are ready to embrace makgeolli.
"I don't think it will be easy," she says. "But it will happen."
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.