This Korean Bar Wants You to Stop Drinking Crappy Makgeolli

Seoul's Damotori wants to spread the gospel of good makgeolli—a milky, lightly carbonated cousin of beer that's made from rice—to Koreans, Japanese, Westerners, and anyone else who drops in.

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Jun 8 2016, 6:00pm

On a Thursday in Seoul, I hit up Damotori to say hi to Kim Min-ho, the 36-year-old restaurateur who has made it his business to spread the gospel of good makgeolli to Koreans, Japanese, Westerners, and anyone else who drops in.

The waitress is a petite woman sporting auburn hair and giant grey kicks with red laces. Her Korean is clean, and it's not until I hear her talking to a table of tourists in crisp staccato Japanese that I realize she's not local.

As I wait, I look around at the olive green walls and pale yellow lamps, the ink drawings hanging up, the teacups on display. The place is just large enough to fit eight tables and a six-stool bar. On the wall behind the bartender is a rack of makgeolli bottles, and more in the fridge.

When the waitress swings round to my table, I ask in Japanese, "Is the owner also from Japan?"

Without missing a beat, she smiles and says, "Nope, Korea."

"But isn't the name of the place Japanese?" It would makes sense, since tori is Japanese for "liquor." Also, checking the Korean-English dictionary on my phone, I find that "damo" is a term for an ancient class of Korean servants who ranked below slaves.

But again, she smiles and says, "Nope, it's Korean."

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Kim Min-ho, owner of Damotori. Photo by the author.

I thank her and start flipping through my menu, which features images of makgeolli bottles organized by region, each with tasting notes. The are about 30 types of makgeolli in all, but most of them aren't on the menu.

Damotori, a makgeolli tasting bar, also serves a fine selection of traditional Korean fare. Makgeolli, which literally means "carelessly filtered," is the nation's oldest booze, made from rice, water, and a starter culture known as nuruk (dough that's been inoculated with bacteria and yeast). The result is a milky and sometimes slightly carbonated beverage.

"What do you recommend?" I ask my waitress.

"It depends on what you like," she says, "but Sani, from the southwestern province of Jeollanam-do, is quite popular."

She turns the pages of the menu for me and points to it. The tasting notes describes it as "sweet and gentle, like drinking a dish of yogurt." At 6 percent alcohol and only 7,000 won ($5.94 USD) for a 900-milliliter bottle, it seems like a solid choice, so I order a cup of Sani and a plate of dubu kimchi.

The food at Damotori is actually half the reason I came. Dubu kimchi, for example, is usually a simple snack made of sliced tofu and kimchi, but at Damotori, the tofu is sprinkled with black sesame, the kimchi is tossed with meat and lightly braised, and the portion is large enough to stand as a meal. Also on the menu is yukhoe, a Korean delicacy made of raw ground beef with a raw egg on top.

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Some of the makgeolli brands on offer at Damotori. Photo by the author.

I practically inhale my food, and afterwards, Kim comes over to speak with me. He runs the shop with his mother, and while we chat, she waits attentively on the guests and occasionally tells him if a customer has ordered food. In addition to being the manager and resident makgeolli scholar, Kim is also head chef. Remarkably, though, he's had no formal training.

"You just cook," he says, "and over time, you get better."

I ask him what he recommends from the menu.

"Makgeolli goes very well with pajeon," he says, naming a savory pancake-like dish filled with green onions and served with a vinegar-soy dipping sauce. "When you cook pajeon, the sizzling oil sounds like rainfall. So when it rains, Koreans like to have makgeolli with pajeon. We're always very busy on rainy days."

When I ask about the name of the place, he says it's an old term for a bar that sells soju in large bowls. When I later check Naver's dictionary, I find that it's a sunurimal, or pure Korean word not taken from Chinese or Japanese, which means "to drink soju from a large cup" or "a house that sells soju in large cups."

About six years ago, when Damotori opened, Korea suffered from a scarcity of options. Most people drank fair to middling soju, and soju distillers were making bricks without straw by using tapioca instead of rice. But then came Craftworks, about two blocks from where Damotori is today, offering a selection of microbrew beers. This was followed by Magpie, and soon every bar in the area was carrying a broad selection of high-quality beers. Small-batch sojus hit the market next, and that's when Kim decided someone needed to preach the truth about makgeolli.

Usually sold in a plastic bottle, makgeolli carries a reputation akin to that of 40-ounce malt liquor in the States. That is, many think of it as low-class swill, sucked down on a convenience store curb—not something you order with dinner.

Kim says the first time he tried makgeolli he was 20 and, not long after, he got so sick on the stuff he wouldn't touch it for another ten years. During that time, like most Koreans, he stuck with soju and beer. But, on a trip to Osaka, he wandered into a bar and was dumbstruck by the quality and variety of sake.

"Why don't you like soju anymore?" I ask.

"Soju comes from factories, off the assembly line," he says, "but makgeolli is hand-crafted. It's special."

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Damotori's sign in Korean. Photo by the author.

His favorite one, he says, is Sani. And his mother's?

"She only drinks one type of makgeolli," he tells me, "boksoondoga sonmakgeolli, the Champagne of makgeolli."

Boksoondoga is top-shelf stuff, and more bubbly than most makgeolli, which is why it's often compared to Champagne. It's healthy, too, he adds. In fact, makgeolli in general has almost as much protein as a glass of milk, and is packed with vitamin B, as well.

And although Damotori is a small affair, he says (there are currently six people working at the bar, including Kim and his mother), he hopes to open a second branch near City Hall in two years. His ultimate goal is very simple.

"I want to inform people," Kim says. "I want to make people happy."