If you aren’t Korean, or aren’t familiar with Korean cuisine then you’d be forgiven for not recognizing Makgeolli (pronounced MAHK-oh-lee). While it may be the oldest alcoholic beverage in Korea, it hasn’t made a big impact elsewhere, but that is slowly changing.
Makgeolli, roughly known as “farmer’s wine”, is a raw rice wine with a cloudy appearance and a sweet-sour type flavour typically around the 6-8% ABV range. Its origins can be traced back thousands of years, but you don’t have to go that far back to find its broad popularity in Korea. Even as close as the 1960’s and 70’s Makgeolli was the drink of choice for many Koreans and was the most consumed beverage in the country. It wasn’t until the 80’s where it started to lose its cool, and was replaced by imported foreign beverages like beer.
For a few decades Makgeolli went fairly unnoticed on store shelves, although it still had a dedicated following in Korea. But recently, even within the last few years, there’s been a renewed interest in the beverage.
For starters, drinkers have taken to the supposed health benefits and low alcohol proof of Makgeolli. Because of the microorganisms present during fermentation, Makgeolli is a probiotic product. It contains high levels of lactic acid bacteria such as Lactobacillus, as well as vitamins, amino acids, and fiber. With a 1.9 percent protein content, over 10 amino acids, vitamin B, inositol and choline, Makgeolli is reputed to increase metabolism, relieve fatigue and improve complexion.
There’s also been a bit of a cultural revival, with a growing interest in cultural traditions in recent decades, contributing to the renewed interest. Bars dedicated to serving it have popped up throughout South Korea, rappers wave bottles of it in videos, and celebrities tout boutique versions. All of these factors, plus the low cost per bottle make it an attractive beverage.
Several makers of Makgeolli have started popping up State-side as well, with an attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity and introduce a new market to its unique flavour. While it remains relatively obscure, the increased interest in Korean pop culture and cuisine may change that very soon.