Makgeolli – Korea’s oldest alcoholic beverage

Traditional makgeolli

History of Makgeolli

Makgeolli (pronounced as “Makkolee”) or commonly known as Korean rice wine made from a mixture of fermented sweet rice, regular rice, wheat or barley and water, has recently gained its popularity among urban and young Koreans after a long hiatus. Previously it was also known as ‘nongju’ or farmer’s liquoir (‘nong’ meaning farmer and ‘ju’ alcohol), especially because it was served as a substitute for food during economic stagnation. But as Korea’s political and economic situation improved in the late 80’s, the consumption of makgeolli began to decrease and was soon replaced by beer, imported whiskey and wine, making makgeolli a beverage for the poor and elderly.

So how did the once known farmer’s drink made its way to the top shelfs in metropolitan Seoul?
A few years ago the Korean government decided to revive almost extinct or endangered traditional alcoholic beverages in which makgeolli was one of the main ‘players’. One of the most memorable PR stunts by the Ministry of food was to make makgeolli the national drink of G-20 Summit and the launching of a Best Makgeolli Nickname contest to help boost sales and to over come the trouble of the product’s difficult pronunciation. The success of reviving makgeolli has been widely visible as makgeolli is today considered a ‘hip’ drink especially among younger generations and has also gained its popularity in Japan and has been introduced to the States and China.

Taste and trends

Makgeolli is an intriguing mild blend of sweet, sour, bitter and tangy tastes which can be perfectly paired with Korean hot and spicy cuisine. When served plain it is poured into small bowls so that the liquid can be stirred and no sediment falls to the bottom.
Besides the original rice flavored makgeolli you can nowadays also find makgeollies mixed with chestnut, peanut and various fruity flavors.

Health benefits

Aside from the alcohol, makgeolli contains several beneficial nutrients to the health. Other then the 80 % water and 6-8 % alcohol, makgeolli consists of 2 % protein, 0.8 % carbohydrates, 0.1 % fat and 10 % dietary fiber along with vitamin B and C. Makgeolli is unfiltered and contains high amounts of the lactic acid bacteria, 500 times the level in yogurt! Aiding digestion, stimulating the immune system and slowing down aging processes. Moreover, Korea Food Research Institute discovered that makgeolli contains squalene, a compound believed to prevent the growth of cancer.

Where to find makgeolli?

You can find makgeolli in every grocery, convenience and department store (a 750 ml bottle costs about 1200 won or 1 USD) and it is one of the cheapest alcoholic drinks in Korea. If you want to experience a more traditional way of drinking makgeolli you can also visit the traditional Korean taverns in the downtown Insadong or Myeongdong areas.
When drinking makgeolli from the bottle, make sure to shake it well before drinking.

Gun-bae (“kon-bay”) or cheers in Korean!