[Viewpoint] Resurgent makgeolli

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[Viewpoint] Resurgent makgeolli

Makgeolli, Korea’s traditional rice-based wine, is becoming increasingly popular these days. It is easy to spot people drinking the beverage at hotels, clubhouses on golf courses and high-end Korean traditional restaurants.

On Aug. 24, in the international academic conference for engineering education and research, makgeolli was served for a toast. It seems more women in their 20’s are enjoying a makgeolli tipple and it’s being considered a health drink in Japan.

Accordingly, sales of the rice wine have surged drastically. Some manufacturers’ sales have increased 10-fold in the past year and others have difficulty meeting demand so they have to control sales.

Exports of makgeolli have increased, too. During the first half of this year, sales were worth $2.13 million, up 13 percent from the same period the previous year.

Eighty-nine percent of exports went to Japan, where it’s safe to say makgeolli has never been more popular.

Why do people love makgeolli so much all of a sudden?

The young generation might find it strange, but makgeolli is the oldest liquor in Korea. Up until the 1960s it accounted for 80 percent of the nation’s alcohol consumption.

It was the most beloved liquor in Korea not only because it was cheap but also because one could enjoy it without special side dishes.

Then things started to change from the mid-’60s onward. Rice was replaced with flour and as the drink was categorized as a “commoners’ liquor,” the alcohol tax on it was lowered to 5 percent, compared with 150 percent for beer and 70 percent for soju.

That misled people to regard makgeolli as a low-quality liquor. In fact, some manufacturers watered down the drink to lower production costs and to hasten the fermentation process. This made people believe that makgeolli in general leaves drinkers with a bad headache and makes one gassy.

In the end, makgeolli gave over its title as the people’s liquor to soju and beer.

However, makgeolli is in fact a naturally fermented food item, which is good for health. It contains various types of amino acid and vitamins, and fresh makgeolli contains even living yeast and lactic acid. According to research, makgeolli prevents cancer and damage to the liver and helps prevent high blood pressure.

Recently manufacturers have made efforts to improve the quality of the liquor. A technology to control the fermentation process has been developed so that the drink is best before its sell-by date, which was 10 days after the production. It’s now three times longer. By pasteurizing the drink at a low temperature, some makgeolli can last for as long as 12 months after it was made.

The liquor came in bottles in the past, but these days it comes in various types of packaging, such as cans, glass bottles or paper packs.

What’s left now is to continue the renaissance of makgeolli. The value of the drink is defined by its ingredients, the quality of the malt and the conditions for fermentation.

We’ll need top-class products that can compete with the world’s best liquors and low-end drinks that consumers can enjoy at low costs.

It is also important to secure a refrigerated logistics and distribution system so that consumers feel safe about the drink. Just as wine is consumed with French cuisine, and sake with sushi, food that suits makgeolli must be developed, too. Since the government has been working to make Korea’s traditional cuisine popular worldwide, it should pay attention to makgeolli. The government’s support is desperately needed to set up standards and for the academic community to do research.

One does not need to be nostalgic to like and develop makgeolli. Depending on how we work on it, makgeolli can become a food item that can represent our country, just as wine or sake does for their countries of origin.

*The writer is the CEO of Kooksoondang. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Bae Joong-ho
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