Makgeolli - more than just alcohol

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Makgeolli - more than just alcohol

“A sparrow drops the branch it was holding/ And the garden is full of insects/ Makgeolli, who made you?/ One glass makes me forget a thousand worries.”

The one glass that lifted the worries of the king was a glass of makgeolli, or unrefined Korean rice wine. King Yeonsangun (1476?1506) of Joseon, left a poem praising makgeolli in the year that he led a massacre of scholars who were against reinstating the deposed queen, his mother, Lady Yun. He left another poem in the year he was dethroned. Cheoljong, known as “the highest commander of Ganghwa,” loved makgeolli, too. He was a farmer on Ganghwa Island before he became king, and even with the delicacies of all the lands and seas before him, he grumbled, “Why is there no makgeolli in the Royal Court?” They say the queen brought the king makgeolli through servants from her home. Later, she apparently asked a court lady to make makgeolli near the capital and secretly bring it into the court, according to Nam Tae-woo in “Intoxication and Elegance of Drinkers.”

Makgeolli was loved as such by the king, but it was basically an alcoholic beverage of commoners. “The Chronicles of Sejong” states that soldiers dispatched to remote areas complained that all they had to eat and drink was cooked millet and makgeolli. Lee Kyu-bo, the Goryeo author of “Gukseonsaengjeon,” which personified alcohol, wrote, “I inevitably started to drink white alcohol [makgeolli] after I withdrew from my official post and my income decreased.”

Makgeolli, which was once the “alcoholic beverage of commoners” and “alcoholic beverage of kings,” is now the “alcoholic beverage of presidents.” The image of former President Park Chung Hee sitting in a field with farmers pouring makgeolli drinks was highly symbolic. And former President Roh Moo-hyun liked to drink makgeolli with his neighbors, while President Lee Myung-bak poses as the “Makgeolli International Promotion Team Manager.” Makgeolli was one of the last candidates when deciding which alcoholic beverage the president would share with U.S. President Barack Obama at the summit meeting luncheon. In other words, it is “an alcoholic beverage even the U.S. president almost drank.”

Makgeolli is continuously evolving. On Nov. 19, a new rice makgeolli was released with the name, “Makgeolli Nouveau.” It was part of a marketing plan aimed to compete against the French new wine “Beaujolais Nouveau,” released the same day.

Whether it is the rough taste of flour-based makgeolli that first surfaced when making rice-based alcohol was prohibited in 1965, or makgeolli created with organic rice and served in a glass bottle, the fact that makgeolli relieves worries has not changed. Poet Chon Sang-pyong sang, “Makgeolli is not alcohol/ It is just like rice./ It is not just rice/ It adds joy/ And is a blessing of God.” Makgeolli, who made you?

The writer is a political news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Koo Hui-lyung
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