Call it a comeback: Makgeolli in favor once again
Now, however, you’re just as likely to see a bowl or cup filled with milky-white makgeolli, a traditional rice wine, on the dinner tables of many natives and expats alike.
Makgeolli is making a solid comeback in Korea after falling out of favor over the past few decades, elbowing its way into fancy hotels and upscale department stores in addition to the small local joints where it’s been served for years.
The drink, which was once popular among poor writers, has a deep history that dates back hundreds of years. Makgeolli was first cited in documentary records during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). But its roots likely go back much further: Both the “Samguk Yusa” and “Samguksagi,” history books written during the Goryeo era, mentioned liquors similar to makgeolli that were produced during the Three Kingdoms Period (B.C. 57 - A.D. 676).
The word makgeolli comes from a Korean expression meaning “roughly filtered.” It was also once called takju (cloudy liquor) for its white and opaque color.
It reached the height of its popularity from the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century through the late 1970s, making up 80 percent of all alcohol consumption. But it soon took a backseat to other beverages such as beer, soju and sake. Consumption plummeted from 700,000 bottles a day to just 100,000 in the early 1980s, in part because the offerings at the time were relatively low in quality compared to other alcoholic beverages.
Makgeolli, however, is now back in fashion among the drinking set in Korea, with sales amounting to 250 billion won ($208.7 million) a year. Consider this: From July through September, Lotte department stores sold more bottles of makgeolli than beer, coming in behind wine and whiskey. At Hyundai department stores, sales of makgeolli exceeded those of imported beer and even soju. It’s a huge spike from a year ago, when the retailer sold just two or three bottles of makgeolli a day per store. Today, daily sales amount to between 150 and 200 bottles. Exports are also on the increase. A total of 4,380 tons of makgeolli were shipped overseas from January through September, amounting to $3.6 million. That represents a 24.1 percent spike from a year earlier. Japan, where makgeolli is enjoying huge popularity, absorbs 86.8 percent of Korea’s makgeolli exports.
“Even in the trendy streets of Shinjuku in Tokyo, makgeolli bars have opened up recently,” Yasushi Hatta, a 33-year-old Japanese food columnist who published a book on Korean foods, said in an e-mail interview. “There are not only makgeolli cocktails but also fruit makgeolli. Now the Japanese are enjoying draft makgeolli, which is popular for its pungent taste.”
The rice wine is also finding a foothold, albeit a small one, in the United States, China and Australia. Seoul Tak-ju sells the drink in 10 different countries, while some airline flights between Korea and Japan began offering makgeolli produced by the Kooksoondang Brewery Co. starting in early October.
“Seventeen years ago, when makgeolli was shunned by Korean consumers, we tried to find a breakthrough in the Japanese market,” said Ha Myeong-hee, chief executive officer of E-dong Rice Wine. “Our company’s sales started growing 20 to 30 percent every year due to the Korea-Japan World Cup in 2002 and the Korean wave.”
Makgeolli still has a long way to climb to regain its former status in Korea. Rice wine, including makgeolli, accounts for only 3.6 percent of the entire alcoholic beverage market here. If the current craze continues, though, that could change quickly. The Korean government also intends to subsidize 133 billion won to makers of traditional wines in the next five years, which could further help boost the popularity of this traditional drink.
By Cho Kang-su [email@example.com]
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