[Viewpoint] Makgeolli finds a class of its own

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[Viewpoint] Makgeolli finds a class of its own

If we were to talk about Makgeolli as a person, we would say it was of low birth. Because of its humble origins, it has connections with the world’s sour, sweet and bitter tastes. That’s why the taste of makgeolli is so difficult to define. It is also different in appearance from clear liquors with royal origins and is known as a murky, raw wine.

Despite its position in life, Makgeolli was after the virtue of a noble gentleman. That is reminiscent of a lesson from “The Sayings of Confucius” that asks: “Is he not a princely man who is never vexed that others know him not?”

During the Goryeo era (918-1392), writer Lee Gyu-bo said he drank makgeolli when he did not have money, which upset his stomach because he was used to drinking clear liquor when better times were upon him.

And yet, Makgeolli never felt bitter about it.

Lee was the first to tell Makgeolli’s story in his novel “Gukseonsaengjeon.” Without Lee, there would never have been any records about Makgeolli’s life.

Lee wrote that the father of Makgeolli is Hyeon, the younger brother of the clear liquor Gukseong. Hyeon had four sons in all. The first was colored liquor and the second was a twice-refined drink. Makgeolli was the third, and the fourth, Gwasilju.

During the 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Makgeolli also lived a life as a friend of the low and middle classes.

Later, it was the best-selling liquor in the country, with 70 percent of the sales in the liquor market, through which it gained a reputation as the national liquor.

And yet, that fame only lasted for a short period. In 1965, President Park Chung Hee prohibited the use of rice in makgeolli production, due to the shortage of the grain at the time. Soon, makgeolli made of calcium carbide became popular. People who drank makgeolli in those days complained that it caused nasty hangovers.

After the blow, makgeolli failed miserably, and many producers of the drink went bankrupt. Some even said it was substandard.

But this year, there was a complete turnaround in the industry. The Samsung Economic Research Institute even called it the No. 1 hit product. It was even more popular than ice-skating queen Kim Yu-na. Sales of makgeolli were better than those of whiskey, soju and beer, and the export volume was the largest ever.

There was much speculation about the beverage’s sudden increase in popularity. Some waxed scientific, relating makgeolli’s success to its yeast and lactic acid content. Others talked about nationalism. Even others said that the mountain climbing craze helped makgeolli sales because it was the hiker’s drink of choice.

Makgeolli was praised for its low price, low alcohol level, mood-enhancing qualities and taste. It also gained recognition for prompting rice consumption and uniting men and women, young and old.

Its rising status has made Makgeolli a busybody, and its schedule for the coming year is packed.

First, there must be greater oversight for the nation’s 780 makgeolli producers because many maintain very poor sanitary conditions. All it takes for Makgeolli to fail is just a single accident. Also, Koreans are very fickle. They fall in love quickly, but the love dies almost as quickly. Thorough preparation is the only way to preserve the love.

The top priority is quality control. There are suddenly hundreds of kinds of makgeolli on the market, and consumers are often confused. A good practice to follow is France’s certification system for wine. In 1855, Napoleon III ordered wineries and merchants to create their own classification system. Good wine was given a higher classification and a more expensive price tag. Consumers trusted the system and felt sure about the prices.

Every year, Bordeaux holds a world wine festival, after which wine prices in the region are set. During the festival, tourists flock to the region, and all of the hotels in the area are completely booked.

This year, let’s launch a similar event for makgeolli. All makgeolli producers would have to participate and create a classification system. They would also market the 500-year history of the beverage along with information about the makgeolli varieties.

The globalization of wine was led by chateau, terroir and marriage. Let’s clear the way, because the era of makgeolli is beginning now.

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yi Jung-jae
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