[Viewpoint] Keeping our hands on the makgeolli

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[Viewpoint] Keeping our hands on the makgeolli

Last weekend, I had dinner with 10 representatives from the Democratic Party of Japan. I frequently meet one of them, a third-term lawmaker, to discuss current affairs in Japan and around the world. This time he brought along his colleagues to the dinner.

About a month ago, he and I had kimchi bossam - kimchi served with lettuce and steamed pork - and Korea’s traditional rice wine, makgeolli, at a cozy Korean restaurant in downtown Tokyo. He loved the food and wine so much that he invited me and his friends to the dinner.

I was offered drinks many times, but I managed not to get drunk thanks to the low alcohol content of mak-geolli, which is usually around 8 proof. When the rice wine was served in large bowls, the Japanese politicians were impressed.

They quickly learned how to pour makgeolli into small ceramic glasses, using a small gourd. They filled their glasses and proposed toast after toast. After a few rounds of drinks, we all felt relaxed.

I heard makgeolli was getting wildly popular in Japan. But it seems that even that is an understatement. When the politicians got drunk, they ordered various Korean dishes that go well with makgeolli. One asked for extra lettuce wraps while another ordered chicken soup with ginseng, jujubes and other Oriental herbs. I could not believe they were the same people who once stubbornly favored sake and Japanese shochu, the equivalent of Korean soju.

In fact, makgeolli’s popularity in Japan is quite unexpected. The Japanese take a lot of pride in their culture and highly value traditional Japanese drinks. They treasure the history and tradition of sake.

Sake is made from a special variety of rice that is different from the one used for food. The more refined the rice grains are, the more valuable the sake becomes. Therefore, regular short-grain rice is not appropriate for making sake.

As scientific sake-making methods were developed, sake emerged as a huge industry in Japan. As a result, there was no room for makgeolli to attract Japanese consumers’ attention, as the Korean rice wine was traditionally a commoners’ drink.

Despite decreasing alcohol consumption, there are more than 5,000 major sake breweries in the country. Top labels are sold at high prices. Retail prices for a 1.8-liter bottle of Kubota Manju, Koshino Kanbai or Hakkaisan range from 5,000 yen ($53) to 10,000 yen. Some are as pricey as fine whiskey. Several high-end sake varieties are priced at 1 million won ($890) per bottle at luxury hotels in Seoul.

The Japanese are equally affectionate towards shochu. Japanese shochu is distilled from sweet potato, barley, buckwheat and onion. The 3M brands - Moriizo, Mao and Murao - are priced at 30,000 to 40,000 yen per bottle. These high-end alcoholic beverages can carry such steep price tags because each region has made a painstaking effort to develop a powerful brand.

In contrast, rice makgeolli was banned in Korea for decades when the economy was struggling because the authorities thought brewing alcohol with rice was a luxury. In order to secure alcohol-related tax revenue, home brewing was strictly controlled. So makgeolli became almost forgotten in Korea.

Meanwhile, Japan fostered traditional beverages and made sake the most famous Japanese drink. The latest makgeolli craze in Japan made me wonder what we have been doing with this precious Korean beverage for a long time.

Korean alcoholic beverage companies are making belated advances into the Japanese makgeolli market. Baesangmyun Brewery and Jinro Japan have already put their makgeolli brands on the Japanese market, and Lotte Beverage Japan will join them in June.

The Japanese are good at making their own versions of foreign products, and now they are working on producing their own makgeolli brands. Kimchi is another popular Korean item, and 90 percent of kimchi consumed in Japan is produced locally now.

Let’s not let makgeolli go down the same road as kimchi. It might not happen overnight, but let’s see a high-end makgeolli exported at the substantial price it deserves.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Dong-ho
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