SEOUL helps you discover the many sides of makgeolli
If the only makgeolli you’ve tried came out of a plastic bottle bought at the corner store for less than your morning latte, may I suggest, Dear Reader, that you haven’t tasted the goodness of tart and sweet, bitter and smooth, textured and silky that is Korea’s oldest sul?
Welcome to SEOUL’s first column of Sul Jali. Sul means alcohol of course, but not in the way English speakers think of alcohol as in ethanol, but as alcoholic drinks. Jali means place, both physical and contextual, even metaphysical. It can refer to a particular location, a physical seat to enjoy drinks with friends, or the role that a particular drink plays in society, its status, or the cultural or existential space it may fill. Who knew booze could be so fascinating and multi-faceted?
Sul Jali will explore the world of sul in SEOUL including wine, craft beer and traditional Korean beverages, otherwise known as jeontongju. We start with makgeolli. Why? Because it is quite simply the best time to the enjoy milky, off-white drink that now ranges from simple and inexpensive to flavoured with various fruits, nuts or herbs to artisanal and traditional with more complex flavours that evolve with a little age.
“I wanted to do something meaningful,” says Sanghyun Ahn of Korean Bistro Mr. Ahn’s Makgeolli, who is credited with opening the first makgeolli house that only serves traditional Korean sul with no artificial additives or sweeteners – at least in modern history. The first record of makgeolli takes us back to the Gogoryeo period (37 B.C.–A.D. 668). It was only in the late 1980s that mass production of makgeolli began and established its reputation as a cheap, low-alcohol beverage with a simple sweetness – due to the addition of artificial sweeteners to counter the blandness of watering down the traditional drink for commercial production and transport. Makgeolli was historically made in the home, undemanding as it was in the simplicity of its making using just three ingredients: rice, water and a fermentation starter called nuruk.
Traditional Korean sul is categorized into three groups, from simplest in production method to less so. Takju (탁주) is made with a fermented grain, usually rice, that’s unfiltered. Yakju (약주), also known as cheongju, is filtered takju. Lastly, there’s soju (소주), which is yakju that is distilled. Makgeolli belongs to the first group of takju. What gives makgeolli its broad range of flavors and subtleties is the nuruk, which absorbs the bacteria, enzymes and ambient yeast of its surroundings. Every region, every village, every producer will reflect its terroir, explains Ahn, “because every village has different humidity, different temperature, different altitude.”
The current focus of makgeolli may be on higher quality, artisanal twists of the traditional led by dedicated small producers over the past ten years, but the image of the cheap grocery store version is hard to shake.
“People think makgeolli all tastes the same,” says Seung Hoon Lee of White Bear Makgeolli Bar and Brewery in Apgujeong, “even among Koreans.”
But given that you can use old rice, new rice, nuruk made with a grain other than the traditional wheat, additional yeast – all of which affect flavour profiles and alcohol, which can potentially range from one percent to 19 percent (though most commercial versions hover at about six percent and higher quality ones often go higher), diversity now more accurately describes makgeolli.
“There is a great variety,” says Lee.
Believe him. His bar offers the largest selection of jeontongju (230!), of which 47 represent a wide range of makgeolli. Now believe me: You haven’t tried makgeolli until you’ve had a taste of the old-is-new again, beautifully and uniquely made makgeolli at the other end of the spectrum.
Where to taste and enjoy the variety of makgeolli in Seoul
White Bear Makgeolli Bar and Brewery 백곰막걸리& 양조장 Apgujeong Rodeo Station, Gangnam
With 230 varieties, White Bear has the largest selection of makgeolli and other traditional Korean beverages in a welcoming venue that includes an impressive display of sul bottles. Food menu features anju.
Korean Bistro Mr. Ahn’s Makgeolli 한국술집 안씨 막걸리 Noksapyeong Station, Gyeongnidan
A selection of only artisanal makgeolli from small producers – all non-pasteurized, with no additives. Also serves other traditional Korean drinks. Corresponding traditional Korean food is a sophisticated twist and beautifully presented.
Chez Mak 셰막 Gangnam Station, Gangnam
Broad selection of all alcoholic beverages, including makgeolli served warm, which is both comforting and delicious. Banana- flavored makgeolli is also tasty, as is the assorted food menu.
Yeondaepo 연대포 Sinchon Station, Mapo-Gu
The food and makgeolli menu is as mixed as the crowd is boisterous. Large selection of flavoured makgeolli. (They use real strawberries in the strawberry makgeolli, which tastes more like a light strawberry shake.) The common makgeolli pairing of jeon, or pancakes, comes traditional or fusion. Think cheese on bulgogi pancake. Try the makgeolli from Gaedo.
Written by Gloria Chang