Ancient Recipe: Makgeolli (rice liquor) (Korean, at least 13th century CE)

“My friend, if you have some wine at home
be sure to invite me
When the flowers at my house bloom
I will call you
Let’s discuss ways of forgetting
The worries of one hundred years.”
~ Kim Yuk (1580 – 1658), translation from Korean Wines and Spirits (2014)

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 This misshapen, burn-scarred glass that I made in a glassblowing workshop held my last historical beverage, so I figured, why not this one too?

I’ve written before about Maangchi, my favorite YouTuber and source of information on Korean cuisine. I’m kind of a Maangchi superfan, to be honest. I’ve been making her recipes for years, was once featured on her website, went to her last fan meet-up, and got to be in a series of videos where she led me and some other Korean food fan(atic)s around a grocery store. One Maangchi recipe I had never tried until recently was for makgeolli (MAK-go-lee), a traditional Korean liquor made from rice. Like sake, which it resembles slightly, it’s often referred to as “rice wine” in English, which is a misnomer since it’s not technically wine at all. The process of creating it reminds me more of my Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian beers; a starter culture loaded with microbes that kickstart fermentation when combined with water and cooked grain. Also like those beers, makgeolli is filled with essential nutrients and has a fairly low alcohol content (around 6 – 8%), enabling it to be historically drank as a staple. The recipe is so simple that some form of makgeolli has likely been made in the Korean peninsula for millennia. I wanted to share my makgeolli, so I waited until I was having a party to make it. Because of the drink’s long history, I decided to write about it for this blog.

I don’t have too much experience making alcoholic beverages, but Maangchi makes everything look effortless, and her makgeolli sounded particularly simple if you have the right ingredients and equipment. All I needed was an electric dehydrator (bought half as a joke for my boyfriend last Christmas), rice, water, and nuruk. This last is a dried-out starter culture made from wheat and rice permeated with naturally-occurring airborne microbes. Just as makgeolli and sake share some similarities, nuruk is similar to the Japanese sake starter culture, koji. I actually bought a bag of nuruk several months ago, when I spotted it at the Korean grocery store I visited for Maangchi’s video shoot. You can generally find it at larger Korean stores or order it online, and the English label is usually something mysterious and scientific like “powdered enzyme amylase.” And by the way, here’s something I didn’t know until I bought nuruk for myself: it smells delicious! Like a sweet, fresh flour.

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Nuruk, or makgeolli starter culture.

Maangchi’s site has the full recipe I followed, along with some interesting facts about the beverage itself, which she even had analyzed by a lab for its nutritional properties. Essentially, all one has to do is cook rice, dehydrate it by machine or sunlight until it’s a hard, crunchy mass, mix with water and nuruk and let it sit for eight or nine days. Stir and strain, and you’ve got yourself a milky beverage that smells like exactly what it is (rice and hooch), but tastes soft, fruity, and lightly sweet, like a very gentle sake. Which is fine by me, because I don’t like sake much except for the whitish unfiltered kind, the variety most similar to makgeolli.

I followed Maangchi’s recipe closely, with one exception. Since I don’t have an onggi (a Korean earthenware crock), I brewed my rice liquor in a plastic bucket with a lid: specifically, this one. I put an old t-shirt under the lid and didn’t close it all the way to allow for air circulation. Others have brewed makgeolli in glass, but I can attest that it works just fine in BPA food-grade plastic.

For simplicity and clarity, no one can top Maangchi’s explanation of how to make makgeolli, so I won’t bother to repeat her entire recipe here. However, I would like to delve into the history of the beverage, which is closely intertwined with the history of Korea itself.

Long before the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South, and well before a single unified Korea, there were the Three Kingdoms: Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo, also called Goryeo. Goryeo (the origin of the English word “Korea”) was the largest of the three, and united the Three Kingdoms under its rule in the year 918 CE. It is from post-unification Goryeo that we have the earliest literary reference to makgeolli. The drink is described along with many other liquors in a text called Jewangun-gi (“The Poetic [or Rhyming] Records of Emperors and Kings”), written around 1287 CE. There, it is referred to as ihwaju (pear blossom liquor), not because it contained pear blossoms, but because it was made in early spring, when pear trees are in bloom.

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Golden cheongju after 5 days fermentation.

Contemporary with the first native mentions of makgeolli, a Chinese text on Goryeo describes the process by which Koreans (Goreyans?) could make three different kinds of liquor from one batch. As the rice/nuruk mixure ferments, grayish sediment sinks to the bottom of the container and a clear golden liquid rises to the top. This liquid could be skimmed off and served as cheongju, “clear liquor”. Cheongju could be distilled to make the stronger, colorless soju (“burned liquor”, a reference to the heat of distillation), which remains the most-popular Korean alcohol today. As for all that sediment in the bottom of the pot, it was strained, watered down and drank as makgeolli. One could also strain and dilute the liquid for makgeolli without separating out the cheongju, which is what Maangchi does in her recipe.

The many names for makgeolli tell us much about the way it was produced and consumed in the days of the Three Kingdoms. Makgeolli itself can be translated as “roughly strained”. Another name, takju, means “murky liquor”, directly contrasting it with cheongju. The Chinese history notes that the Goryeo upper classes preferred cheongju and soju, while the common people drank their rice wine murky, and yet another name of makgeolli explicitly states its connection with the lower classes: nongju, meaning “farmer liquor.” As with ancient barley beers, the nutrition and probiotics in makgeolli would have given farmers ample refreshment during a hard day’s work, especially useful in spring planting season when the drink was made.

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Roughly straining the roughly-strained.

Altogether, primary sources from Goryeo record over 350 different varieties of liquor. With countless local variations in technique and ingredients, makgeolli, cheongju and soju were part of a vibrant tradition of Korean home-brewing that almost went extinct in the 20th century during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea (1910-1945). The Liquor Tax Law and direct suppressions of native Korean cultural practices imposed by the Japanese led to indigenous Korean liquors being overshadowed by imported foreign products. Today, there has been a resurgence of traditional Korean brewing traditions, and even makgeolli, once seen as the “roughly-strained” drink of peasant farmers, is enjoying newfound popularity. Nowadays you can find it bottled in stores and mixed into cocktails. You can also do what I did: make it yourself in a plastic bucket and serve it at a tea party.

Maangchi mentions that “homemade makgeolli is thicker, less sweet, and more filling than store sold makgeolli“, and she’s definitely right. I feel slightly silly using the word “mouthfeel”, but that’s the word that came to mind when I tasted my makgeolli. The mouthfeel was completely different than the bottled ones I’ve tasted in restaurants. Silky and full-feeling like soy milk, and lightly sweet.

Traditionally, Korean liquors are served with jeon, which is an entire diverse genre of crispy, savory pancakes. It’s a combination I highly recommend. X out of X.

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